In 1987, Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Jonathan Cott sat down with Elizabeth Taylor in her suite at New York's Hôtel Plaza Athénée, when the actress was 55. "There was no standing on ceremony, no pretense, no pulling punches," recalls Cott. "She was so forthright, witty and fearless." The previously unpublished interview is presented here for the first time.
You started making films in Hollywood during the 1940s. How has the movie business changed since then?
It used to be a sin to be considered a Hollywood actor. Even worse to be a star — God forbid a superstar. Stage actors would accuse people of selling out when they'd go to Hollywood. Actually, I think the whole thing is a bunch of bullshit, and I always have. An actor is an actor whether it's in Hollywood, whether it's in Africa, whether it's on stage, television or in film. Acting has to be generated from within.
How does that happen for you?
I have never had an acting lesson in my life. But I've learned, I hope, from watching people like Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Jimmy Dean — all people who were finely tuned and educated in the art of acting. They were my education. I found quite early on that I couldn't act as a puppet — there would be something pulling my strings too hard — and that I did my best work by being guided, not by being forced. And I suppose that really is just the child in me — wanting to be allowed to grow and develop at my instinctual sort of pace. If you describe me as an actress, you'd have to say that I wasn't a distinctive actress as actresses go, because I'm certainly not a polished technician.
Many of your fans would disagree. But just as "Hollywood" was once used as a dismissive epithet, so today some "stage-actor" types often demean "television stars." I gather you wouldn't agree with that.
I've seen some splendid work on television. And I think it was your "definitive" stage actor, Larry Olivier, who said that he thought that one of the finest ways a person could learn was through the medium of television — especially the soaps, where the actors have to be so creative day in and day out. My son is currently doing a play and a soap at the same time, and it's like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. Now, when I first watched soaps, it was always a real giggle for me, and then I became enthralled. I thought this is my show — General Hospital, I mean, this is karma, this has got to be my first soap. [laughter] So I watched General Hospital and really liked it so much that one day I was a surprise visitor on the show. And my God, I have such admiration for that form of art in acting. It's bloody hard work.
Someone once said that the old Hollywood studio was a kind of extended family.
It was like a big extended factory, I'm sorry to say. But if you like being smothered, I guess it was a very productive family. I was nine when I made my first films in Hollywood. I was used from the day I was a child, and utilized by the studio. I was promoted for their pockets. I never felt that they were a haven. I've always been very much my own person. I had my own mother and father — they were my family, not the bloody studio.
Was there a particular incident that stands out?
When I was 15 and Louis B. Mayer started screaming at my mother and using swear words that I'd never heard before ("I took you and your fucking daughter out of the gutter"), I uttered my first swear word and told him that he didn't dare speak to my mother that way, and he and the studio could both go to hell, and that I was never going to go back to his office. And I left my mother there with her eyes shut, and I think she was sort of praying.
What happened after that?
I walked out of there in such a fury and in tears, and went to see my old friend and vice-president Benny and he said, "You have to go back." And another vice president came and found me. Now those guys were my buddies, and they said, "Sweetheart you have got to go back and apologize." And I said, "What for? He should apologize to my mother I'm not going back in his office. I meant what I said and I don't care if you fire me now. I don't know where I found the independence. I totally winged it on my own and just took my career, with total knowledge and decision, and threw it out the window. Now I had not a clue how L. B. Mayer — one of the great icons of Hollywood history, and slightly mad, and who was frothing at the mouth in a temper — would take this from a pipsqueak. But I didn't care. I knew that he had done something very wrong. As it turns out they must have wanted or needed me. Otherwise they wouldn't have kept me. But that only has occurred to me in hindsight.
Did the studio try to change you in other ways?
My god, I had black hair — it was photographed blue-black it was so dark — and thick bushy eyebrows. And my mother and father had to stop them from dying my hair and plucking out my eyebrows. The studio even wanted to change my name to Virginia. They tried to get me to create a Joan Crawford mouth when I first began using lipstick at 15. They wanted, you know, Joan Crawford, the '40s and everything. Every movie star, Lana Turner, all of them, painted over their lips: and I'm sure that some of them had perfectly fine, full lips — but thin eyebrows were the fad...and God forbid you do anything individual or go against the fad. But I did. I figured this looks absurd. And I agreed with my dad: God must have had some reason for giving me bushy eyebrows and black hair. I guess I must have been pretty sure of my sense of identity. It was me. I accepted it all my life and I can't explain it. Because I've always been very aware of the inner me that has nothing to do with the physical me.
But there is a connection between the two...
