The fantasy world of Liz Taylor


Less than 48 hours after making a humiliating, befuddled appearance at a Hollywood awards show last week, Dame Elizabeth Taylor stepped out to dinner with her dentist, Dr Cary Schwartz.

'She had a good time at the show. She's absolutely fine,' insisted the good doctor. Indeed, any observer might have come to just the same conclusion. Taylor, who will be 69 next month, is slimmer than she has been in years and was showing off a newly coiffed reddish-brown hairdo.

Yet just two evenings before, on Sunday, January 21, Taylor had been the talk of Hollywood - for all the wrong reasons. There, in front of a worldwide TV audience of more than 30 million, the actress once dubbed 'One-take Liz', veteran of 53 movies, made an embarrassing spectacle of herself.

Hobbling on stage to present the Golden Globe award for best dramatic movie, she proceeded to open the envelope bearing the winner's name, before listing the nominees. The celebrity audience squirmed uncomfortably as Taylor's behaviour became more erratic.

'What? I don't open this? I just read it from up there,' she declared, motioning towards a giant teleprompter. After a harassed intervention from the show's producer, Taylor overcompensated for her gaffe by reciting the six nominees with an ill-fitting dramatic flourish.

Friends insist she was not concerned by the negative publicity, and thought nothing of billing the show's organisers £4,000 for hair and makeup costs.

Her biographer, Ellis Amburn, attributes Taylor's confusion to 1997 surgery to remove a 2in benign brain tumour. 'She has never been the same Elizabeth Taylor since. Her motor functions, her speech, are just not what they were.'

Others have spent the week whispering about Taylor's continued reliance on super-strength painkillers to mask the agony of her ailing back and hips. 'They make her confused and giddy,' admits one.

But while both theories are accurate, neither tells the full story. Quite simply, Taylor exists in something of a fantasy land. It is a survival mechanism that has sustained her through child stardom, eight divorces, brain surgery, failing health, alcohol addiction, depression and binge-eating.

On a typical day she wakes between 11am and noon. Her personal maid has instructions never to draw the green velvet drapes in her bedroom without being invited to do so. Just before 2pm she dresses, choosing an outfit from one of two giant closets, and busies herself answering mail and checking her stock portfolio.

Taylor's most regular callers are actor Rod Steiger, who visits three times a week, and dentist Dr Schwartz. Afternoons with Steiger are spent driving in the Santa Monica mountains or playing Scrabble.

Her other great friend is, of course, Michael Jackson, the reclusive singer who has tried to emulate Taylor's looks. Jackson phones frequently and, when he calls round, the unlikely chums sit in the garden telling one another dirty jokes.

Describing their odd pairing, Taylor has said of Jackson: 'We have such fun together, just playing. There is something in him that is so dear and childlike. And we like the same things. Circuses. Amusement parks. Animals.

Domestic staff say she still displays the violent mood swings characteristic of the pampered superstar. One, who did not wish to be named, says: 'If she is having a lousy day she has a terrible temper. On one occasion after she had been particularly vicious to us she came downstairs with a gold bracelet for everyone, by way of apology.'

Taylor prefers not to face the realities of her age and failing health, living instead like the starlet she once was. She is so determined never to be photographed in a wheelchair that elevators and corridors are often blocked off to allow her to arrive at events away from the glare of the paparazzi.

In yet another example of her eccentricity, Taylor is rarely without her beloved 12-year-old partially blind and deaf Maltese Terrier, Sugar. She takes him with her to the bathroom, and on her frequent trips to Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles books an adjoining room for Sugar and an aide.

If Taylor has chosen to live in a dream world, it is not surprising. She made her screen debut when she was just nine. At 12 she was one of Hollywood's biggest draws. As she became more and more manipulated by Hollywood bosses, her only escape was daydreaming. And her ability to escape into a fantasy world has stood her in good stead for the adult traumas that awaited her.

Throughout the illness, sadness, depression and public ridicule, Taylor has never lost the ability to see the world through rose-tinted spectacles.

When she befriended Michael Jackson, she adopted a blinkered approach to his personality - locking out the tales of sexual abuse, choosing only to see his endearing childlike qualities.

The pair have styled themselves as a modern-day Peter Pan and Wendy, making incognito trips to the cinema where they sit in the back row holding hands.

In much the same way, Taylor has chosen to erase most traces of her former husbands from her home. There are no photographs of any of the eight men she married and one former employee attests: 'Under no circumstances is Larry Fortensky (husband number eight) ever to be put through to her on the phone. 'She hates the guy and once went berserk when she picked up the phone to find him at the end of the line.'

Today, Taylor, agrees to interviews and photo-shoots to maintain the public profile which draws millions of dollars into her Aids charity and perfume business.

However, one person, at least, thinks she is staging not just a professional but a personal comeback. 'Judging by the way she's dyed her hair, I'd say she's looking for a man again,' says her friend, Jack Larson.

But in a world where TV is global and teleprompters an everyday tool of actors and actresses, Taylor's bizarre land of make-believe may be the only one in which she can comfortably function.

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