She stepped onto the set of the Johnny Carson show last week and it was deja vu all over again. Thin and beautiful, Elizabeth Taylor smiled and the years dissolved: We moved back through the '80s, through the '70s and the '60s, arriving finally in the 1950s -- the decade when Ms. Taylor was at the height of her breathtaking beauty.
Somehow, she had managed to pull it off again -- she had rolled back the years and recaptured the youthful beauty that made her a legend.
But appearances are sometimes deceiving and, believe it or not, La Liz is 60 today. Sixty! Of course, you could say this is what 60 looks like if you're Liz Taylor. Or at least this is what it looks like right now. Because there's no guarantee, given her track record, that she won't balloon up to 180 pounds next month or get an additional surgical nip to alter that fabulous face or go into some physically debilitating tailspin that will leave her, temporarily, frail and wan.
Such unpredictability, of course, only adds to the Legend of Liz. She has been in the public eye for 50 years now, and we've watched her grow from the preternaturally beautiful child in "National Velvet" to a 60-year-old survivor. And her life from there to here, it seems fair to say, has been one of wild contrasts and constant change.
In fact, it seems as though she has spent most of her life deconstructing the legend of Liz in front of our very eyes: Just when we think we've got our interpretation of her nailed down, she reinvents herself. She has gone from beautiful child to an adolescent bursting with innocent sensuality; from a passionate young woman to a grief-stricken widow; from the headstrong home-wrecker to the invalid near death; from the most beautiful woman in the world -- and one of the most married -- to a frumpy, obese, boozing, pill-popping wreck who became the butt of comedians' jokes.
And let's not forget -- although it sometimes seems incidental -- that Elizabeth Taylor was an actress who won two Academy Awards for her film performances.
She is the long-distance runner of celebrities. A woman who, although she hasn't made a theatrical film in a dozen years, continues to fascinate us in a way that few others -- with the exception of Jackie Onassis -- ever have.
In some ways, Liz and Jackie may serve as the two public figures upon whom we can project the different sides of our own personalities: If Jackie represents a sort of controlled, well-mannered, white-gloved super-ego figure, then Liz is more like our id -- wild and uncontrolled, indulging in excess after excess from too many chocolates to too many men.
This excessiveness is part of what we find compelling about Liz, says Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner who interviewed the star in 1983. "She is that side of us that would do anything," Ms. Brenner says. "She's the taboo side of our puritanical nature. She's been married eight times. She's gained 40 pounds, she's lost 40 pounds. We wonder, 'What will this woman do next?'
"Look, if anything illustrates why Elizabeth Taylor still appeals to us, here it is: At age 59 she put on that yellow wedding dress with the wasp waist for her eighth marriage. Any other 59-year-old woman would have been married in a tailored, mauve suit."
Diana McLellan, a writer at Washingtonian magazine and a keen social observer who chronicled Liz's life during her marriage to Sen. John Warner, agrees with Marie Brenner's theory. "There is that soap opera life combined with the fact that we've been with this person since she was a child. She's so much a part of our consciousness I wouldn't be surprised to see her popping up in our dreams as a mythic figure -- the way Queen Elizabeth does in England," says Ms. McLellan.
And even though Liz's "Washington period" may have represented the nadir of the movie star's physical beauty and glamour -- "She was hugely fat in the '70s and always choking on a chicken bone or something," says Ms. McLellan -- it did not diminish Washington's fascination with the transplanted celebrity. "Wherever she went, people would glom on to her and gather round her," recalls Ms. McLellan. "She is so charismatic that her X-rays were stolen when she had to go to the hospital."
To get to the roots of this incredible charisma, says Judith Viorst, author of "Necessary Losses," a psychoanalytic study of loss and growth, we might start with our identification with Liz's vulnerability -- and the losses she has sustained.
"She is very vulnerable and I think we're touched by that vulnerability. And I suppose there is something comforting in knowing she is like the rest of us; that all the money and fame and beauty and power in the world does not shield us from losses. And she certainly has had her share. I think we identify with her vulnerability and admire her ability to pick herself up off the floor and go on," says Ms. Viorst.
"I think we remain fascinated with Elizabeth Taylor," says columnist Liz Smith, "because of her will to survive. "She keeps making herself come back, she keeps making herself beautiful again when she's not beautiful. And even though she's no longer a movie star, she's very cleverly managed to keep herself alive, before the public, not only through her ups and downs but through things like her successful perfume business."
It's a theory similar to one advanced by film commentator Neal Gabler: "To hold our interest," he wrote of Elizabeth Taylor in a 1991 New York Times article, "she just had to live. And her life conveys the theme of survival."
Her life also contains the elements of a love-hate theme with the American public, says former Spy Magazine editor Graydon Carter, who now edits the New York Observer. "She's like the New York of celebrities. Americans feel about Elizabeth Taylor the way they feel about New York: They love it but they hate it. It's beautiful, it's grotesque. It's fascinating, it's maudlin."
But she has a special, separate appeal to women, contends Mr. Carter: "She represents the high and low of all female emotion and experience. Married more times than anyone else. More beautiful than anyone else. Then not beautiful at all. More sexually active than anyone else. She's an extreme example of what women experience."
"She is like Judy Garland," says film critic Judith Crist. "We grew up with these people and felt we knew them. I really think the majority ofpeople live vicariously and who among us would not love to have eternal youth? Of course, in Elizabeth Taylor's case, you get it by having the right nips and tucks and diets and drugs. And you're not going to find a lack of 60-year-old women who wouldn't like to have a 39-year-old stud in the house," says Ms. Crist, referring to Liz's current husband, Larry Fortensky.
As for Ms. Taylor's acting ability, it all depended on who directed her, says Ms. Crist. "For me, when she had a good director she was wonderful. Joe Mankiewicz in "Suddenly Last Summer" (1959) got an astonishing performance from her. And so did George Stevens in "A Place in the Sun" (1951).
George Stevens Jr. remembers having lunch with Elizabeth Taylor at the studio when his father was directing "A Place in the Sun." "It was her 18th birthday and I remember her as being just like a normal, teen-age girl -- except for one thing: She was the most beautiful female on the face of the earth. And I understate it," says Mr. Stevens, now a film director and writer.
Asked to describe his friend, he says: "She's spirited, she's fun to be with and she's very resilient."
Resilient in every way, it seems. "I've been pronounced dead more times than anyone I know," Liz told Johnny Carson last week.
And resilient, beyond comparison, in her celebrity status.
"What can I say about Elizabeth Taylor?" says writer Nora Ephron, who is exactly 10 years younger than Liz. "I was at her first wedding. I was standing on the steps of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. I was 8 years old. But that's the amazing thing about Elizabeth Taylor. She is only 10 years older than me and she's been famous as long as I've been alive."