Eventually the inner you shapes the outer you, especially when you reach a certain age, and you have been given the same features as everybody else, God has arranged them in a certain way. But around 40 the inner you actually chisels your features. You know how some people have a kind of downward pull, and some people have sort of an upward pull, and look stress free, while the others look as if they're just trying to carry the world on their shoulders. You just want to say, shake your head, shake your body like a dog and just get rid of all that. It doesn't need to bow you down. Life is to be embraced and enveloped. Surgeons and knives have nothing to do with it. It has to do with a connection with nature, God, your inner being — whatever you want to call it — it's being in contact with yourself and allowing yourself, allowing God, to mold you.
Were you always so free-spirited even as a kid?
When I was a child in England they always used to say to my mother — and it used to bother me — that I was an "old soul." I had no idea what that meant, but apparently I used to frighten grown ups, because I was totally direct. I saw my daughter as a baby, before she was a year old, look at people, steadily, with those eyes of hers, and see people start to fidget, and drop things out of their pockets and finally, unable to stand the heat, get out of the room. She was totally tapping into something that she was seeing that they didn't want touched.
It sounds almost feral...
As they say, "Don't look into a lion's eyes." I had that happen once when I was in a jeep in the bush of Africa, in Chobe — this was during my second marriage to Richard Burton. It was on an earth path at 6 in the morning. And I came upon this black-maned lion just in the middle of the forest, at this footpath crossroads. We were in this totally open jeep that belonged to the white hunter guard named Brian and myself. It was just him and myself, no tour guide. No protection of any sort. And I said, "Go very slowly, just make as little sound as you can." And we got a little bit closer — so close, in fact, that I could see the hairs on this animal's body.
Now, I'm fascinated by cats. I used to have an Abyssinian cat — if you are a cat lover you'll know exactly what I mean. When I say that the tips have a little dark marking on them, and it gets lighter and lighter the closer it gets to the pelt. But the mane itself, around that lion's face — those huge amber eyes — was black. I'd never seen anything resembling this lion. I wanted to get really close. And the animal by this time was looking at me, and Brian, who would not look at him, said, "Elizabeth, stop staring into the cat's eyes." And I said, "Why?" and he said that that was the one thing that will make them pounce, it makes them very nervous. And I said, "I'm sorry, Brian, but I can't take my eyes away from this." And this cat and I are staring into each other's eyes. And there was no power in this world that could make me take my eyes out of that cat's eyes. I was into them. And I was looked into that cat. Finally the cat stood up — my eyes and his eyes were still locked — and he kind of stretched. Brian's hands were starting to shake on the wheel. And the lion opened his mouth, and I saw these teeth, I could see like strings of saliva attaching the teeth as he yawned, and he let out a roar that didn't make me jump — because it's as if I knew what he was going to do — and I still kept staring at him and he sort of moved his eyes away from me, started very gently padding away from me, turned and looked at me again over his shoulder, and then just went into a very relaxed trot and disappeared into the bushes. I can't tell you what a trip that was.
Do you have a special affection for animals?
I've always preferred animals to little girls or boys. I had my first horse — actually it was a Newfoundland pony — when I was three, and I loved riding, without anyone shackling me — riding bareback as fast as I could.
In Africa, I also had a troop of green monkeys in my living room. Every morning and every evening, for a period of two months, I would go to the lip of the forest, which was right near Richard's and my bungalow, and it was where the monkeys would go down and drink at the river. Now, I'm not foolhardy, and I don't even think that encounter with the lion was foolhardy, because I knew nothing was going to happen. I was very respectful of the monkeys. It took me about two or three weeks, but I would start making them unafraid of me with food. And I got them so they'd go up, this two-story wall, and around the swimming pool, and into my living room, and just have them accept my presence and realize that I was not threatening. They were just gorgeous little, innocent creatures whom I sat and chatted with. There were about 20 of them in my small living room, with Richard in the bedroom — just the monkeys, who would reach out and touch my knee. So it wasn't just the MGM lion! And I became known amongst the local tribes as this strange Caucasian lady who spoke to animals. And so can my daughter, by the way…But, of course, you're an animal and we're communicating. [laughing]
You've obviously never liked to conform or be shackled.
I hated school, so I was kind of an oddball. As far back as my consciousness can remember — and unfortunately it's associated with pain but also with curiosity.
An unauthorized biography of you (Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star) by Kitty Kelley has just been published. Its thesis is, so to speak, that you were nurtured by the studio, that you didn't have a life of your own aside from it, and that you lived the parts that you played and played the parts that you lived.
That's absolute bullshit! I had my own world, my parents were sensitive enough to me, and I had something going for myself that I was tapping into quite naturally and quite instinctively. And they encouraged my relationship with animals. In England, where I lived until I was 8 years old — you'd have a certain formal time for mommy and daddy: but otherwise the nannies would structure your life. I didn't dig that kind of existence at all. My family, being American in this sort of formal society, were much more liberal with their time than most English parents. But as far as nannies were concerned, I did live the so-called "upper-middle class" childhood. I rebelled against it, and found nature was the one place where I could do y own thing and where I could trip out, literally, as a kid.
