Elizabethan Experiences

I have had the pleasure of being in the presence of Dame Elizabeth Taylor on two occasions. The first was at the BAFTA/LA Britannia Awards on November 10, 2005, when Dame Elizabeth was awarded the Britannia Award for Artistic Excellence in International Entertainment. The second was at the performance of Love Letters, which saw Dame Elizabeth take the stage for the first time in nearly a quarter century to raise over one million dollars for AIDS.

Britannia Awards (November 10, 2005)

I have been lucky over the past couple years of being able to see many of my favourite stars, especially those in the music industry. For instance, last August I was able to meet Destiny’s Child—Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle. But no matter who I saw, it was never good enough. I wanted to see my favourite—Dame Elizabeth Taylor. I knew, however, that there was little chance of that happening. It’s not like in the early 90s when she would appear at AIDS benefit concerts. But that didn’t even matter as Elizabeth’s public appearances were minimal and relegated to just a handful over the past two years.

On July 21, 2005, it was announced that Elizabeth would be honoured yet again, this time by BAFTA/LA’s Britannia Awards for Artistic Excellence in International Entertainment. Along with Dame Elizabeth; Tom Cruise, Mike Newell, and Ronald Neame would also be honoured at the ceremony on November 10, 2005 (coincidentally the anniversary of Richard Burton’s birthday) at the Beverly Hilton. My first thought was how thrilled I was for Elizabeth that she would again be recognized for her considerable talents. My second thought was could I go? I immediately searched for BAFTA/LA’s web site, and then sent a quick e-mail asking if tickets would be available for this event. A few days later I received a response, saying that I would be notified when tickets were obtainable. But I was worried. Did they know I wasn’t a BAFTA/LA member and just a fan? And if they did, would I even be able to afford a ticket? Also, since Elizabeth had not been in the best of health, would she even attend? Several weeks went by. I actually didn’t give the awards much more thought as I didn’t want to get my hopes up. At the end of August I received an e-mail from Michael Teta Associates with the ticket order form. The tickets ranged in price from $175 for BAFTA member tickets to $50,000 for “Platinum Most Preferred Seating”. I purchased my ticket on August 31 and decided to go with just the individual ticket for $300.

It was all set. I had my ticket, and now all I had to do for the next couple months was to worry. Would Elizabeth’s health permit her to show up to the ceremony? Only time would tell. But that didn’t stop me from checking with my “sources”. I found out from a friend with “connections” that Dame Elizabeth was really hoping to attend the Britannia Awards. She holds a special place in her heart for BAFTA because they had recognized Richard Burton for his work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, something that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hadn’t done. Another positive was that Elizabeth had made a rare appearance at the 13th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Oscar Party on her 73rd birthday, only several months before. However, after that party, over the next few months, many stories (particularly from the relentless British rags) were stating that Elizabeth was on her deathbed. You can imagine how the stories would dampen the spirits of someone hoping to see her accept an award in only a couple months! I was also discouraged when Liz Smith stated in her column that it was unlikely that Elizabeth would attend. However, soon after, Elizabeth was seen at a restaurant with her House of Taylor Jewelry, Inc. business partner, Kathy Ireland. Could it be that things were starting to change in my favour? In addition, Liz Smith seemed to change her tune a couple weeks later when she said that Elizabeth would indeed attend, stating she “considers this night equivalent to a Command Performance.” However, hope came in abundance on November 4th when Elizabeth was on hand as UCLA named the Elizabeth Taylor Endowment Fund. It seemed like things were starting to look really good for me. But one still never knows.

After months of waiting, the big day finally came. I boarded my plane from Toronto destined for Los Angeles. This would be my second time in Los Angeles, and I was thrilled to be going back, though even more excited about getting a glimpse of Dame Elizabeth. I checked into my hotel, The Crescent; a beautiful boutique hotel in Beverly Hills, not too far from that night’s Britannia Awards at the Beverly Hilton. I passed away the hours before the awards by catching up with some of my old favourites on TV until it was time to get ready.

It was finally time for the awards. I went down into the lounge in my black suit, black shirt, and black tie and was immediately taken with how The Crescent was transformed for nighttime. There were candles dotting the staircase and the tables in the lounge which also doubles for a restaurant. It was already dusk and not a moment later my taxi was waiting to take me to the Beverly Hilton, to see my idol—Dame Elizabeth Taylor.

