Most of us choose our favorite movie stars before we turn 18. They take possession of our imaginations while we’re still trying on role models. By the time we’re out of high school, we’re essentially who we’ll be for the rest of our lives, and although new movie stars are created every year, they will never have the same resonance of someone we fixed on earlier.
For many people under the age of 50, Elizabeth Taylor was something of a punch line, known more for her multiple marriages, her perfume line and her friendship with Michael Jackson. But for me and others of my generation, the death of Ms. Taylor took away one of the last movie stars who really affected us in our youth. I have no doubt that Meryl Streep is a better actress, but Ms. Streep is younger, and I’ve met her, and besides, she’s just another human being, you know? She can take consolation in the fact that millions of younger moviegoers grew up on her movies, and for them she will forever be a goddess.
Movies enter our minds more directly when we’re young. They’re realistic in a different way. There’s a difference between empathizing with a character and identifying with a star. When we start going to the movies, stars are leading surrogate lives for us. At the risk of tasking you with my infantile fantasies, I was, for a period of hours, John Wayne or Robert Mitchum or James Stewart. I believed Doris Day was just about the nicest and sunniest person on earth. I was not only in lust with Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, but in some way I absorbed their appeal and shared with them the knowledge that they were desired. They let me imagine how it felt to be longed for, and that was a knowledge sadly lacking in my real life.
Terrific piece. They don’t make stars like Taylor anymore.