You weren't lonely?
There were all these fantastic natural highs. Why would I be lonely?
You seem to rebel against any kind of authority figures — L. B. Mayer, your nanny...
That type, yeah. My nanny, for instance, was horrible! Her name was Frieda Edith Gill — it's so onomatopoeic: Frieda Edith Gill, Frieda, Edith Gill. I think she was probably very sweet, and I was rude in my rebellion. But I had my own identity and I probably was the biggest manipulator of all time. I got my own way so cunningly, because I can see that in my daughter, I can see it in myself. Yeah, I was probably the biggest manipulator ever born! I hadn't thought about this for ages, but I can see that little girl getting onto that horse, and going on that trip that she wanted to go on, and accomplishing it, though sometimes it would take hours to start the trip. My pony would run away and I'd have to wait for her to come back, or track her down. And sometimes I would be gone all day long. I knew that if it were into the evening I'd be up shit's creek without a paddle, so I'd, you know, get myself back one way or another. But it's strange, this is really turning into an interview about animals! [laughing]
You're currently putting together a self-help book based on the tough times you went through. What was that period like for you?
Everything is just totally out of whack. It's just more than fatness and obesity, it's more than just not caring how I looked. It's in every line of my face. It's even in the texture of my hair. The main reason I was doing this book was that I hoped that I could reach somebody out there, even if it was just one human being. Weight loss, weight gain all have something to do with yourself. It's deep loneliness, depression, lack of self esteem that is the cause for overeating, drinking, taking pills, whatever — the necessary crutch. One makes up excuses. I used to think that drinking would help my shyness, but all it did was exaggerate all the negative qualities. The drinking and the pills just sort of dulled my natural enthusiasm. All you have to do is look a picture of me from that time to know. Unfortunately, I don't have a good photographic record of myself from that period. I don't have anybody around me with cameras, because to me it's like war.
I imagine the paparazzi all around the world could put together a few volumes on you.
They're not photographers! They're not people! [laughing]
What species are they?
These are cockroaches...But actually they do take some very revealing photographs.
I gather you don't feel the same way about supposedly "revealing" unauthorized biographies of you — in particular, Kitty Kelley's book.
I don't read them, and, I've never read Kitty Kelley's because I know there is nothing I can do about it. Why aggravate myself? I've been told that it's full of a bunch of lies. Fabrications. And real, dirty, malicious stuff. But why go through the irritation when I know that legally in the sweet buggerall there is nothing I can do about it? I heard she has said something like, "Well, Elizabeth Taylor hasn't sued me so you know I was telling the truth." I went through the ceiling of my house, I touched the roof of the sky. I called my lawyer. And he told me I had to read the book and sue her for every single untruth. That would mean not only spending money, it would mean bringing it up. It would mean the aggravation of reading it. So I have to let that bitch say, "Well Elizabeth Taylor read that and didn't sue me. So it must be true."
What do you think allowed you to pull yourself away from the brink?
You can always avert throwing yourself in front of an oncoming train. There is something that just pulls you away — and it has pulled me away, because I'm not dead yet — just at the brink of impact. Sometimes I have been really grazed by that train.
The world and the press and people have always enjoyed doing that. That's the nature of things. You create an idea, a star. They're yours. You have created this monster. So what do you do? It becomes boring unless you tear it down. I've been on that yo-yo trip all my life. Except like the times when I almost lose myself.
But I didn't lose myself, did I? Something always made me save myself. Either the Betty Ford Center or going onstage to perform in the theater when many people didn't think I could do it. Or doing this, doing that, whatever.
I mean I was pronounced dead, for God's sake, about 20 years ago. I was in the hospital on a respirator, and they were pulling this sort of rubbery, bloody substance out of my lungs. I stopped breathing for five minuets. And I had a kind of near-death experience that you didn't talk about then because people would have thought you were crazy. It's amazing that I didn't have any permanent brain damage (Don't you dare make any cracks!) I even had a chance to read my obits, and they were the best reviews I ever had! [laughing]
Why couldn't Marilyn Monroe save herself?
I don't think Marilyn committed suicide. I don't think Marilyn was murdered. I think it was an accident. But she was playing with fire. I don't think she was as acutely aware of it as some of my other self-destructive friends.
I was thinking about some of the leading men you've played opposite in your films, such as James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, Orson Welles, Henry Fonda, and Paul Newman. That's quite a group.
They don't make leading men like that anymore. And, you see, they were my teachers. Then, add the women in there and the directors and the cameramen and you have some hell of a school. Thank God, I hope I picked up something!
The movie Giant, made in 1956, continually shows on television, and finds a new and appreciative audience year after year. And in that film your two leading men are James Dean and Rock Hudson — the first representing the wild, outlaw type; the latter, the patriarchal, conformist type. And your character hovers and mediates between them. What were those two actors like to work with on that film?
