The Books: Sex, Art, and American Culture; “Elizabeth Taylor: Hollywood’s Pagan Queen,” by Camille Paglia


NEXT BOOK on the essays shelf:

Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, by Camille Paglia.

When Elizabeth Taylor died it felt like the end of an era. Something vital had left the landscape. One of our Movie Goddesses, and unlike so-called “serious” actresses, Movie Goddesses are repositories of dreams and fantasies and projections … so that when THEY go, it’s disorienting. And Elizabeth Taylor, my God, she was THE movie goddess. Her heyday may have been in the 1950s and 60s, but when I grew up – the 1980s – she was still omnipresent, not just in her random TV appearances or guest spots, but in her tireless work and advocacy for AIDS research, which may be her most important legacy (and that’s how she referred to it too: “This is my life’s work.”) Elizabeth Taylor was not a nostalgia act. She was in the NOW. The only “nostalgia” about her was that her beauty was so extraordinary that she seemed timeless, or like she should be flying about on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Her beauty was ferociously in your face, and it changed over time.


As a child, she gleamed like a star in the sky. Her violet eyes emanated bolts of light. As a young woman, she was so beautiful your bones ached just looking at her. I love 1960s Liz, jet-setting around with two-time hubby Richard Burton, looking plump and luscious in her go-go boots and minis and huge fur hats. As a middle-aged woman, the earthy side of her (always there) exploded out into one of her most defining and entertaining characteristics. Like any Erotic Muse, she is timeless. She herself is not androgynous, she’s all Woman, but her appeal is vast, from straight men to straight women to gay men to gay women to everyone in between. She’s an Icon of Identity. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. The world has changed too much. Sex-Bomb Movie Goddesses are out of style (more’s the pity).

Photo by Roddy McDowell. They were child actors on the MGM lot together. They went to school on the MGM lot. Their classmate was Dean Stockwell. Just so you know.

When she died, there was an outpouring of grief at all we had lost. It was supremely touching. Because, of course, outside of her Movie Goddess-ness and her tabloid life, she was a hell of an actress. As a child she had a gift. She could project her inner life. Grown-up actors WORK to be able to do what she could naturally.

Critic Dana Stevens and I had a discussion about National Velvet (and, strangely, I published it just days before she died. It was uncanny timing.) “So Many Currents In Such a Little Puddle”: Dana Stevens and I Chat About National Velvet

Here’s the piece I wrote when she died:

From Velvet to Helena: A Life of Launching Herself Into the Imaginary

I’m not sure if you’ve seen Paul Newman’s TCM tribute to his friend/colleague Elizabeth Taylor, but it’s so so gorgeous. He gets it.

My favorite phrase in that tribute is when he calls her a “functioning voluptuary,” which I think nails down her huge essence beautifully.


Not surprisingly, Elizabeth Taylor is Camille Paglia’s favorite actress. Paglia’s gigantic survey-course book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson talks about the concept of Sexual Personae, from ancient Greek art up to Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Paglia is interested in androgyny (how most iconic works of art incorporates androgyny to some degree), and how the tensions between the Dionysian and the Apollonian are essential to our understanding of Art. “Personae” in Paglia’s definition has to do with identity, self-assertion, exhibitionism, a willingness/ability to “put it all out there” for the masses. Shakespeare did it. Poe did it. King Tut’s tomb did it. Jackson Pollock did it. And Elizabeth Taylor did it. There are many fine actresses who do not utilize “Personae”. It’s not a “thing” anymore. The movie industry has changed. There are still those who work in the old Persona style: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Leonardo diCaprio, Angelina Jolie. Jennifer Lawrence (maybe: still too early to tell). These people do not change radically from role to role. They don’t have to because they are working on the old-school model where your Personae (whatever it was) was the most essential thing about you, your box-office gold, your magic. There is incredible variety within any given personae (see John Wayne, see Joan Crawford), and you don’t have to put on fake teeth or gain weight to show your chops as an actor. This kind of acting is often under-estimated, or mis-interpreted, because the trend now is to congratulate acts of transformation, and how different an actor is from role to role. This makes critics look like dupes, I’m sorry to say. Just because someone wears a prosthetic nose does not make him a good and dedicated actor. Or that his performance is better than someone who doesn’t wear a prosthetic nose. My most recent diatribes on this personal pet peeve are from the two discussions about By the Sea here and here. In By the Sea, incidentally, Angelina Jolie specifically calls back associations with the wandering-druggie-glamour movies Elizabeth Taylor did in the 1970s.


