The Hollywood legend was the ultimate symbol of America's cultural influence that percolated down to small towns far, far away.
The film Cleopatra opened in two theaters in Vijayawada, a teeming commercial town some 150 miles south of Hyderabad in southern India. Back in 1965 or '66 (as I recall), when the film finally made its way to India, it was unusual for a foreign film to open in more than one theater, even in this movie-mad town (that too, with specially enhanced ticket prices for this expensive film). Large cutouts of Taylor, attired as the Egyptian queen in an ornate and intricate golden dress, were on display across the town. The movie was widely anticipated with its trailer playing for months before the actual opening. The advance publicity paid off and the movie ran for more than six weeks at a time when the average run for even Hollywood blockbusters was two or three weeks. After Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor's name recognition in India probably shot up to rival that of President John F. Kennedy's. No one in international cinema came close, even Marilyn Monre (blondes anyway are an acquired taste in non-Western cultures).
As an 8 or 9-year-old, I was enthralled by the spectacle and drama of the film which probably contributed to my lifelong obsession with Hollywood films (later in life, I was miffed to learn that critics had rubbished the film that had captivated me as a child). It is just a coincidence that I'm reading Stacy Schiff's biography of Cleopatra now and trying unsuccessfully to believe her assertion that the real consort of Julius Caesar was not as beautiful as Taylor. Schiff has to do better than that to erase the image of Taylor as the Goddess of Alexandria.
But Taylor was even more than that.
If the 1950s and 1960s were the Golden Age of Hollywood epics, Taylor symbolized all that is Hollywood. With her beauty and glamour, not to mention the endless exposes of her private life, she epitomized American cultural influence even in a country in which few spoke English and fewer watched English-language films. At least for my generation, which witnessed India meander through several phases in international outlook -- from a pro-American era that ended with the Kennedy administration to the anti-American/anti-imperialistic phase that withered only during the Clinton years -- Hollywood remained a cultural thread that bound the English-educated intelligentsia with America. When the political influence of popular American culture in the non-Western world is finally examined, we'll probably come to know how much Taylor, who globalized American talent, glamour and celebrity lifestyle, contributed to the shaping of popular attitudes of at least a generation or two.
I sometimes sympathize with those who missed out on this era of movies and stars, including my own children, although I managed to make them see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Cleopatra on the plea that the films could come in handy for their English and History homework. Of course, they drew the line when it came to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which is distressing because that is a film in which Taylor reached the apex of her acting ability.
As we bid farewell to the grande dame of motion pictures and remember all the memorable movies she made, I wonder if she ever wanted to play alongside Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days. She would have made a great Anne.
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