It's funny: I was very connected to both Rock and Jimmy, but they had no personal connection at all. I was very connected to them — but it was like on the left side and the right side. One on each side, I was in the middle, and it just would be like a matter of shifting my weight. I'd bounce from one to the other with total ease. And I'm glad it shows in the film, I hadn't even thought of it that way. It's been a long time since I've seen Giant. I don't look at old movies of myself. I don't even look at new ones of myself. But I loved Jimmy and I loved Rock. And I was the last person Jimmy was with before he drove to his death…But that was a private, personal moment.
In Paris not long ago, I happened to see two of your best films — Reflections in a Golden Eye and A Place in the Sun — the first of which also starred Marlon Brando, the second Montgomery Clift.
For some reason the French think I'm a good actress; and I think that's really nice.
I've come across some excellent reviews of your work recently in 'this' country.
Oh, that's bullshit! That's probably in due deference to my age or something like that Come on! I don't keep clippings of any kind, but if I had them I would. Some reviews I consider to be bitchy for the sake of being bitchy.
Well, I wanted to know what you thought of the notion, once expressed by a European director, that Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift are the two antithetical sides of great American acting.
To me, they tap and come from the same source of energy. (Oh God. Marlon will kill me!) They both have this acute animal sensitivity and the other more animalistic. But it's the same thing. Because, if you think about it, they both have the vulnerability. God, you don't even have to think about it — you can feel it, especially when you're working with them.
I always felt it in their work. I think Monty was at a more refined state early on. But Marlon developed it, and wasn't as self-destructive. Marlon is still a great actor. You know, we can't speculate what would have happened to Monty's career. He's safe now. But then he wasn't safe. He was one of the best actors, innovators that the acting world has ever known. His death came at an untimely, unheroic, unpoetic moment in his life. So instead of being revered, he's kind of shuffled aside. But, good God, all you have to do is look at some of his old films. Just look at him. Open a little door of your consciousness and you can be on his wave length so easily. He just takes you along. That's a great art. Actually the Big Daddy of them all, for me, was Spencer Tracy, with his simplicity and honesty and directness. They were all spawned by Spence, who did it instinctively and naturally. He was a highly polished actor, and he had that kind of quietness that is part of the acting of a Method actor. They call it being introspective. But I call it a kind of quietness.
Do you miss the golden age of the movie star?
Today a "name" no longer carries a film. People used to go to the cinema to see a "John Wayne film." And you don't have that thing happening now except in the rock world, which has taken the event out of movies. The "event" is where the "star" is, and that's in concert. I think that this has to do with the pace of things and with "pushing buttons" instead of getting dressed, getting behind the wheel and making an event of going to the cinema. The superstars are in concert. And I think that's why very few of them have made successful transformation to film. Very few, I happen to love David Bowie and think he's a brilliant actor, onstage, and I love his movies. But I don't think he has been given artistic control in his films. But I think he's got great, good taste.
What about Madonna?
I haven't seen her films so I can't make a comment. But I think her adoring public may love her so much, that they may not be special enough "events" for them. She's highly gifted, highly talented. She's beautiful, she's sexy. She's charismatic. I love to listen to her music. She is a star of her craft. But I don't think the public really wants her as a movie star — unlike with Bette Midler, who's a great comedienne and dramatic actress, but Bette is no longer a concert star, come to think of it; she's switched to acting. Name me one that does both, a star in both circuses? It has nothing to do with talent. It has to do with the public's desire concerning where they want them.
Are you a rock and roll fan?
I love going to rock concerts, by the way, I love to lose myself in that vast wave of rhythm and body heat and get on the same vibe. And kids will say, "Hi, Liz." And I'll say hi, back. I get an outrageous kick out of the concerts.
You're not thinking of forming a band, are you?
Don't worry, I promise. I tried it, and I've listened to my singing voice, and I've promised myself that I'm really too generous a human being to do that to the populace. [laughing] Nobody can make it sound like me, believe me.
Why did you name your new perfume "Elizabeth Taylor's Passion?"
It's called Passion because an interviewer asked me what quality it was in me that made me the survivor that I was. And I had I'd never thought about it before. I think it's my passion. My passion for life, for people, for caring...my passion for everything. I'm not fascinated by things. I dive into them. One is fascinated by fire. But when I was a toddler and crawling, I was so fascinated by it that I reached out and touched it. That's the difference between fascination and passion for me. I get totally — as you can probably tell by my rambling — involved. You cannot have passion of any kind unless you have compassion. That's one of the reasons why I get so furious about AIDS. How dare people consider themselves fully rounded human beings without compassion. If they don't have passion, it means they are incapable of love. That passion has just always been there and I've taken it for granted. I still have that childlike ability to get diverted by my own thoughts. Because I'm not afraid. Life is just such an adventure to me.