This Friday will be the first anniversary of Elizabeth Taylor’s death. I didn't dislike her, but I was never a big fan either. Like Elvis Presley or Marlon Brando, the groundbreaking star quality she possessed in her youth was gone by the time I was around, replaced by little else but a sad spectacle. “A tad overweight, but violet eyes to die for” as Doonesbury put it. It’s backhanded and mean but accurate. Granted, she never became the complete mess that Elvis or Brando or her pal Michael Jackson did, but the second half of her life retroactively casts a shadow on memories of her youth.
That odd sensation of both remembering and being surprised: that’s what I felt when I saw photographs of her at her peak, as a young woman, online and on television during remembrances and memorials. She was radiant. “Oh, now I get it” I thought. But rather than watch any of her movies or read gossip about her life, I was drawn to a work that would probably not be how Ms. Taylor would want to be remembered, even though it is a testament to her when she was most famous. Hearing about Elizabeth Taylor, I felt compelled to re-read J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash.
Crash opens with the death of Vaughn, a man whose ultimate fantasy is to die in a head on collision with “the film actress Elizabeth Taylor.” Vaughn is only the most extreme example of the pathology shared other characters in the book, that is, they are all sexually fixated on car accidents. When I first read the book twenty years ago, I grew tired of it but thought that was the author’s point: the boredom of fetishes and obsessions. This time, however, I was intrigued throughout. Whereas before all I noticed was the repetition, this time I noticed the variations as the characters try to find new ways to satisfy themselves within the context of car accidents.
But more surprising was discovering how little the film actress Elizabeth Taylor is actually in the novel. I had always remembered her presence as looming large throughout the book, as Vaughn’s (and Ballard’s) crazed celebrity worship is an important theme. In actuality, she’s mentioned in the first chapter, along with celebrities who did die in car accidents, such as Jayne Mansfield, James Dean, Albert Camus…even JFK, whose death is considered a kind of car accident. She's only mentioned sporadically afterwards. But on the page as on screen, her presence fills your thoughts even when she is absent.
The fact that the celebrity fixation was dropped from David Cronenberg’s film version of Crash is also a testament to Taylor. What actress in the 1990s had the same stature as Taylor did in the 1960s? Madonna? Sharon Stone, for a couple of months? There really wasn’t any one. “I wasn't that interested in the actual actress,” Ballard said “but she stood for the last of the great Hollywood stars.” They really don’t make them like that anymore.
As I said, I’m sure her appearance in Crash is not how Taylor would want to be remembered, even though it demonstrates her impact on the culture better than the most well meaning eulogy. I rarely re-read books, even favorite ones. I'm thankful that the film actress Elizabeth Taylor indirectly lead me to re-read Ballard.