AP Film Studies: Liz Taylor’s Birthday Party/AIDS Benefit

Giant is a reminder of the icon’s philanthropy.


Willamette Week
By AP Kryza
March 8, 2016

George Stevens’ 1956 classic Giant is the very definition of a sprawling American epic. Clocking in at an ass-numbing three-plus hours, the film is a portrait of a changing Texas landscape from the early to mid-20th century, a starkly romantic film of huge ambition that has more than earned its reputation as one of the era’s most important films.

Beneath that layer of grandeur, though, lies the specter of two of Hollywood’s greatest tragedies: the too-early death of James Dean and the closeted life of star Rock Hudson, whose death at age 59 made him one of the first—and most public—stars to die of AIDS complications.

It’s the latter loss that makes this year’s Elizabeth Taylor birthday celebration all the more poignant. Hosted by Laela Wilding, a Portland graphic designer who also happens to be Taylor’s granddaughter, the celebration doubles as a way to carry on the star’s philanthropic mission.

Wilding previously screened Taylor touchstones like National Velvet and the Stevens-directed A Place in the Sun, but this year is more personal. The event will benefit two HIV-oriented groups (Our House of Portland and Nkosi’s Haven in South Africa), honoring Taylor’s legacy of AIDS activism.

“My grandmother was a great friend to many of her leading men, and was very close with both James Dean and Rock Hudson,” Wilding says, reminiscing about watching the film with her grandmother as a child. “Decades after Giant, my grandmother and Rock were still great friends. When Rock revealed that he had AIDS in 1985, Elizabeth galvanized Hollywood to get informed and get involved in the fight against AIDS.”

Taylor’s legacy of activism is storied: She was one of the first celebrities to dive into AIDS philanthropy when the disease emerged. She created the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, galvanized Hollywood and took politicians to task for downplaying the epidemic, making her activism as embedded in her public persona as White Diamonds and tabloid gossip.

In hindsight, Giant becomes something more: an origin story for Taylor’s fiery later years. It’s a classic tale of American ambition and tragedy carried by Hudson and Taylor, a pair who met at the peak of their cinematic glory and whose legacies are forever entwined both on- and offscreen. You can see the affection these cinematic greats shared for each other each time they lock eyes in the film. Knowing the outcome of their real-life relationship makes the already swelling film that much more affecting.