Love Letters

2007, Paramount Theatre

Elizabeth Taylor arrives to perform in "Love Letters".

BY A.R. GURNEY
DIRECTED BY JOHN TILLINGER

World AIDS Day Benefit Performance
1 December 2007
Paramount Studios, Hollywood, California

CAST

Melissa Gardner … DAME ELIZABETH TAYLOR
Andrew Makepeace Ladd III … JAMES EARL JONES

PRODUCTION

Producers … Konrad Leh and Miles Robinson
Production Supervisor … Kelley Kirkpatrick
Lighting Designer … Brian Gale
Stage Manager … Grayson Meritt
Dame Elizabeth’s Hair … José Eber
Dame Elizabeth’s Makeup … Francesca Tolot
Grooming for Mr. Jones … Helen Jeffers

On December 1, 2007 (World AIDS Day), Dame Elizabeth appeared onstage for the first time in twenty-four years in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, alongside friend James Earl Jones at the Paramount Theatre in Hollywood, which I was fortunate enough to attend. The play, which had been announced in Liz Smith’s column the previous August, was staged at the Paramount Theatre in Hollywood with the goal of raising one million dollars for The Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation. In a statement published in the program, Elizabeth wrote: “When I last acted on stage, I could not imagine ever doing so again. I also could not imagine a world of ignorance, denial and continuing death.” Tickets were priced at $2,500. Large donations were also given to the foundation from David Geffen, Paul Newman, Christie’s, Elton John, Hugh Hefner, and Elton John. The money that was raised was equally split between The Elizabeth Taylor Endowment Fund for the UCLA HIV/AIDS CARE Center and for acquiring mobile medical units for those living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Writers Guild of America, who were striking at the time, agreed to halt picketing at Paramount Studio’s for the evening of the performance. According the president Patric Verrone, their reason was that “this worthy event is happening solely through the efforts and underwriting of Dame Elizabeth Taylor, who is not only a longtime member of the Screen Actors Guild, but an outspoken supporter of the Writers Guild”. An appreciative Dame Elizabeth said, “The Writers Guild of America has shown great humanity, empathy and courage by allowing our little evening to move forward”.

For the evening’s performance, Dame Elizabeth appeared swathed in fur and an orange gown by Michael Kors, accented with coral, amethyst, and diamond Van Cleef & Arpels earrings from Richard Burton.

In the program, a letter from A.R. Gurney said: “I feel an extra shiver of hubris over tonight’s cast. I’ve already had the special pleasure of seeing Mr. Jones nail his part, but to see Elizabeth Taylor bring her beauty and talent to a role I’ve often dreamed of her playing is a consummation devoutly to be celebrated.” Gurney, in the audience that night, said that Dame Elizabeth had reservations about her role before going onstage. “But she came out and did it, and as the play continued, she grew into the part in a most amazing way. At the end the audience rose to its feet, and she, who had been in a wheelchair all evening, got up on her feet and applauded the audience. I’ve never seen that play work so well therapeutically before.”

Protesters were seen at the gates of Paramount Studios picketing the AIDS fundraiser, confirming that a misunderstanding of the disease still runs rampant, even in 2007. Commenting on them, Dame Elizabeth said: “Our traditions of free speech are to be revered and protected, and that extends even when a group uses this freedom to monger hatred of innocent people . . . this reminder that such ignorance and hatred of our fellow human beings forces us to redouble our efforts to address HIV/AIDS. Please pray for hearts that are filled with hatred . . . when the greatest need is God’s love.”

The evening was a huge success in terms of how much needed funds were raised for AIDS, and for Dame Elizabeth as an actress. Famous attendees included California’s First Lady, Mariah Shriver, and Dame Elizabeth’s friend and House of Taylor partner Kathy Ireland.