In this 1992 article for Penthouse, Paglia examines Taylor’s mystique and Personae, and puts Meryl Streep on the chopping-block by way of comparison. It’s one of those things where I agree – and then disagree – does it have to be either/or, Camille? Aren’t you comparing apples and oranges? But she certainly makes her points about the problems she has with Streep – AND, on a larger plane, she’s going after what the culture values, what the culture says “Here. This is good.” Paglia resists the Streep-cult, and tells us why. She goes into all of this in her typical autobiographical way. Elizabeth Taylor connects her to the Dionysian impulse. A woman made to be looked at, to be savored, eaten up, celebrated, an Icon. Paglia sees Meryl Streep’s hard-working-ness to be an example of the Protestant work-ethic that Paglia feels is so damaging and prudish and anti-Art. So, you know, take it for what it’s worth. Paglia’s not the only one to criticize Streep in this way. Pauline Kael had similar issues. But this is why I value Paglia: she is not afraid of going after sacred cows, and it’s not indiscriminate swiping: it’s all very personal for her. And also: you can WRESTLE with her. She states her case so clearly that you are thrown back on yourself to try to put your reactions into words. This is what good rhetoric is SUPPOSED to do. If you dismissed her words on Taylor because you disagreed with her sentiments on Streep … then you are missing out on that cultural dialogue.

Later in the article, Paglia goes into Taylor’s various roles (and she makes some wonderful observations), but here’s an excerpt from the opening of the article. (I love how Paglia states that she had “599” pictures of Taylor. Not “598.” Not “600.” “599.” And I believe her that that’s the exact number.)

Excerpt from Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, by Camille Paglia. From “Elizabeth Taylor: Hollywood’s Pagan Queen.”

Hollywood, America’s greatest modern contribution to world culture, is a business, a religion, an art form, and a state of mind. It has only one living queen: Elizabeth Taylor.

My devotion to Elizabeth Taylor began in the late Fifties, when I was in junior high school and when Taylor was in her heyday as a tabloid diva. I was suffering sustained oppression in the Age of Perky Blondes: day after day, I reeled from the assaults of Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Sandra Dee. All that parochial pleasantness! So chirpy, peppy, and pink so well-scrubbed, making the world safe for democracy.

In 1958, Elizabeth Taylor, raven-haired vixen and temptress, took Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds and became a pariah of the American press. I cheered. What joy to see Liz rattle Debbie’s braids and bring a scowl to that smooth, girlish forehead! As an Italian, I saw that a battle of cultures was under way: antiseptic American blondness was being swamped by a rising tide of sensuality, a new force that would sweep my Sixties generation into open rebellion.

Three years later, adulteress Taylor was forgiven by the American public when she caught near-fatal pneumonia in London. She was photographed being rushed unconscious on a stretcher into a hospital for an emergency tracheotomy. This brush with death seems, in some strange mythic way, to have divinized her. A worldwide surge of popular sympathy helped her win the Oscar in 1961 for Butterfield 8. There was a brilliant series of glossy color pictures of her in Look magazine that year in which her melting beauty was frankly set off by the concealed pale white scar on her throat.

Suffocating in the tranquil, bourgeois Fifties, I escaped by studying ancient Egypt and Greece – and worshipping Elizabeth Taylor. At one point, I had collected 599 pictures of her. I sensed that she was a universal archetype of woman. At the very moment that I was rebelling against the coercive role of femininity and modeling myself on my other heroine, the intrepid, masculine Amelia Earhart, I also recognized that Taylor’s mystery and glamour were coming from nature, not culture.

