Friday, March 25, 2011

On Elizabeth Taylor and Being TOO Gay

Every now and then I find myself asking, am I too gay?

If you just asked whether such a thing really exists, the answer is “Hell, yes!” Haven't you seen those over-the-top gents flouncing about on The Jerry Springer Show in pointlessly tight clothing, wrists akimbo, stretching the letter “s” to perilous lengths, and, to borrow a phrase from an old showtune, “flaming with all the glow of sunrise?”

Granted, I am not that sort of head-turning caricature, but I enjoy indulging in a bit of camp as much as the next gay man. (Some cozy night by the fire, I may regale you with tales of how I once won donned full drag to host a talent show while impersonating Joan Rivers, sans facial reconstruction. Yup, I admit – I am that gay.) My proverbial Lavender Elite Card has been stamped “active member” for more than three decades, and because I authored, I am even immortalized in the charming book How the Homosexuals Saved Civilization (if you don’t believe me, look it up – I’m in there). So it is only natural that I occasionally find myself wondering if I have finally stumbled a few steps beyond the boundary between gay and (Oh Mary, don't ask) too gay.

Such was the case the other day when I heard about the death of Elizabeth Taylor. While others were recalling her various films, marriages, tragedies, friendships and philanthropies, I have the sneaking suspicion that I may have been the only person on earth whose first reaction was to recall her as a song lyric. In the hilarious off-Broadway revue Whoop-Dee-Doo!, someone impersonating an effusive fan warbled the refrain, “I love you Elizabeth Taylor-Hilton-Wilding Todd-Fisher-Burton-Burton-Warner . . . -Fortensky,” openly hoping that Liz would remember his bid, since (in the wake of her marriage to the much younger Larry Fortensky) she was apparently “into romance with a kid.”

Remembering someone’s full name because it was in a lyric? If that doesn’t prove I’m too gay, then what (short of writing the song in question) would? Hell, I haven’t felt that gay since I led a contingent in the New York Pride Parade while singing showtunes on a bullhorn. (Hey, you have go a long way to be one of the homos who saved civilization!)

My warped mind then turned to the two screen musicals Taylor appeared in. She got her start as a child actress at MGM, where every performer under contract had to be willing to appear in musicals. Four years after winning international stardom in National Velvet, Taylor was seen synching her lips to someone else’s voice in A Date With Judy (1948), ostensibly crooning “It’s a Most Unusual Day.”

Unfortunately, three decades later, Taylor sang for herself in the screen version of A Little Night Music (1977). Although gorgeous and dramatically effective as Desiree, her singing was one of the film’s chief liabilities. Unanimously dismissive reviews made the film a “must miss.” Attending the film’s opening day in Manhattan, I was one of only eleven people in a rather large theatre.

Did you know that Taylor almost filmed yet another Sondheim musical? In the late 1970s, there were plans to produce an all-star screen version of Follies, with the divine Liz playing Phyllis, a role originated on Broadway by Alexis Smith. Imagine the oft-divorced Taylor tackling “Could I Leave You?” For better or worse, plans for this project never jelled.

I saw Taylor on Broadway twice; first in a brilliant revival of The Little Foxes and then in a decidedly less-brilliant revival of Private Lives – which nevertheless provided a priceless moment when Richard Burton took his then ex-wife in his arms and uttered Noel Coward’s glorious line, “Deep down in my deepest heart, I want you back again.” (I’ll never forget the way that audience gasped!) Like millions of others, I treasure her searing performance as Martha in the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Taylor set aside any hint of her vaunted Hollywood glamour, turning herself into a coarse, braying uber-bitch. It led to her winning the Academy Award – her second – and rarely has the honor been so richly deserved.

In recent weeks, as Taylor's health worsened, it was rather sad to see the slimier supermarket tabloids gleefully competing to dig up the most ghoulish available photos of her. So when death finally came, there was a special satisfaction when the front page of every legitimate newspaper emblazoned with breathtaking photos from her glory years. To the end, Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky was one of a kind, and it is fair to say that her extraordinary presence made this planet a slightly more interesting and endurable place for the rest of us.

And if saying that makes me too gay, then light the candles, get the ice out and roll the rug up. (Ye gods, another showtune . . .)

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