Broadway in recent years has become a used-star lot where older models are rolled out of the body shop and retailed for appallingly high prices. But in 1981 the most startling item on display was a brassily overdecorated 1932 Lizzie with a great set of violet lamps and power to burn. Long since consigned to the Hollywood junkyard, the well-upholstered runabout that's known as Elizabeth Taylor suddenly came roaring down the Great White Way in a revival of Lillian Hellman's 1939 melodrama The Little Foxes, and did she ever draw a crowd.
In short, a superstar has been reborn—something that doesn't happen very often to ladies who are chubby, Republican and 49. But then, sooner or later anything that can happen does happen to Miz Liz. She became a star at 12, and in 37 hyperactive years since National Velvet she has appeared in 55 feature films, acquired two Academy Awards (for Butterfield 8 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), perpetrated seven marriages to six famous men, produced and directed half a dozen big-budget sex scandals, and survived five all-but-fatal ailments ranging from double pneumonia to strangulation on a chicken bone.
But by 1976 Elizabeth Taylor was little more than a Fat Joke on the talk-show circuit. A gossip called her "QE3," and comedienne Joan Rivers sniggered that "her thighs are going condo." Marriage to Virginia millionaire John Warner, who last year won election to the U.S. Senate, reduced Liz to playing a supporting role in government while a few blocks away on Pennsylvania Avenue a retired sheriff in B Westerns had all the socko scenes.
So last year Liz was ready to listen when producer Zev Bufman offered her "the biggest salary ever paid on Broadway"—better than $50,000 a week. Though she had no stage experience, she took the dare. At a Florida fat farm she shed 40 pounds, and last March she wowed 'em at Washington's Kennedy Center before an SRO audience that included President and Mrs. Reagan.
On Broadway, where the play ran for five months and outgrossed every other hit in town, Liz put on two shows for the price of one: The Little Foxes and What Will Liz Do Next? On opening night she suddenly developed a 102.5° fever. But when the curtain went up she was grittily onstage and gave a first-night performance that won money reviews ("charm, grandeur...sex appeal...tidal force of pure personality"). A week later she collapsed with acute bronchitis and the play closed for eight days. The medical drama continued on Page One and ticket sales boomed.
Nominated for a Tony as Best Actress, Liz lost out to Jane (Piaf) Lapotaire, but she stole the show on TV when she took the stage to present the Best Musical Award and hilariously mangled one famous name after another. As film and TV offers rolled in, Liz made an offer of her own to appear in a cameo role on ABC's top-rated General Hospital. When she did, she drew a record 16 million soap opera viewers.
As always in Taylor's career, success was succeeded by scandal. In three fall books—Kitty Kelley's biography of Liz, another of Richard Burton and a ghost-written "autobiography" of ex-husband Eddie Fisher—all the old tittle was tattled again. Liz took it in stride. "I am a boisterous, raucous, down-to-earth, no-nonsense lady," she announced. "I live life with a zest." As her comeback year closed, rumors again flared that her marriage to Warner was collapsing. Meanwhile Liz prepared to open The Little Foxes in London, where she will get about town in a zestful gift from admirer Bufman: a $135,000 Rolls-Royce. There may be just one problem while she's in England. When commoners speak of Queen Elizabeth, it may no longer be clear which Elizabeth they mean.