In phone conversation with my teenaged son this morning I mentioned the sad news that Elizabeth Taylor had died and he innocently asked, "Who's that?"
Like most members of his generation, he has no recollection or knowledge of her incomparable glamour (her luminous still photo in a one-piece white bathing suit from "Suddenly Last Summer" will always raise pulse-rates among males of the species), her impressive acting achievements ("Butterfield 8," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and "Taming of the Shrew" still hold up as dazzling performances) or her sensational scandals (the melandcholy details of eight -- count 'em, eight --marriages hardly register as shocking in the era of Charlie Sheen).
Though her later years included generous commitments to charity (including work for AIDS awareness that won her an honorary Oscar) and occasional headlines as a wife of a U.S. Senator from Virginia or a platonic pal of Michael Jackson's, her status as a first rank celebrity ended with her second divorce from Richard Burton (yes, there were two of them) in 1976.
My brother (and sometime co-author) Harry Medved helpfully suggests the Angelina Jolie analogy for the under-40 crowd that can't appreciate the fascination of baby boomers with Liz Taylor. Like Angelina, Liz was incredible to gaze upon (in both still photos and on screen), a surprisingly capable (and Oscar-winning) actress for a performer who could have relied on looks alone, a committed contributor to worthy causes around the world, a vulnerable sufferer from various maladies and misfortunes, but invariably best-known for her off-screen romantic entanglements.
Angelina played the romantic lead in the most celebrated celebrity love triangle of our era ("stealing" Brad from the sweet, sainted Jennifer), just as Liz got cast in the home-wrecker role for snaking the charismatic crooner Eddie Fisher from the sweet, sainted Debbie Reynolds, before dumping the singer for the Shakespearean-- the esteemed (and married) Richard Burton, perhaps the most acclaimed thespian of the era.
The recitation of these complicated connections in 2011 seems musty, dated, almost perversely old-fashioned; many sex-symbols of today may plunge into sizzling connections with seven or more partners but it's inconceivable that any contemporary star would end up marrying every one of them. (Note to new generation: Angelina and Brad, for all their celebrated passion, haven't yet married even once).
Taylor, in other words, became a symbol of passionate romance rather than sexual indulgence, of crazy love more than heedless lust. The sad outcome of all the marriages also carried the sobering lesson that passion, no matter how exalted or beautifully dressed up with lavish weddings and glorious jewelry, most often burns with a self-consuming flame. For all those men who adored her and the women who envied her incandescent violet eyes, the news about her romantic failures proved oddly reassuring when it came to evaluating our own more pedestrian and less tumultuous lives.
She also became a reminder of passing time and cruel mortality long before her own passing: the cruel jokes by Joan Rivers (and many others) about her weight issues in the last half of her life carried special resonance for Baby Boomers who could remember the smoldering nymph in the white bathing suit, or even for an older generation who recalled the willowy twelve-year old of the heart-warming horse story "National Velvet" or the barely-old enough daughter in the lavish wedding dress in the original "Father of the Bride." If even Liz Taylor aged and put on a few pounds, we could feel better about the fact that we, as ordinary mortals, suffered a similar fate.
But if her visible aging over the years (with her last significant movie role as an elegant, has-been stage star in "A Little Night Music" in 1977) may have reassured a generation about our own process of growing older, her final exit today unavoidably hurts. Nothing brings a more painful reminder of your own advanced position in life's journey than the passing of a world figure who was significant in your youth but seems shockingly insignificant to all those who now hold pride of place on the sunny side of the generation gap.
Michael Medved is a film critic, conservative commentator and host of the nationally syndicated radio program "The Michael Medved Show" (3 - 6 p.m. ET). For more on Michael Medved, click here.