The friendship between Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor and her personal assistant, Roger Wall, was a crucial part of the actress’s journey as a leading force in AIDS activism. Little is documented about their relationship or his influence on her, but after he tested HIV-positive in 1991 and then took his own life with a handful of sleeping pills, Taylor said it was one of the greatest losses of her life.
Taylor’s efforts began years before Wall’s diagnosis, around the time of his hire in the mid-1980s. In 1984, she accepted the call of seven gay men to sign on as a chairwoman at their AIDS benefit, For Commitment to Life. She raised $1 million in support for the community-based service group, which provided care to patients in Los Angeles, and brought AIDS into the limelight by grabbing the attention of her fellow celebrities, who certainly had the money to donate to the charitable cause. She claimed she was using herself as a “commodity” and wanted to use her tabloid presence for good.
The next year, Taylor’s close friend and fellow actor Rock Hudson was diagnosed with and then died of AIDS. Afterward, she began the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) with a group of physicians and scientists. With amfAR, Taylor’s public profile grew, and she became the primary spokesperson. Her status and fame around the world drew mass media attention.
An additional influence was Taylor’s former daughter-in-law, Aileen Getty, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985. Getty, who had been married to Taylor’s son Christopher Wilding, had AIDS by 1992, and Taylor watched as her two grandchildren, both under the age of 10 at the time, experienced their mother’s struggle. That coupled with Wall’s suicide the prior year inspired Taylor to continue to use her notoriety to bring as much attention as possible to the issue.
Taylor also became politically involved early on. In 1987, she convinced President Ronald Reagan to publicly acknowledge the disease in honor of Hudson. She also testified before the Senate and the House of Representative for the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act (Ryan White CARE Act) in 1986, 1990, and 1992. The program, signed into law in 1990, improved funding to care for low-income and uninsured people affected by HIV/AIDS.
In the years that followed, Taylor grew extremely tired of the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations’ lack of focus on the issue. At a press conference in Amsterdam for the 1992 International Conference on AIDS, she voiced her honest thoughts about the actions of Bush, claiming she had done more than the then-presidential candidate. “In fact, I’m not even sure if he knows how to spell ‘AIDS,’” she stated.
This entire event was preceded by Taylor’s attendance at her friend Michael Jackson’s concert in Brussels. On the way home from the show, her limo broke down. She was unable to return to her hotel until six in the morning, and at this point, the press conference was only two hours away.
Yet, even on a mere two hours of sleep, Taylor was able to slam Bush so publicly. His administration had just implemented restrictions on immigration for those with AIDS, and even though Taylor was exhausted — she even mentioned coming down with the flu — she knew that now, more than ever, was her time to strike.
On CNN the next day, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan announced that the administration would not “be browbeaten by movie stars or anyone else on their AIDS policies.”
In her later years, Taylor mostly avoided the public eye. The only exception was for press conferences and speeches with amfAR. As a founder of the organization, Taylor understood how necessary her voice had become. She enjoyed ad-libbing speeches, often giving her the chance to get angry and evoke emotions from the crowd.
Taylor was honored for her work several times. She received the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the Screen Actors’ Guild Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanitarian Service, the GLAAD Vanguard Award, and the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Now she’s being honored in another way, with a biopic. A Special Relationship will follow Taylor’s life with the AIDS crisis along with her friendship with Wall. Fellow Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz will portray Taylor while real-life friends Bert & Bertie (Troop Zero) are set to direct the movie from a script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire).
While not much is known about Taylor and Wall’s private bond, Deadline reports that the screenwriter interviewed Taylor’s closest friends in order to depict her longtime dedication to AIDS awareness as seen through the eyes of her devoted assistant. Instead of reiterating pieces from any existing biographical work, by offering a touching narrative based in memory, A Special Relationship is sure to be an invigorating, intimate look at Taylor’s late life’s work.