How Far Did Elizabeth Taylor Go to Fight AIDS?

The new HBO documentary, The Battle of amfAR, reveals how involved the actress was in the early days.

BY Trudy Ring

February 27 2015 6:56 PM ET UPDATED: February 27 2015 6:56 PM ET

Elizabeth Taylor had a stellar film career, but a new documentary makes clear that her greatest role was that of AIDS activist, and her greatest costar was research scientist Mathilde Krim.
The two women came together from different worlds to create the American Foundation for AIDS Research (now known as amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research), in 1985, early on in the pandemic. Their work and the breakthroughs it enabled form the subject of the HBO doc, The Battle of amfAR. It’s the latest film from Oscar-winning director-producers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Lovelace, The Celluloid Closet, Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt).
Fashion magnate Kenneth Cole, who chairs amfAR’s board of trustees, brought the idea to the filmmakers. “He called us out of the blue and pitched us this story, and we jumped at the chance,” says Epstein. They were gratified to not only tell the story of these extraordinary women but to also remind audiences that despite advances in treatment, AIDS has not gone away, and there is still much work to be done around the disease.
“I think there is a sense of complacency, not just about supporting the research but about being safe,” Friedman says.
When amfAR was founded, there was no complacency on the part of gay men and injection-drug users, as both groups were being ravaged by AIDS, but the rest of the world considered the disease someone else’s problem, and some even figured people with AIDS deserved it. Taylor and Krim helped to change those attitudes.
The Battle of amfAR depicts Taylor’s devastation at learning her friend and costar Rock Hudson had been diagnosed with AIDS. It also reminds viewers that the epidemic hit close to home for Taylor in another instance: Her former daughter-in-law, Aileen Getty, has been living with the disease since 1985.
Krim, a distinguished scientist with Hollywood connections—her husband, Arthur Krim, was the longtime chairman of United Artists and founder of Orion Pictures—approached Taylor about working together to fight AIDS. The women created a foundation that could make research grants more quickly than any government entity. Among amfAR’s many accomplishments, it has funded studies that were key to the development of protease inhibitors, which have made HIV manageable for many patients; helped convince Congress to pass the Ryan White CARE Act, a primary source of federal money for community-based AIDS service providers; and financed research that may lead to a cure.
In the service of their cause, Taylor and Krim used their intellect and charisma to reach diverse groups of people. The film shows how Taylor dazzled members of Congress with her star power and even persuaded old Hollywood colleague Ronald Reagan to break the silence on AIDS that characterized his presidency. Yet she was equally at ease counseling injection-drug users.