Ahead of Oscars, Camille Paglia says Grandeur and Glamour of Old Hollywood is Gone

The social critic and author of the upcoming ‘Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism,’ writes that Elizabeth Taylor’s 1961 win was “a huge cultural watershed, a prefiguration of the coming sexual revolution,” which predated a new generation of “hip, smart and cynical” stars.

by Camille Paglia

As a child, I had two pagan high holy days every year. The first was Halloween, where I advertised my transgender soul by masquerading as a matador, a Roman soldier, Napoleon or Hamlet. The second was Oscar night, when Hollywood put its dazzling glamour on heady display for the whole world.

As I was growing up in the drearily conformist 1950s and early ’60s, it was hard to find information about popular culture, which wasn’t taken seriously. Deep-think European art films were drawing tiny coteries of intellectuals to small, seedy theaters, but flamboyant mainstream Hollywood was still dismissed as crass, commercial trash.

Confidential magazine, a splashy rag specializing in steamy innuendo, was my main news source about all things Hollywood. I avidly followed the lurid adventures of my favorite movie star, Elizabeth Taylor, as she breezily acquired and shed husbands at the drop of a hat. Eventually, my collection of Taylor clippings and photos reached 599.

As a brash Italian-American oppressed by the postwar cult of cheerful, girly blondeness, I celebrated when the voluptuous, brunette Taylor stole singer Eddie Fisher from that petite juggernaut of peppy blonde niceness, Debbie Reynolds. Much later, I learned to deeply respect the indomitable spunk, professionalism and craft of Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds, but at the time, I darkly viewed them as ruthless tyrants of an ossified WASP establishment. Most of the country automatically took Debbie’s side in the 1958 Fisher scandal, a sympathy stoked by her shrewd posing for an endless series of upbeat, homey photos with her two small children, Carrie and Todd. Her adulterous rival was publicly excoriated as a vixen and tramp, a heartless home-wrecker.

This was the backstory to the supreme Oscar moment of my lifetime — when Elizabeth Taylor, having just survived a near-death tracheotomy during an episode of pneumonia in London, won the award for best actress for her spectacular performance as a sleek Manhattan call girl in Butterfield 8 (1960). Three years after her treacherous adultery, Hollywood was formally forgiving her and welcoming her back to the fold.

Watching the Oscars on TV in upstate New York, I was in near-delirium at Taylor’s unexpected win. My breathless state of ecstasy lasted for the entire next school day, where I felt like I was floating on a cloud. In retrospect, I realize that Taylor’s triumph was indeed a huge cultural watershed, a prefiguration of the coming sexual revolution.

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SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter