Liz and the Gossips

updated 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On the day of her first wedding (seven weddings ago, that is to say) Elizabeth Taylor was 18 and a certified beauty on the brink of screen legend. More then 3,000 fans lined the streets outside the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, where Taylor would wed Nicky Hilton, 23, the son of millionaire hotel magnate Conrad Hilton. It was 5 p.m. on May 6, 1950 and inside the Catholic church the cream of Tinsel Town, including Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Spencer Tracy and Debbie Reynolds, watched the couple exchange vows and a smooch so long and impassioned that Monsignor Patrick J. Cancannon had to break it up.

Two prize aisle seats, usually reserved for family and close friends, were occupied by Hollywood royalty. For Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, the undisputed queens of movie-land muckraking, such attention was the norm. Elizabeth's star-struck mother, Sara Taylor, had trained her daughter from childhood to toady to what Liz would later refer to as "these trolls." Learning the names of Louella and Hedda's dogs, Jimmie and Wolfie, was as crucial as mastering the alphabet or the art of the close-up.

At the reception for 600 at the Bel Air Country Club, Elizabeth was the dewy-eyed epitome of the young bride, but not blind to her duties. Elizabeth sought out Hedda to whisper a quote in her ear. Spotting Louella, she hurried across the room to share another intimacy. Each had to be shown special favor before the 14-week European honeymoon could commence.

Seven months later Taylor's marriage would be over. Louella and Hedda, who had complained in their columns of Hilton's gambling and playboy antics, chorused their "I-told-you-sos." Liz braved their insults silently when they warned her of Michael Wilding because of his age, his hairpiece and, according to Hedda, his homosexuality. But she married him anyway. Both Parsons and Hopper never forgave Liz for snatching Eddie Fisher (husband No. 4) away from their favorite, Debbie Reynolds.

"They were bitches and that's it," says Liz. "I once opened up to Hedda, and she stuck a knife in my ribs. That taught me." Still, Taylor saves her biggest salvos for Louella. "She was dumpy, dowdy and dedicated to nastiness. Forget anybody that stood in her way. And her irritating. You just wanted to smack her."

Liz comes close ("in my own quiet way") to doing just that in CBS' Malice in Wonderland, a two-hour TV movie airing this Sunday (May 12) in which Taylor portrays Louella (Jane Alexander plays Hedda) as neglectful wife, cruel mother and gorgon of gossip.

Taylor, now 53, clearly knows these games, and her acting has a revenger's relish. "It was the title of the movie that first attracted me," says Liz. "Malice in Wonderland—that says it all about Hollywood." Taylor seems willing to go further than the script, which fudges the more pungent facts about the lives of Parsons and Hopper (see page 132). Liz had her dentist devise a plate to simulate Louella's false teeth, but producer Jay Benson rejected the idea as "too much." Why deglamorize the newly glamorized Liz? A few years ago, Taylor would have been in perfect shape to play the roly-poly Parsons. "To do her right, I'd have to put back on 50 pounds," she laughs. "I'm not ready to do that."

Decked out in costumes by Dynasty's Nolan Miller, Taylor and Alexander project an image of surface glamour far from the reality of pudgy Parsons and horsey Hedda. But Taylor insists they've gotten the essentials right. Liz's Louella represents all the gossips who've taken potshots at her career, men and weight. By 1966 Hedda was dead and Louella retired, but the press was still firing at Liz.

Taylor fought back by trying to laugh at herself. Returning to the screen in 1980 for The Mirror Crack'd (her most recent film), Liz spoke this immortal line into a looking glass—"Bags, bags, go away, come again on Doris Day." The gossips weren't disarmed. Taylor's critical fortunes remained as up and down as her weight. The tabloids had tongues wagging about her drinking and dismissed the men she dated as "come-down consorts."

It's doubtful Louella or Hedda had ever dished the dirt so viciously. Depressed, Taylor checked into the Betty Ford Clinic last year to be treated for alcoholism and drug addiction. There, in group therapy, she faced her toughest critics yet: "People call you everything...all your gimmicks and tricks are stripped away...That's when you learn who you are."

For Taylor, that group experience has diminished the power of gossip to hurt. No longer are columnists tied to powerful studios and able to demand fealty. They can say what they like, but so can Liz. In Malice in Wonderland she exorcises the ghosts of Parsons and Hopper by laughing at them. "There are no more Louellas and Heddas," she says. "I think it's a good thing."

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