Elizabeth Taylor ushered in the age of modern stardom

Taylor, and the access the public had to her private life via the media, helped to set the stage for the emergence of today's brand of celebrity.

"Scorpion - Ball" in Monaco. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor arriving at Hotel Hermitage for the Scorpion-Ball. Grace of Monaco invited the couple together with numerous other guests for the celebration of her 40. birthday on November 15,1969. Liz Taylor is wearing a diamond of almost 70 carats, which she recently bought at Cartier, New York. (AP Photo/Mae)
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The pivotal moment, it is said, was a telephoto snapshot of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton carousing on a yacht, somewhere on the Mediterranean, in the summer of 1962. The pair were in a relationship, and had been since they met, in 1960, on the set of the Roman epic Cleopatra. Taylor, however, was very much a married woman (to husband number four, the singer Eddie Fisher).

And thus the pictures, as hard proof of Taylor's adultery, became their own cause célèbre, were seen around the globe, and aroused a prurient interest in Taylor as an entirely new breed of celebrity-actress - someone whose private life and off-screen misadventures were just as compelling as her on-screen performances in, say, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Taylor, of course, who died on March 23, is often regarded, and was described doubly so in most of her obituaries, as the world's first "modern" Hollywood icon. Here by "modern" we mean, pejoratively, someone ceaselessly encircled by publicity, and who attracts notoriety through downtime activities such as Taylor's eight marriages, weight fluctuations, and drug and alcohol addictions. There is a direct and surprisingly pure line, it is argued, from Taylor through to Hollywood's modern publicity magnets such as Angelina Jolie (controversial marriages) and Lindsay Lohan (substance abuse). And there are parallels to be drawn, it is said, between the press and publicity machine that surrounded Taylor, and the one that exists for today's A-listers.

This is nice and neat in theory, and it certainly partially exonerates the behaviour of left-field opportunists such as Charlie Sheen (Hey, he's just part of a noble Hollywood tradition!). But the parallel doesn't bear much scrutiny. For the Hollywood star today is more embedded in the world of publicity than Taylor could ever have imagined. Publicity has simply become the pre-eminent Hollywood industry. It is sharply focused on marketing theory, and notions of brand management and media manipulation. In this world, as movies themselves are increasingly produced outside of the Hollywood system, and then brought in at the last minute to experience the power of a multimillion-dollar studio-financed marketing campaign (see this year's boxing champ The Fighter - produced independently, but distributed by Paramount) so too are actors increasingly sold and packaged as publicity products rather than top-tier performers. Here the flashbulb, the front page, the blog and the breaking tweet are everything. Publicity today is so dazzling, so alluring, that it hides some uncomfortable truths about the nature of modern stardom.

Take Jolie as a test case, for instance, the alleged spiritual heiress to Taylor. Jolie is a huge presence. She's on the cover of every second tabloid magazine. Stories about her clog the webwaves. But is she actually a commercially successful movie star? Her last movie, the action comedy The Tourist, for which she was allegedly paid her $20 million fee (Dh73.5), and which cost $150m to make, plus a marketing budget of up to $100m, only took $270m at the worldwide box office. Which, when you remove half the revenue, which goes directly to the distributors, leaves you with a $135m return on a movie that ultimately cost somewhere near $250m.

Steven Gaydos, the executive editor of Variety, picks up the story. "What it means is that by the time the movie reaches the home-entertainment arena it's going to be profitable, but we're not talking a slam-dunk here," he says. "Even though she is a tremendous star, Jolie movies are not automatic box office. She made a fantastic movie with Clint Eastwood, called Changeling, which people thought was going to be a big Oscar winner, but it only grossed $35m. She made a movie about the Daniel Pearl story, A Mighty Heart, and that didn't do much business either [it made $14m, worldwide]."

In fact, ignoring her two sizeable hits, Wanted and Mr and Mrs Smith, Jolie's screen career is mostly populated by under-performers, such as Tomb Raider 2 and Beowulf, and outright flops such as Taking Lives and The Good Shepherd.

Which clearly begs the question of bottom-line obsessed Hollywood, if Jolie movies are not automatic box office, then why is she a tremendous star? The answer, explains Forbes Magazine's Dorothy Pomerantz, is that Jolie has, "an intangible value that brings a certain amount of attention and publicity to a film, and can get a film green-lit in the first place." And, ironically, this intangible value is mostly forged in the smithy of tabloid publicity. "There are many ways that celebrities handle paparazzi attention,"  Pomerantz says. "They can run, make fools of themselves, and they can fight. But Angelina Jolie handles it in a way that actually enhances her image." The result? "She's been able to work the media like no one else before her, and how she works the media ultimately adds to her ability to earn more money, to get her movies green-lit, and to make her own movie in Bosnia,"  Pomerantz says.

In short, the modern Hollywood star, unlike Taylor (whose regular hits included Giant, A Place in the Sun and Father of the Bride), is cut completely free from their actual commercial worth. They are brand first, star second. The UK publicist Max Clifford, who previously represented old-school heavyweights such as Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, puts it thus: "Twenty or 30 years ago if you were a Hollywood superstar it was purely based on your box office. But now box-office success plays a much smaller part in your popularity. What you achieve instead is all about public perception. And good publicity can get the message across to everyone that you are just about the hottest property in the world - even if the figures themselves don't stand up to scrutiny."

And, naturally, it's not just Jolie either. There is, in fact, an entire tier of Hollywood players, including George Clooney, Jennifer Aniston and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who boast increasingly weak box-office takings but who are continually buoyed into the A-list by the very thing that they relentlessly decry - tabloid media coverage. Clooney, in particular, creates the impression that he is locked in a perpetual press battle for his own privacy, once even ordering 15 wedding tables to be sent to his house in Italy in order to drive awaiting paparazzi into a marriage-themed frenzy. And yet, there is a remarkably heavy irony inherent in the fact that this same publicity nightmare that Clooney allegedly lives every day is also the reason why he remains in the A-list. It is, in short, a virtuous circle of self-deception.

Nonetheless, unlike Taylor, what might ultimately bring the modern artificially enhanced A-lister to his or her knees is the production of just one too many flops combined with the attendant pop of the publicity bubble. Look at Nicole Kidman. At the start of the noughties she was a box-office Midas who made blockbusting musicals (Moulin Rouge) and hit horror films (The Others) and venerated Oscar winners (The Hours). And then, overnight, she suddenly became poison. From Bewitched to The Invasion, almost everything she touched seemed to crash and burn - and all this with a reported asking salary of $13m.

"So the question becomes," says Pomerantz, "how many flops can you have before it hits your quota? She's asked that question, and gone straight to starring in a small movie, Rabbit Hole, which I bet she got paid nothing for, and is trying to do what Bruce Willis and John Travolta did by taking roles in Pulp Fiction, which is, restart her career."

Ultimately, Kidman's A-list status remains up for grabs, as will that, eventually inevitably, of Jolie, Clooney, et al. But if longevity is what these artists are after, then they could do worse than start with the movies of Taylor, say Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and leave the telephoto snapshots behind.