Elizabeth Taylor is pre-feminist woman. This is the source of her continuing greatness and relevance. She wields the sexual power that feminism cannot explain and has tried to destroy. Through stars like Taylor, we sense the world-disordering impact of legendary women like Delilah, Salome, and Helen of Troy. Feminism has tried to dismiss the femme fatale as a misogynist label, a hoary cliche. But the femme fatale expresses woman’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm. The specter of the femme fatale stalks all of men’s relations with women.

There is an absurd assumption in the air that Meryl Streep is the greatest American actress. Meryl Streep is a good, intelligent actress who has never given a great performance in her life. Her reputation is wildly out of sync with her actual achievement. Cerebral Streep was the ideal high-WASP actress for the fast-track yuppie era, bright, slick, self-conscious.

Elizabeth Taylor is, in my opinion, the greatest actress in film history. She instinctively understands the camera and its nonverbal intimacies. Opening her violet eyes, she takes us into the liquid realm of emotion, which she inhabits by Pisces intuition. Richard Burton said that Taylor showed him how to act for the camera. Economy and understatement are essential. At her best, Elizabeth Taylor simply is. An electric, erotic charge vibrates the space between her face and the lens. It is an extra-sensory, pagan phenomenon.

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10 Responses to The Books: Sex, Art, and American Culture; “Elizabeth Taylor: Hollywood’s Pagan Queen,” by Camille Paglia

  1. carolyn clarke says:

    Ok, Sheila,

    I capitulate. I will simply have to buy “Sex, Art and American Culture.” Actually, I just ordered it from Amazon via your website so that you’ll get the credit. Though Elizabeth Taylor is not my favorite actress, I would watch her movies any day of the week and twice on Sunday. [Life with Father, Taming of the Shrew, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe]. But the real reason that I am buying the book is that I feel exactly the same way about Meryl Streep as Paglia does and I need to read Paglia’s essays myself. I know that this is heresy because most people worship Streep. I respect her skill and I like to watch her work but I always feel that I see her “acting”. She doesn’t transport me away into the story like Bette Davis or Maureen O’Hara or Elizabeth Taylor.

    And I agree with you that it should not be “either/or”. You should be allowed to disagree and still enjoy the moment. For example, Michael Mann’s “Heat” with Pacino and DeNiro. Love the movie because it’s so entertaining. My husband loves it, too. But…my husband is a huge Pacino fan and loves the Godfather trilogy and pretty much everything the man has done. I on the other hand almost cringe as soon as he opens his mouth. I can barely tolerate him on the screen because I think he glows too hot. He doesn’t hold anything back and some people love that but I prefer DeNiro. I fall into the character that he plays (McCauley) and the control of both DeNiro and McCauley until the end of the movie when McCauley loses control and follows his nature even though it will destroy him. Love that.

    • sheila says:

      Carolyn –

      Ha! Yeah, I love Meryl Streep – even the actress-y “tics” that other people find annoying – but I also totally understand what Paglia is talking about.

      When I was doing my research for the Gena Rowlands video-essay for Love Streams – I watched all of her movies obsessively, over and over. And I thought a lot about what makes Gena different from other actresses. One of the things I came up with was: Gena Rowlands makes you worried about her – PERSONALLY – you actually can’t tell if what is happening is acting or not. And it IS acting, that’s what’s so amazing about it. The only other actresses I feel that way about consistently – are Liv Ullmann and Isabelle Huppert. Those three actresses have the capacity to frighten me in a way that other actresses don’t. You watch Gena Rowlands and you realize just how “on the surface” so many other actresses (even talented ones) are.

      I don’t think Streep is “on the surface” – but I will say: that I NEVER “worry about” her. She’s always an actress. You know she’s an actress. She does her roles well, she researches them, she appears to react to imaginary circumstances, and etc. But she doesn’t leave anything of HER up there on the screen – which is why I worry about Rowlands/Ullmann/Huppert: they seem to leave so much of themselves up there on the screen that it makes you feel like, “God … I hope she’s going to be okay.”

      Streep is a professional. I value that in her, I do. But the actresses who really get to me are the ones who are on that other level – way up there in the stratosphere where the air is thin, and things get sharp and dangerous.

