R.I.P. Elizabeth Taylor, one of the last true movie stars

R.I.P. Elizabeth Taylor, one of the last true movie stars

Elizabeth Taylor—Oscar-winning actress, star of classic films that ranged from the barebones drama of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf to the lavish spectacle of Cleopatra, tabloid fixation for over half a century, and one of the last living links to a glamorous golden age of Hollywood—has died after struggling for many years with heart problems. She was 79.

Born in London to a pair of expatriate American art dealers, Elizabeth Taylor returned with her family to first New York and then Los Angeles to escape the looming threat of World War II. There her well-to-do parents soon fell in with Hollywood society, who took notice of Taylor’s already arresting beauty—her dark hair and her unusually deep violet eyes, which were enhanced by a genetic mutation that caused her to have thick double rows of eyelashes. Taylor’s mother, a former stage actress who went by the name of Sara Sothern, wasted no time in pushing her newfound studio friends to give her daughter a shot on screen, and by the age of 9 she was appearing in Universal’s There’s One Born Every Minute, then signed on to star in Lassie Come Home opposite Roddy McDowall, which landed Taylor her first MGM contract.

At MGM she made the film which would cement her as a child star: Playing a girl who dresses in male drag to ride her horse to a steeplechase victory, Elizabeth Taylor was the feisty heart of National Velvet, and the film became a box-office smash in 1944, transforming her life forever.

After National Velvet, Taylor starred in a quick succession of MGM pictures, developing a reputation for her professionalism even in her adolescence, and turning films like Courage Of Lassie, Life With Father, and Little Women into hits. Somehow she survived the rocky transition from teenager to blossoming adult—save a few hiccups, like the poorly received Conspirator—and Taylor had her first successful adult role in Father Of The Bride opposite Spencer Tracy and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend, though these films continued to cast Taylor in somewhat virginal, demure roles.

Taylor’s legend as one of the silver screen’s most sensuous, rapturous beauties—the sort of star who made all others dimmer in comparison—began to take shape with George Stevens’ A Place In The Sun. As the dazzling socialite who captivates Montgomery Clift’s factory worker, steals him away from poor, plain Shelley Winters, and drives him to tragic ends to be with her, Taylor was a revelation to audiences and critics who also fell madly in love. (The role would later come to parallel the many off-screen scandals of her personal romantic life.) Shortly before the film’s release, she had her first of many marriages to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton, son of hotel impresario Conrad Hilton and grand-uncle to modern-day socialites Paris and Nicky Hilton. Taylor left Hilton after less than a year, reportedly because of his tendency to get drunk and abuse her, and soon remarried fellow actor Michael Wilding, with whom she had two sons.

Unfortunately, her breakthrough in A Place In The Sun was somewhat stymied by her needs to provide for her growing family, and Taylor starred in several turgid romantic and period dramas that she might otherwise have avoided in the early 1950s, mostly for the money, often playing yet another spin on the beautiful yet distant rich girl. Still, she managed to break the mold with The Last Time I Saw Paris, inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited, which cast her as yet another socialite, but one with decidedly more nuance even in the film’s most melodramatic moments. Taylor was poised to take on more substantial roles in what would prove to be the most successful era of her career.

In 1956, Taylor co-starred alongside James Dean and Rock Hudson in another George Stevens drama, Giant, playing—again—a socialite wife to Hudson who clashes with Dean’s hotheaded rancher. The film became a critically acclaimed commercial hit (aided by the fascination with Dean, who died shortly after shooting had completed) and scored several Academy Award nominations. But again, as with A Place In The Sun, Taylor was shut out. However, it would prove to be the last time, as Taylor would receive back-to-back nominations for the next four years running, beginning with Raintree County, a Civil War drama in which she once again starred opposite Montgomery Clift as another rich girl who comes between Clift and his more down-to-earth girlfriend, though one who’s slowly revealed to be manipulative and even dangerously mentally ill. 

One of Taylor’s signature roles from her heyday would come the following year, playing the sexually unfulfilled Maggie The Cat in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, who taunts her husband Brick (Paul Newman) about his personal failures and pushes him toward making a play for his father’s inheritance, all while attempting to lure him into bed. Although the film was a considerably more toned-down version of Tennessee Williams’ play, all but omitting the implication that Brick’s lack of interest in her stemmed from his homosexuality, Taylor’s performance gave the film plenty of sensuality (even the film’s posters, just a shot of Taylor poised seductively on a bed, seemed to radiate steam), and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof became a huge hit.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s enjoyment of its success and her nomination for Best Actress was stymied first by a virus she contracted during its filming, and then the death of her third husband, producer Mike Todd, just a few days later, after his plane crashed on his way to being honored by the New York Friars Club. Taylor’s illness had kept her from traveling with him, and she was racked with guilt about her near-miss ever after—eventually finding comfort in their mutual friend, singer and actor Eddie Fisher.

In 1959, Taylor starred in another Tennessee Williams adaptation, Suddenly Last Summer, playing an institutionalized young woman who witnessed the death of her cousin, and whose aunt (Katherine Hepburn) undertakes sinister means to induce a doctor (Montgomery Clift) to lobotomize her to keep her from telling the scandalous truth about her son’s life and how he died. The film earned Hepburn and Taylor both nominations for Best Actress—though they both lost—but it was nearly overshadowed by the off-screen drama of Taylor’s romancing of Fisher, who was married at the time to Debbie Reynolds.