It was a short drive to the Beverly Hilton from The Crescent. As soon as the taxi pulled up to the massive Beverly Hilton (in such contrast to my small hotel), I instantly saw the red carpet set up, with a backdrop of BAFTA/LA Britannia Awards, and Cunard (the events sponsor) logos. I hoped that in just a short time Dame Elizabeth would make her way down the red carpet. I checked in with those attending to the envelopes enclosing our table information. The lady handed me table number card, which was number 237, a bidding number for the silent auction, and a pass for the post show reception. It was wonderful seeing the ladies dressed up in their glamorous evening gowns and the men in suits. I mingled a bit with other attendees who were all very friendly. Soon after I arrived, the media and photographers began to gather around the red carpet. I recognized Jann Carl from TV’s Entertainment Tonight. Not long after I saw Shirley MacLaine enter through the same doors I had. I made my way into where the silent auction was being held and hors d’oeuvres were being served. Only a few things being auctioned interested me, and unfortunately there was nothing Dame Elizabeth Taylor related to bid on. After viewing the items available, I decided to take a walk onto the balcony overlooking the pool. Shirley MacLaine was there having a conversation with some old friend. Although I wanted to say hello and tell her how much I enjoy her work, I didn’t want to interrupt her conversation. At one point I glanced over, and Shirley was looking straight at me!

Finally, after what seemed to be forever, the curtains were pulled back to reveal the ballroom with dozens of beautifully-set tables ready for the awards. I walked in and found my table, number 237 which was to the right of the stage. A pretty good view, I thought to myself. On each guest’s plate was a book titled Stars Aboard, with, you guessed it—a young Elizabeth Taylor on the cover! The book detailed the many stars who have been guests on one of many of Cunard’s ocean liners (the sponsor of the Britannia Awards). On each guest’s chair was a BAFTA/LA bag filled with loads of goodies including gift certificates for the spa, haircuts, hair spray, nail polish, bath salts, Mission Impossible, MI:2, War of the Worlds, and The Horse’s Mouth DVDs (the first three Tom Cruise films, and the latter film directed by Ronald Neame; both recipients of awards that night), an issue of Variety magazine detailing the awards, a BAFTA/LA Cunard Britannia Awards program (filled with great Elizabeth Taylor photos and essays on her career), a leather writing pad, a star shaped paperweight from Rosenthal, and a bottle of Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume. Everyone at my table was so friendly, and impressed that I came all that way from Canada to see Dame Elizabeth. But I’m sure any true fan can certainly understand why I did it.

I was starting to feel a little disappointed because at that point Dame Elizabeth had not yet arrived. After a short while, the awards commenced and the host Craig Ferguson stepped out and began cracking jokes immediately. He thought it was wonderful that BAFTA/LA was honouring three British icons of film—and Tom Cruise. He also joked about how this was a great year for Dame Elizabeth, as Cleopatra finally broke even. Then 94 year old director and producer, Ronald Neame, (The Poseidon Adventure) was given his Britannia Award, with an introduction by Jon Voigt. Mr. Neame’s speech was great, and I quickly discovered how funny he is. He joked about how he has outlived all the doctors who told him to quit drinking if he wanted to live longer. Neame said the key to his longevity is vodka at lunch and two or three large scotches at night. He also said that he felt like he only was there as an overture to Dame Elizabeth Taylor.

After Ronald accepted his award, many people started to get up for a washroom break or to mingle with friends as many thought dinner was about to be served. Emcee Craig Ferguson told everyone to sit back down as there going to be a change of plans. No sooner did he say this when a man asked everyone on the right side of our table to push in our chairs. I turned around and there to the left of me was the woman I had idolized and worshiped over the past 11 years, since I was 8—Dame Elizabeth Taylor. She sat regally in her wheelchair a foot away from me surrounded by her entourage of friends, family and assistants. Dame Elizabeth and I made eye contact almost instantly. I’m sure at this point my eyes glazed over and my jaw dropped. All I could muster out was a very enthusiastic “HI!”! Dame Elizabeth returned the greeting with an equally enthusiastic “HI!” which was so sincere and gracious. Although I suppose I will never be sure, I hope Dame Elizabeth knew what that moment meant to me. How she has been there for me for so long. I couldn’t believe it. She was right there. The lady beside me tapped Dame Elizabeth on the shoulder and said a couple words to her that I can’t remember. Dame Elizabeth beamed back a smile to her. I believe, from what I could see, that I was the only person Dame Elizabeth spoke to on her way backstage. It was all too much for me to take in; a moment that I wouldn’t be able to fully understand the importance of for days to come. Her beauty was so indescribable—truly like nothing I have ever seen before. People who have seen Dame Elizabeth in person can attest to that. Even with all her health problems and the fact that she is 73 years old—I consider her to be the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. That smile. That famous profile of hers which conjures up so many magazine covers from the past. She radiated so much Hollywood glamour and was dressed so elegantly with a silky wrap that draped over this Hollywood goddess like spun sugar. I was in the presence of greatness for that moment, on a high that I’m not sure will ever be entirely matched. It was also complete fate that I was seated where I was. If I was almost anywhere else in the ballroom, I would have missed the oppourtunity of speaking to her. At this point, all the worrying that I had been doing over the past couple of months had been alleviated from my mind, and I could just sit back and enjoy Dame Elizabeth’s speech and whatever the rest of the evening had to offer.