      And then of course there are the Movie Goddesses like Elizabeth Taylor. Or Marilyn Monroe. These ladies are in a class unto themselves.

      I love to hear about you and your husband’s back and forth about DeNiro/Pacino – that’s so great!! (I prefer DeNiro, too. He’s less showy.)

  2. Rachel says:

    Ha! I am not s Streepist either. It feels good to get that off my chest; I feel like anytime she’s even discussed it’s with the intro “of course, she’s our greatest living actress.” Also, Pacino, I’ve disliked him since Godfather 3. His performance was so over the top ridiculous that it made me angry. I still get angry thinking about it. But I did like, “Looking for Richard.”

    I love Paglia’s over-the-top-ness. She is never mealy mouthed. She doesn’t qualify her remarks. It’s refreshing.

    • Carolyn clarke says:

      “Streepist”.. I love it.

    • sheila says:

      Yeah, I like Pacino – although sometimes his “schtick” gets really tiresome. To my mind, you can’t beat 1970s Pacino. Scarecrow, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, Panic in Needle Park … these characters have literally nothing in common with each other, and he’s amazing in each one – especially the quiet thoughtful stillness he brought to Michael in The Godfather – which you never would have thought you could get from him. Pacino as quiet and still? Say what??

      I think he definitely has a little bit more vanity in him than DeNiro – which is why he dyes his hair black, and seems to be trying to appear young – not sure, just guessing – and because of that, I don’t think he gets as interesting roles.

      ALSO: De Niro is FUNNY. Pacino isn’t. Hard to picture Pacino as the dad in Silver Linings Playbook, right? I LOVE it when De Niro is funny. It’s great to see that such a talented dramatic actor is also a gifted comedian – although that shouldn’t be surprising – look at Cary Grant!! But if you just looked at DeNiro’s work in the 70s, you’d never know just how hilarious that guy really was!!

      • Rachel says:

        I always put a premium on funny. And you’re right, who would have thought the guy who brought us Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta could do funny, too?

        • sheila says:

          I know!! He’s got such great timing.

          I think it was Midnight Run where I really first “got” that about him – I’d have to look at the timeline of his career to remember. But it was a total pleasant surprise to watch that movie, and listen to that ridiculous banter between those two guys. And he was so cranky, and so funny.

          And then in something like Silver Linings Playbook – he’s hilarious, but then he can do that incredibly touching scene with his son where he tears up, and suddenly the whole heart of the movie is there.

          I think sometimes critics still don’t forgive him for not just doing Jake LaMotta again and again – but that would be silly. He’s not trying to “top” himself. He’s a working actor.

          And I agree: I put a high premium on funny too. I think it’s what I treasure the most!

  3. carolyn clarke says:

    Yes, thank you, Sheila for having the exactly right words. I never worry about Streep. I worry about Bette Davis, Taylor, and even Dean Winchester but never Ms. Streep. And you are also right in the 70’s Pacino. I much prefer him to the current Pacino. Where is the “quiet thoughtful stillness” in Godfather 3?

    Yes, DeNiro is funny and seems much more accessible without being over the top. And didn’t someone say that playing comedy is harder than playing tragedy?

    And, my husband and I have some lively discussions about movies. He prefers the Harrison Ford “Sabrina”. I prefer the Humphrey Bogart version. He loves “Tombstone” because of Kurt Russell who I love but I watch it for Val Kilmer. If we had to pick only one trilogy, I would pick “Lord of the Rings” in a minute, while he would take “The Godfather”. Oh, well, opposites attract, I guess.

    • sheila says:

      Carolyn – ha, this is great! I am not surprised to hear you have good discussions about all of this.

      (And I love Val Kilmer in Tombstone: great great performance!)

      • carolyn clarke says:

        Your comment re worrying about actors is very interesting. It reminds me that some of the greatest performers make you worry about them because they don’t seem to always be able to control their acting. It made me think of Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters. Two great comics that I loved to watch but I always worried that one day they wouldn’t be able to stop the performance and that they would stuck in that persona forever. Scary thought. It’s not easy being great.

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