THE GUARDIAN – Saturday June 24, 2000
Ginny Dougary

When the writer Ginny Dougary was mistaken for the young Elizabeth Taylor, she was flattered. Inevitably, she began to feel an affinity with the movie star and took a special interest in her sometimes turbulent life. Then she came to realise that she was not alone – everyone feels they own a part of icons such as Taylor.

The first time it happened was in 1983. I know the year because it was one of the rare times in my adult life when I’ve been slim. I was living in a hot country and had discovered, to my surprise, that I enjoyed exercise. When I wasn’t working in my part-time job at a vintage clothing store, I was working out in a gym or running or swimming. I lived on fruit shakes, cheap champagne and nuts. I was 26 years old. I had a tan. I had cheekbones. I wore 50s frocks with boat necks and shoes with pointy toes and my hair was cut in a sort of choppy bob.
One evening, I was sitting on the balcony of a friend’s flat, listening to the clinking of the boats in the marina below, when she turned to me and said, “Do you know who you look like?” “No,” I said, not at all sure that I wanted to hear the answer.

“Liz Taylor.”

I thought it was a cruel joke and told her so. But she insisted that she was serious.

“It’s something to do with the end of your nose – the way it tilts up – and the shape of your face,” she tried to explain.

Not long after, I was given a postcard by someone in my office. It is possible that he had a crush on me. The photograph was of Liz with a suntan, a slightly rosy nose and a spray of tiny freckles on the sides of her cheeks. Her black hair is scraped back in a pink towel tied in a turban. She is in full maquillage – eyebrows darkened, eyeliner, mascara, and salmon lip-gloss. She is 33, but looks younger. My husband pinned it on the noticeboard in our kitchen. Friends would come in and do a double take. At first they assumed that it was me. Only after peering at it quite hard did they realise that they were mistaken.

In an old diary, I keep some photographs of myself that were taken at that time. I look at them when I am feeling middle-aged and sad, to remind myself that I wasn’t always this way. But, in truth, what they show is as unreal and duplicitous as a movie still. Most of them were taken at parties, with me wearing dresses from a more glamorous era: off-the-shoulder taffeta and chiffon and satin, diamanté earrings dangling, eyes widened in surprise or half-closed, flirting with the camera. I can see, far more now than I did then, a faint resemblance to Liz – which is more to do with the retro look and the confidence of youth, which can pass for allure, than anything real.

The last time it happened, I was interviewing a don on the banks of the Cam. I was 33 – the same age as the Liz on that postcard – with a two-year-old son, and was back living in a cold country. The don was a classicist who had written a book about surfing. We sat on the grass, drinking cups of tea, eating fragile cucumber sandwiches and talking about the mythology of the waves. I remember that I was wearing inappropriate shoes – black and spiky – and large sunglasses. Later, I was told that a colleague had asked him what he was doing on the lawn with Liz Taylor. I decided to take it as a compliment. Now that I’m 42, and closer to Liz in her kaftan years, no one says that I look like her any more.

When I was eight, I saw Liz close up. My parents and I were staying in Cap Ferrat in the south of France, in a darkly lush winding road. Somerset Maugham lived in a neighbouring Gothic-looking mansion, and every time we passed it my mother would tell me that he had lived there with his male companion.

I can’t summon the names of any of the other hotels we stayed in when I was young and my parents used to travel in style. Villa de la Robia was different. There was a garden with lots of tangled undergrowth and chipped, mossy statues lurking in the gloom. I had a room to myself, which you reached from some crumbling steps that led up from the shadows of the garden. I used to lie in my bed with its odd, sausage-shaped pillow, the shutters closed, and imagine what it would be like to kiss my favourite handsome waiter.

One lunchtime, the usual placid hush in the restaurant was disturbed by the arrival of a family. Heads studiously did not swivel, but there was a sudden brightness, a subtle animated charge in the muted chatter. I can still see Liz clearly. She was wearing Capri pants and a dark headscarf. There were two teenagers with her – a boy and a girl, who were strikingly good-looking with their black hair and violet-blue eyes framed by thick eyebrows – and a rather grey, craggy man who must have been Richard Burton.

They were sitting at the next table, and my mother – who had her own movie-star glamour – was determinedly unimpressed. After lunch, over coffee on the veranda, she turned to my father and said, “Rather a dumpy little thing, didn’t you think?”

“My God, darling,” he replied, “she’s not a patch on you.”

Liz hasn’t had a major role in a film for years. Unlike Katharine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall, age has withered her acting career. There have been no grand matriarch roles or twilight-year romances. No Golden Ponds. And because we have not grown accustomed to seeing her grow old in Technicolor celluloid, we still think of her as a screen goddess, frozen in the past. We are constantly reminded that she is alive – if only because of her frequent brushes with death: the brain tumour three years ago, the fall the following year – but the Liz who has worked so hard at raising funds for and the profile of Aids charities, who once said that Michael Jackson was the least weird man she knew, is someone quite separate from her youthful screen persona. In that sense, she occupies a unique space: one in which she is both alive and dead.

There are not many actors, of either sex, who have become so iconic in their lifetime. Warhol favoured the dead over the living in his prints – JFK, Mao, Marilyn, Elvis. But he also placed Liz in this pantheon, as if acknowledging her not-of-this-world lustre, and fixed on her image, circa 1960, with the tousled hooker’s hairdo she wore in Butterfield 8.

