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Excerpt: 'How To Be A Movie Star'

'How To Be A Movie Star' Book Cover

For once the sun overhead was the brightest object around. On a warm morning in September 2006, Elizabeth Taylor, seventy-four, left the diamonds at home and boarded a sightseeing boat, the Kainani, off the northern coast of Oahu. Wearing a baggy white t-shirt over a one-piece bathing suit, she gripped the arms of her black wheelchair tightly as the craft zipped out of Haleiwa Harbor. Slapping against the waves of the Pacific, the 32-foot Kainani was a far cry from the Kalizma, the floating palace with seven cabins and two staterooms on which Taylor had once navigated the world. But a leisurely cruise was not what the two-time Academy Award-winner had in mind.

Three miles out to sea, the Kainani arrived at what its captain called "the shark grounds." Not long before, on another excursion, Elizabeth had sat forlornly while her friends dropped off the side of the boat in a plexiglass cage to swim with Galapagos sharks. Alone on deck, she'd stewed; the sidelines had never been for her. So she'd insisted on another trip--and this time no one was going to stop her from going down.

In the months leading up to this day, the papers had been filled with tales of Elizabeth Taylor being "near death" or half-mad from Alzheimer's. She'd gone on Larry King Live to dispel the rumors, but she knew there were ways of making the point a bit more vividly. So, slowly and determinedly, she rose from that damn chair. Handed an eye mask, she followed instructions to spit into it so that the plastic wouldn't fog up underwater. Then she slipped the thing on and bit down on the snorkel. Pushing aides aside, she stepped into the ten-by-six-foot cage. Lured by the engine, the sharks were already circling. With a pull of a lever and a wave from the star, the cage slid below the surface of the ocean.

Of course, it wasn't the first time Elizabeth Taylor had gone head-to-head with sharks. She'd tangled with lots of them: demanding studio chiefs, overbearing directors, bluenose columnists, greedy husbands. And she'd done so with a shrewdness and a keen understanding of just how a star went about getting what she wanted. "She was always in control," said her friend, photographer Gianni Bozzachi. "She did not seek fame but she knew how to use it. She was very smart. People don't know how smart." Some chroniclers, perhaps too dazzled by the violet eyes and the glittery melodrama of her life, have missed that salient point. But, in fact, long before our own celebrity age, Elizabeth Taylor set down the template for How to Be a Movie Star. So many of the tricks of the trade can be traced right back to her.

When the cage finally resurfaced, Taylor smiled at the photographer who was there to record the moment. Her scarlet nails, still perfectly manicured, sparkled in the sun. Getting into that shark cage, she later told columnist Liz Smith, was "the most exciting thing" she'd done in her life — which was saying a lot. Within a short time, the photos and news of her adventure had zoomed around the world. Soon there was buzz of an eighth marriage and a possible lead in the film version of the musical Sunset Boulevard. So much for death's door, baby.

Excerpted from How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor In Hollywood by William J. Mann, copyright 2009. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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William J. Mann