Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

I'm just as irked as the next feminist when a woman, in her death, is referred to as a great beauty above all else. Please, know that.

But then—then, there's Elizabeth Taylor. Elizabeth Taylor, whose beauty from youth through adulthood was remarkable in the true sense of the word: We cannot help but remark on her beauty, so present, so stunning it was. I recoil when I hear women reduced to their physical parts, and the way that some well-meaning people have tried to fix that is to separate physical beauty from other assets. And it is a separate beast—both in the importance we place upon it and the way in which we treat those who have it—but what we're eager to overlook in our quest to be seen as whole is how possessing great beauty can inform those other assets. 

In the case of Elizabeth Taylor, her beauty informed what made her so compelling. Her beauty wasn't the sum of her gifts, but without those eyes, that complexion, that face, our eyes may not have been as open as they were to take in her gifts. We root for her girlish innocence in National Velvet; we adore her kittenish yet womanly charm in Father of the Bride; we're riveted by her boozy glamour in BUtterfield 8. As artist Lisa Ferber says in my interview with her, "Whenever we hear about the beautiful but tortured woman, we don’t really believe it, which is why we love it." It's a point I agree with. Yet every rule has its exception: Elizabeth Taylor's talent and notorious personal life gave us the voyeuristic pleasure of both. We saw her beauty and took it as fact; we saw her torture and believed that it wasn't contrived for our attentions. In her case, we do believe it. Even in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—a role that people sometimes point to as where the veneer starts to visibly crack, where we see her mortality—her beauty is as much a part of the character of Martha as is her cruel wit and her covert swamp of vulnerability.

What we see in Elizabeth Taylor's face is an enormously complex story of beauty itself, played out over a lifetime. She had a quality that spoke to something I couldn't articulate about being a woman: She seemed too smart to simply let herself be objectified, but appeared to take pleasure in being looked at. I think of the iconic shot of her leaning against the door in a white slip, booze in hand, exposed as being both effortless and sculpted. It wasn't merely that she was "smart AND beautiful!"—many are that. Being smart and beautiful is past the point of being remarkable. It was that part of her intelligence seemed to stem from her interpretation of her beauty. I felt, in fits and glimpses, as though she were speaking for every woman whose complexity and vulnerabilities were as exposed as her slip: She taught us that what made a vulnerability a vulnerability instead of a mere weakness was that it is surrounded by strength. At times I felt as though she were speaking for every woman of that ilk—which is to say, most of us. At the same time, her own life was incredibly—laughably—different than ours. She seemed to be in another stratosphere. It's no surprise that she befriended Michael Jackson, another icon who reflected a deep urge within our culture while simultaneously crafting his own unintelligible freakdom.

Elizabeth Taylor had the gifts, and the opportunity writ large, to communicate the complexities of beauty to us. She took the arc of the tragic beauty and imbued it with a rich, electric vibrancy that defies the eye-rolling cynicism people might want to apply to this counter-tale. She made it impossible for us to ignore her, as a beauty, as an actress, as an icon, as a woman. I will forever be a fan.