She was always a star rather than an actress. A lot of her films were B-movies, which were somehow redeemed by her luminous sheen. It feels like I’ve always loved her, even though there’s something unconcrete and dreamlike about the way I conjure her in my imagination. She is not like other actors I admire, in that I cannot point to this or that role to illustrate precisely what it is about her that I find so appealing. She doesn’t have a set of mannerisms that help you to place her. There is no equivalent to the Clint glint or the Marilyn wiggle. But for me, it was enough that when she was in a film she had some quality that made it impossible for me to take my eyes off her. She seemed to fill the screen, eclipsing everyone around her.

I always saw her films retrospectively, and this may partly explain why I view her through a special lens. She seems always to have been there in my childhood and adolescence, although I never actively sought her out. I saw her by chance: a Sunday movie on a rainy afternoon, or late at night when I was a student, or as part of some film festival of 50s kitsch. Like most people, I have absorbed the soap opera of her life – the multiple marriages, the accidents, the illnesses, the addictions, the sojourns in the Betty Ford clinic – but, in my case, as an unwilling participant. I’d rather not know about these details, since they detract from the image of her in my mind’s eye.

I haven’t retained much of an impression of her in National Velvet, although if I blink I can see her in jodhpurs, her hair tied up with a bow, the beauty spot on her cheek – already too sophisticated to look like a real little girl who loved horses. I can visualise her more clearly in Jane Eyre, although she had a tiny part. She played Helen, the angelic child who befriends Jane in the orphanage and dies beautifully. I remember her dark eyes gazing out of an unearthly white face. She was, of course, too good to be true – and probably would have been better cast as one of Jane’s nasty, spoiled relatives. But I loved her satiny voice and believed in her sweetness.

The films that stand out for me are the ones in which she was a poor little rich girl. Or, sometimes, the beautiful rich bitch. They were all made between the early 50s and the mid-60s, when she was at her swooning loveliest. Watching her was like basking in the reflected glory of her shimmering youthfulness. When I look back at those films now, as a body of work, I am struck by how dark they were. There was often the suggestion of something corrupt about her beauty, that it was both damaged and damaging; a hint of moral decay behind the succulent peachiness. She is a siren of doom, driving the men around her to murder or self-destruction. I rather think it was this sickness behind the bloom that I liked.

There was also a frisson – a sort of fag-haggy appeal – in acknowledging the relationship between her status as a gay icon and her friendships with her leading men, who tended to be homosexual: Montgomery Clift in A Place In The Sun and Suddenly Last Summer; Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant. But I don’t think I would have responded to Liz so viscerally if she had been merely camp. There is a dangerous undertow to these films; a sense in which some sort of malign energy, which both emanates from her and is beyond her control, is propelling the protagonists to their downfall. Her kind of brittle shallowness can kill.

The film that sums up this quality for me is, oddly, not A Place In The Sun – in which the rich girl’s new boyfriend drowns his discarded pregnant girlfriend, which might seem to fit the bill more neatly – but Suddenly Last Summer. It still strikes me as astonishing that such an overtly homosexual theme could have been tackled on the screen as early as 1959. Here, the sickness is almost tangible. Young Liz in her white bathing suit – the fleshy bait to lure penniless young beach boys into the arms of her homosexual cousin; his harridan mother (Katharine Hepburn) in her throne-like chair on the veranda ordering a lobotomy for her hysterical niece in order to obliterate the memory of what happened on the day her son died; the ending – even now it makes me shiver to recall it: the boys who had been preyed upon by the cousin chasing him up the hill, joined by other children on the way to the top, tearing his immaculate white suit to shreds, and then his flesh.

There was a time, at the height of her stardom, when Liz’s fans – in their eagerness to steal a part of her lustre for themselves – were in danger of ripping her apart. They would grab at her hair, her mink coats, her fabulous jewels. There was something about her appeal that was as universal as the strange kinship the public felt for Princess Diana. When Liz was taken to hospital with pneumonia in 1961 and was reported as being close to death, fans pulled their cars to the side of the road and prayed for her recovery. If Liz had died then, she would have become a Marilyn or a Princess Di. Like them, she was a goddess who could pull us into her orbit. Her battle with weight, her weaknesses for a bad man and a good frock, were our own little lives writ large. You could even forgive her ostentatious displays of wealth and her excessive habits, since they so evidently did not bring her happiness. It is a peculiar quirk of fame that such an untypical woman can also, at some level, be an Everywoman.

When I started to write this piece, I was concerned that it might sound deranged to be exploring the idea that I felt a personal connection with Liz because someone once said that I bore a passing resemblance to her. I reminded myself of the old bag in a film I once saw, who thrust a photograph of Princess Diana in front of her hairdresser and announced, “I want to look like that.” But I have come across other women who also have been told that they look like Liz – and none of them looks like me. My children’s middle-aged nanny – one of the old guard in a tweed skirt and sensible shoes – used to tell me that people said she had Liz Taylor’s eyes. A former colleague, an alluring scruff with unkempt hair, was often persuaded – particularly by men who wanted to kiss them – that she had Liz Taylor’s lips. And I have the tip of her nose. Perhaps this is how we divide Liz up for ourselves, so that we all own a bit of her.

A few months ago, I was sent a postcard by an acquaintance. It is split into two halves. On one side is Liz in the pink towelling turban, the one when she was 33. On the other is Liz in the same headgear, at 60. Her eyes look as though they have been widened; her lips seem to be puffed up by silicone. Her oval face has lost its definition. I’m not sure whether any message was intended – but, anyway, she still looks wonderful to me. This won’t, however, be going on any noticeboards. That moment has passed.