By Daniel M. Ryan
It may seem odd to mention the recently-deceased Dame Elizabeth Taylor and the very much alive Paris Hilton in the same breath. Liz Taylor was one of the greatest film actors ever. She got her start as a child star and made the transition to adult starhood that few child stars can. Dame Elizabeth had a natural poise that delayed her child-star career because she wasn't juvenile enough for normal roles. Her natural poise served her very well in her breakaway role as the star of National Velvet (1944.) Her mastery of the profession earned her the nickname "One-Shot Liz." If it began as a jealous jape at her success with National Velvet, it turned into something clearly different when she showed what consummate skill she had. The nickname referred to her ability to get a scene right in a single take.
Her poise and her mastery both showed when she played a game that brought her some mirth. Sweeping in to a room, acting regally, she always got treated as if she were a real dignitary. Then, she cackled. What better way to show an honest pride in one's talents?
Her cackling pointed to another salubrious side to her: her feet were on the ground. Despite world fame, despite her AIDS activism and numerous works of charity, despite her Damehood, she never took on airs she couldn't live up to. Born in the middle class, she never lost her sense of social realism. A true professional, she knew that her masterful talent at portraying giantesses meant she was a top thespian. She never let her fame and glamour go to her head.
It's true that she led a chequered personal life; there are not many people with eight marriages under their belt. For her time, she was an envelope-pusher in the area of sexual mores. She wasn't even close to the ideal of one marriage for life.
In addition, she had quite the artistic temperament. That temperament cost her permanence with her true love, Richard Burton.
Of course, these outbursts were forgiven her. Not only because of her talent, but also because she lived in a fishbowl few have experienced. When she and Mr. Burton fought, the words they hurled spanned the world. Had she impossibly been granted the same privacy ordinary people take for granted, we might have seen her as the nice and genuinely good-hearted person she normally was.
Ms. Hilton makes for quite a contrast, although there are some similarities. Dame Elizabeth was born into the middle classes, while Ms. Hilton was born to the purple. Although she is not listed in the Social Register, she is the great-granddaughter of the original Hilton magnate. Her polish does show. In one respect, she comes off better than Dame Elizabeth. Although she's basically a dabbler in the arts, she doesn't have the same artistic temperament that Elizabeth Taylor the consummate actress had. The only story featuring Ms. Hilton's temperament took place in the jail cell in which she spent several days. Instead of angry, she became inconsolably and volubly upset; she had to be removed and her sentence changed to home confinement. To my knowledge, she has never had an incident of public anger like Dame Elizabeth had.
That's the result of her poise. Upper-class people are raised to act as if they too were in a fishbowl. Unlike thespians and other celebrities, though, they're also raised to squelch anything off-kilter in their behaviour. Rather than shrugging off embarrassments, they tend to avoid them and deeply regret any outbursts. This includes private as well as public outbursts, which tend to be treated as the same in kind.
As a result, there's an easy way to spot someone who's genuinely upper class. In speech, they tend to be affected, orotund or remote. That's what assuming that every move is watched does to a person. Their personal letters tend to be somewhere between a bulletin board posting and a diplomatic communiqué. The same detachment, from the same upbringing.
Ms. Hilton is actually quite good at showing she has the common touch, but her poise does show too. Remember her tongue-in-cheek response to the McCain campaign ad that invoked her name as a bad influence? It's hard to imagine Britney Spears responding in the same way.
Despite her poise, she has a shamelessness that Dame Elizabeth lacked. In Sinclair Lewis' novel Babbitt, when Sir Gerald Doak visited Zenith, the truly upper class residents of the town were wise enough to keep a respectful distance. It was only the haplessly upper-middle-class George F. Babbitt who got chummy with him. In terms of British royalty and aristocracy, it was Elizabeth Taylor who refrained from getting familiar. On the other hand, we have Ms. Hilton trying to publicly cadge an invite to the upcoming Royal Wedding – long after all the invitations were sent out.
Which of the two – the middle class Elizabeth Taylor or the upper-class Paris Hilton – most resembles George Babbitt?
We've Changed With The Times, All Right
Dame Taylor's heyday was a time when upper-class people were solid, if stolid, and the values they upheld were seriously emulated by ordinary people. Rather than grumbling at the need to put on the Sunday suit and the hurtin' shoes, ordinary men were glad to dress up each morning. Ordinary women were glad to dress to the nines too. Etiquette was seriously studied on the side. Interlaced with the family values of those now-scorned '50s sitcoms were middle-class folks acting genuinely refined. It was a time when self-improvement was sought not only for ambition's sake but also for its own sake. Parent-teacher associations were enforcers of high educational standards. They weren't disguised lobby groups for getting little Madison the A she needs to get into an upscale college. People like Tucker Max were openly scorned as dissolute wastrels, and there were very few of them. They were as secretive as a stockbroker with an LSD habit would be.
Nowadays, what used to undergird uplift has all been successfully debunked. (I'm sure you know where the debunkers are perched.) As a result, we live in a decadent time. It may be a little unfair of me to lump in Ms. Hilton with such decadence queens as Lindsay Lohan, but she does swim in the same stream. Although she got wide notice for a sex tape that was never supposed to be released to the public – in essence, she got celebrity status through her privacy being invaded – she does have a definite shamelessness that pokes through her poise.
Thankfully for her and her peers, they've been pegged with the catchy name "celebutantes." Over in Europe, where a similar phenomenon emerged in the 1970s, celebutante likesakes were known as "Eurotrash."