My evening with Elizabeth Taylor was supposed to be about “A Little Night Music” but most of the sound in the room during that occasion in 1977 was from the throaty rhetoric and hacking laughter from an actress who seemed remarkably self-deprecating.
Taylor, who died Wednesday at age 79, was 45 when she dutifully agreed to provide publicity for a film version of Stephen Sondheim's musical. Rather than allowing a casting-call-style press-junket visit with Taylor, producers opted for limited media exposure. The dramatis personae, such as we were, consisted of just me (in my capacity as a Seattle Post-Intelligencer arts-and-entertainment editor and film critic), an Associated Press reporter, Taylor's publicist and the two-time Oscar-winner for best actress. It was dinner in a semi-private room at a Beverly Hills hotel.
By then, not yet 30, I had been in the company of a number of show-biz luminaries. None was as daunting as this "assignment." Those of us of a certain age had grown up with what seemed to be an everyday sense of Liz Taylor and what she was doing. Her artistic achievements were freely associated with her private life, as though there could have been one.
Taylor's status circa early '77 was, perhaps, well, "circular." Much was being made of "Night Music" bringing the actress an improbable singing role; much more, literally and, ahem, figuratively, was being written about her periodic weight gains and losses, to say nothing of an ever-growing list of afflictions that could've sustained a few seasons of "E.R."
Far from daunting, the evening was delightful. This, no doubt, had a lot to do with the fact that the actress and the AP writer had known one another for years. I think the reason for my last-minute invitation from a movie-studio flack I knew had to do with a late cancellation by an LA Times writer.
Taylor was, in turns, funny, bawdy, expansive and, oddly, modest: nothing like the protective, often defensive nature displayed by lesser show-biz luminaries. A screenwriter friend who had met her had told be to expect her to be “shorter than you’d think but with an inordinate-sized head,” which proved true. I also knew enough about the Taylor legend to try to assess the supposed violet color of eyes that weren’t particularly visible in the dim light.
I tried to carry on as though two hours with one of the major newsmakers of the 20th century was just another night at the diner. I also audio-taped every last word.
The following Sunday I recalled the relatively unspectacular experience in a P-I piece. It was strictly an interview-oriented story; my review would appear later.
Monday morning I got a call from Taylor’s publicist, who had said (and had needed to say) virtually nothing during the dinner. The woman obviously was upset about what I'd written and I asked for something specific.
Well, she said, (I paraphrase from memory but the gist is accurate) you quote Ms. Taylor as referring to herself as “Old Chunko.”
Guilty as charged, I responded, recalling Taylor making, uh, light of certain press characterizations of her weight-gains.
Well, the publicist insisted, Ms. Taylor never said that.
Actually, Taylor had used the expression and, to this day (her dying day, I guess), I’ve never heard the phrase used again.
Two things, I said to the caller: One, she did use the expression and I’ll play it back for you on tape if you want. Two, and maybe more importantly, you need to realize that up here in Seattle I only have on a good day about 27 readers so it’s not like my quoting her in a self-deprecating reference to her alleged weight gains is going to jeopardize her career.
The publicist then hung up. Taylor's career survived "A Little Night Music" and, for better or worse, she didn't stop making news until March 23, 2011.