Elizabeth Taylor in Iran

by Sara Israel

A week ago Friday, a friend and I embarked upon a LACMA adventure, in part because we were both curious to see its visiting exhibition, “Elizabeth Taylor in Iran.”

Five days later, she passed away.  Not our doing, of course.   But the chronology feels “really crazy and sad,” as my friend put it, and I agree with him.

In 1976, Ms. Taylor visited Iran with the photographer Firooz Zahedi, who was also her friend.  It was Ms. Taylor’s first and only visit to that country.  Iran is Mr. Zahedi’s home nation, though he had left there as a child.  On their trip together that summer, they took photographs, just for themselves, now shown publicly for the first time as this exhibit.

I had been looking forward to seeing the photos, but as soon as I was with them, I was uneasy.  At first I thought this was because I was witnessing something personal—something never “meant” to be displayed (though they are now with the photographer’s participation).  But upon landing on a photograph of Ms. Taylor in what the placard calls “a traditional tribal outfit,” I realized that my uneasiness stemmed from something else.

Oh. . . that “traditional tribal outfit.”  It might truly be an “outfit” for some, but in this context, let’s call a spade a spade:  It was a costume.  A costume followed in quick succession by another costume, one of Ms. Taylor dressed up as “an Oriental odalisque” (allowing me to learn a new word that day).  My immediate reaction was to condescend toward “times gone by.”  So culturally insensitive, I thought.  Most people know better than to do that now. But then notions of “Sex and the City 2” whizzed through my head (ugh, it’s true, but admitting it is the first step, right?), images of those ladies’ wardrobes horribly and uncomfortably “influenced” by their surroundings in Abu Dhabi.  Quite a larger-than-life/not real-life/meta-comparison, I know.  But still, evidence that when I reflect back 30+ years, I really shouldn’t condescend so much.

No, the costumes—regardless of the decade—were emblematic of some tangential uneasiness for me, and I finally landed on it:  If these photos were taken only to be personal, why do they feel so “performed?”

Maybe it’s unfair.  Maybe, when a camera’s present, an internationally successful photographer is always an internationally successful photographer.  And a world-renown actress and icon is always a world-renown actress and icon, putting on otherworldly costumes and unleashing her unparalleled eyes to bore straight through a lens.  Great actors are great actors because they are able to access parts of themselves and consider them in the theoretical (“What would I do if . .” or “What could I become if. . . “) and then translate that access into the characters they are portraying.  But that access—that ability to imagine yourself under so many conditions or iterations—is a double-edged sword, sometimes exciting, sometimes terrifying, perhaps depending on how you’re feeling about yourself when you wake up that morning.

“Elizabeth Taylor in Iran” is a fitting title for this exhibit not because the actress was visiting that country; it is fitting because, in these photos, she is clearly pondering, “Who would Elizabeth Taylor be in Iran?”

As her photographer, Firooz Zahedi, says about their trip, “She was having fun, playing this role.”

Sara Israel is a writer and director living in Los Angeles.
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3 responses to “Elizabeth Taylor in Iran

  1. Ooh, I love your observations and the thoughts behind them… and I wish I could have seen the exhibit. There is an imprint ( I think) left on most Hollywood attempts at cultural exchange. How interesting to see it in these “relics” of days past.

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  2. This is wonderful! Thank you Sara. Your honesty has engaged my wonderment and will make a point to see this. As I mourn the loss of my favorite actress, the greatest icon of glamour and vivacious ferocity I’ve ever witnessed, her vitality and willingness to challenge the “taboo” is what I respect the most about her work. As far as her as a person, I would never insult any of us to speak to the matter, as life is a mysterious journey for each of us to travel our own paths. As far as being an actress, you bring a remarkable question to the table. We can all stand to ask ourselves ” who would I be if…, what would I do if…, and what could I become if…” a little bit more.

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  3. Fascinating and Fantastic Sara! I wish I would have seen this exhibit! You nailed it on the head! We hear non-Actors saying all the time about Actors, “They’re just ON all the time!” -or- “I can never shut him/her off.” What a great example of this Actor “trait of being.” Great Actors cannot NOT get into that world! ~ Whatever “world” that be. Many, if not most, do not actually physically delve in in such “seemingly” eccentric ways as Madame Taylor. But, no doubt, the second that Actor walks into a new space, place, country, etc., etc., their mind has already transported them and begun their creative transformational work into a functional “fictional” character of that previously uncharted territory. For these awesome creators, the fun/work never stops! Great observation Sara, and notion so eloquently matched in tone! You ROCK!

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