Liz makes triumphant return to stage to raise money for AIDS

Never underestimate Elizabeth Taylor!"

So say I.


On Saturday night in Hollywood, at Paramount Studios, Elizabeth Taylor defied naysayers and exceeded every expectation (perhaps even her own) appearing onstage with James Earl Jones to perform A.R. Gurney's bittersweet play Love Letters.

If the star had collapsed days, hours, seconds before the lights went up, she had already raised more than a million dollars for AIDS patient care (via her AIDS/HIV Foundation). Everybody would have understood - Elizabeth is frail after years of declining health.


But in what can only be described as proof plus of her fabled powers of mind over body, she appeared, dressed in a stunning orange Michael Kors gown, wrapped in fur, her ears dripping coral and diamonds - presents from Richard Burton, from way back when - and she really acted Gurney's character, who is eventually undone by love and life. (La Liz didn't have to "really" act - her presence was the draw. But she decided to go for broke.) She had the great - and I mean great! - support of Jones as her lifelong sweetheart, lover, friend and constant correspondent.

Elizabeth skillfully made her way through the various stages of this woman's experience, with everything she can still muster. And she rose magnificently to the challenge. Toward the conclusion, when her character breaks down mentally, Elizabeth made some daring choices. (She is no stranger to playing women on the edge, and she hasn't lost her Oscar-winning touch.) Even those in the audience who had prepared themselves for an endurance trial for charity - or a sudden cancellation - were moved, but more than that - impressed. There was a palpable difference in her opening and closing ovations. When she was wheeled onstage, the crowd roared for her history and courage. At the end, they lauded an actress.

Elizabeth has not worked on a stage for 23 years. She looked momentarily stunned by the ovation that greeted her. As the play proceeded, this instinctive performer took the bit in her teeth. She seemed to be relishing her challenge and accepted her last bravas - standing up from her wheelchair - proudly.

The organizers of this night were not especially interested in gathering a red carpet packed with mega-stars - they had the mega of all-time already! This was about raising money and that they did. (Power names such as David Geffen, Paul Newman, the Christie's organization, Elton John, Hugh Hefner and Kathy Ireland, who is Elizabeth's business partner, made significant contributions.) One of Elizabeth's projects is the mobile AIDS units, which she spearheaded in the United States. Elizabeth wants these lifesavers on wheels to be able to "roll up in front of a mud hut in Africa or India." This dream was much on her mind when she agreed to the daunting evening.

It is easy to wax sentimental about Elizabeth, whom I met in all her box-office queen glory with Burton, on the set of The Sandpiper in Paris. But that isn't necessary. She made an important decision when she put her energies to the AIDS fight - to use her improbably long-lasting fame for the greater good. She stuck to it, though her health and quality of life have been much altered. She made a decision to perform Love Letters for the cause. She stuck to it. Now, on to the next thing. There's always "the next thing" for Elizabeth Taylor.

Tribune Media Services