Several minutes later, Dennis Hopper said a few words about Dame Elizabeth, his movie mom in Giant. He related a story about how when he was younger he had such a crush on Elizabeth and named his pillow “Liz”. Dennis introduced some films clips of some of Dame Elizabeth’s greatest and most memorable films. I admit that during these clips I fought hard (though unsuccessfully!) to hold back tears. After the film clips, the lovely Shirley MacLaine also told some stories before she introduced Dame Elizabeth. She told us how she has been friends with Dame Elizabeth for over 50 years and how she introduced Dame Elizabeth and Mike Todd. Shirley also said that Dame Elizabeth is misunderstood in that she isn’t the glamour queen that her reputation suggests. Shirley told the story of how once Dame Elizabeth cleaned up after Shirley’s dog when it made a mess on the floor. Apparently, all Dame Elizabeth ever wanted was a cottage by the sea with a dog and a man. She also said how amazing it was how Elizabeth has endured when she has known such great tragedy. Shirley said that when she reads that Dame Elizabeth has died, she wants a second and third opinion because Dame Elizabeth just keeps coming back. She then introduced the lady herself, Dame Elizabeth Taylor.

Dame Elizabeth entered the stage, by way of wheelchair again, to a standing ovation fit for the queen of Hollywood she is and always will be. For some reason the teleprompter displayed her speech upside-down, which was quickly corrected. Dame Elizabeth started off by saying in honour of the Britishness of the evening, in her best cockney English accent, “How are you all, you jolly lot?” From that point on she had the audience in stitches and constant applause. She joked about her Dameship and how she has been a broad all her life. She also jokingly revealed her dislike for the fact that the Dameship in particular didn’t seem to have any influence in America or with the “Yanks” as she put it. Early on in her speech Dame Elizabeth requested a handkerchief “preferably with lace”; “and lilac,” added Shirley, which had the entire audience in hysterics. She thanked the person who handed her the handkerchief and noted how beautiful it was. (Her wish had been granted, it was lined with lace!) Dame Elizabeth stated how long it had been since she had thought of herself as a serious actress and was very honoured that BAFTA/LA and her peers decided to honour her. She also said how disappointed she was that having been nominated seven times, Richard had never won an Oscar. Many in the audience were surprised that this great actor had never been honoured by the Academy. New Age Shirley added that she’d talk to Richard later that night! Upon closing her speech, Dame Elizabeth said how much she has enjoyed her career in films and how happy she has been. Her last words to the audience were that while films have been and are great fun, the most important thing in life is for everyone to help and care for one another. She then reiterated her appreciation for being given the Britannia Award for Artistic Excellence in International Entertainment and how proud she was at the honour, to which she received more thunderous applause and another standing ovation as she exited the stage.

I was more than thrilled. I couldn’t believe how funny and beautiful she was. A group gathered near the wing of the stage where Dame Elizabeth was making her exit, and a few at my table insisted that I try and introduce myself to Dame Elizabeth. After all, they said, when would I get that oppourtunity again? I rushed down to the stage and noticed at least two of Dame Elizabeth’s grandchildren. One was Naomi Wilding and the other was the grandson who had accompanied her to Elton’s Oscar Party back in February. Both had the elegance of their legendary grandmother. I got a quick glimpse of Elizabeth from several feet away as they were carrying her wheelchair down the steps of the side of the stage. Again, I was in awe of that profile view. Elizabeth waved and chatted to a couple people and made her exit backstage. I walked in a ways but was asked not to go any further by a security guard. Even though I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself, I still had the satisfaction of our greeting earlier in the evening which was more than I could have ever asked for.

I still couldn’t believe what had happened. It was still so inconceivable that I had just spoken to this woman moments before, something I thought I would never have the great privilege of doing. I can’t even begin to express what this lady has meant to me over the years. I think words will forever fail me in that respect. Everyone at my table was so thrilled that I got to say hello to Dame Elizabeth. One lady remarked, not knowing that one of Tom Cruise’s relatives who looked almost identical to him was seated at our table, “now that you’ve seen the legendary Liz Taylor, you have to sit through that joke Tom Cruise!” I’m not sure how he felt about that remark or if he even heard it!

I was still on cloud nine as dinner was being served. Our dinner consisted of a selection of fine red and white wines, Kabocha (Japanese) squash bisque, breast of chicken filled with goat cheese and spinach, red peppercorn sauce, mashed potatoes, asparagus spears, baby carrots, eggplant with pesto and red pepper strip. Dessert was Dolce de Leche ice cream truffle –gelato with a dark caramel centre, dipped in chocolate. Everything was delicious. Several other celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett were on hand to present Mike Newell with his Britannia Award. Sir Anthony Hopkins presented an award to Tom Cruise.

As the night drew to a close, I continued to reflect on how lucky I was. I was proud that I took the chance that she may not be there and went anyway. It had clearly paid off and ended by being so much more than I could have ever imagined. I never expected the day would come when I would be able to say I saw Dame Elizabeth Taylor in person, much less that I had exchanged a greeting with her. Although I was in the presence of true greatness that night, Dame Elizabeth’s greatness shone leaps and bounds above anyone else in that room—a true Hollywood legend, and above all, a great human being.