Essentially the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie-Jennifer Aniston of its day, Taylor’s sordid love triangle made her the subject of relentless tabloid fascination—something she would endure until her death—and earned her the enmity of millions of people who felt that she was a shameful black widow, not only for romancing her dead husband’s best friend, but also for stealing him away from “America’s Sweetheart.” The outrage reached a fever pitch when Fisher divorced Reynolds to marry Taylor in 1959, barely a year after Todd’s death.

Taylor’s reputation certainly wasn’t helped by the fiasco surrounding Cleopatra, a lavish historical epic that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox with its bloated budget—including an at-the-time-outrageous $1 million payday for Taylor, which grew to $7 million as the production dragged on—and endless delays and reshoots. Things also weren’t helped by Taylor’s illness, as she needed a life-saving tracheotomy operation that shut down filming, which then forced a change of location from London (where the weather played havoc with her recovery) to Rome, necessitating tearing down and then completely rebuilding the movie’s elaborate sets.

Adding further complication was Taylor’s very public affair with co-star Richard Burton, which brought tons of bad press to the already scorned production as the media tore into Burton and Taylor for cheating on their spouses—and particularly Taylor, who was seemingly already tired of Fisher after stealing him away from Reynolds and his family. Although Cleopatra was the highest-grossing film of that year and even managed to score several Academy Award nominations upon its release (while Taylor also took a Guinness World Record for “Most Costume Changes”), the damage was done, and today Cleopatra is still held up as the quintessential example of a costly flop, and more or less spelled the end of the “studio system” as it was known.

While Cleopatra's woes were first taking shape, Taylor also saw the release of what would come to be one of her signature roles—although she hated it. As the promiscuous Gloria Wandrous of BUtterfield 8, Taylor was in full bloom at her most desirable, playing a woman whose reputation as a “homewrecker” and a “slut” complicates her desire to find true love with a married man. The parallels with her off-screen life—certainly not helped by the fact that the film co-starred then-husband Eddie Fisher—caused Taylor to publicly decry the film, but it also made it a huge success. Taylor later won her first Oscar for Best Actress for BUtterfield 8, although she famously dismissed it with, “I still say it stinks.”

The mid-1960s saw Taylor divorcing Fisher for Burton, and the two becoming inseparable both off-screen and on, starring together in The V.I.P.s and The Sandpiper—two films that were poorly received, but nevertheless enjoyed some success due to the public fascination with “Dick and Liz.” But Taylor would soon reach arguably the apex of her movie career in a film that, while aided by the casting of Burton, hinged entirely on the strength of her performance: As the acerbic, boozy, bedraggled Martha in Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Taylor was fascinatingly wicked and surprisingly sympathetic in equal measure, making a sport out of taunting Burton and their unsuspecting dinner guests (played by George Segal and Sandy Dennis), then flaming out in an emotional tailspin that reveals her cruelty to be a mask for layers upon layers of hurt and self-loathing. It’s one of the best performances ever captured on film, and Taylor rightfully took home the Oscar for it.

Taylor began to branch out into more experimental fare in the 1960s—opposite Marlon Brando in John Huston’s haunting psychodrama Reflections In A Golden Eye; with husband Richard Burton in the all-star political thriller bomb The Comedians and the campy melodrama Boom!—but increasingly critics began to turn on her, with many sneering in particular at her silent cameo as Helen of Troy in Doctor Faustus. Taylor and Burton occasionally turned to financing their own projects, as when they sunk their own money into the 1967 adaptation of The Taming Of The Shrew, but it was evident that Taylor’s box-office power had begun to diminish. However, she still managed to turn in a powerful performance (though one that was derided at the time) as a prostitute who becomes a surrogate mother to Mia Farrow in the strange, unsettling Secret Ceremony.

After the failure of 1970’s The Only Game In Town, Taylor’s career began a slow decline, with films like Ash Wednesday and The Blue Bird no longer exciting audiences like they used to. Once more, Taylor’s personal life began to take center stage, as she and Burton briefly divorced, then remarried a year later, then divorced again a year after that. After Burton, she began taking up with politicians such as the U.S. Iranian ambassador, then married Senator John Warner, whose own career was overshadowed by his famous wife, much to his chagrin. Around this time, Taylor had also become considerably heavier, and was becoming a frequent figure of mockery by comedians—such as the famous Saturday Night Live skit where she was portrayed by John Belushi, who satirized an incident where Taylor choked on a chicken bone during one of Warner’s fundraising dinners.

Yet despite the jokes and the never-ending tabloid stories, Taylor remained an unsullied figure of Old Hollywood glamour, and while her roles in the 1980s were reduced to starring in TV movies and walk-on parts in soap operas like General Hospital—and she arguably became most famous for her bizarre close friendship with Michael Jackson—Taylor used her living legend status to help bring awareness to AIDS at a time when no one else wanted to touch the subject. After her old friend Rock Hudson died of the illness, Taylor helped launch the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and later founded the Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation, two centers that have done inestimable good for the furthering of AIDS awareness and the search for a cure.

More frivolously, Taylor also became well-known for her astounding jewelry collection, as well as her signature fragrances Passion, Black Pearls, and White Diamonds—the lattermost of which remains one of the best-selling perfumes of all time, with commercials starring Taylor that still run today.

Although Taylor was more or less known simply for being Elizabeth Taylor, last of the golden-age movie stars, in her waning years, she still turned up to act on stage in various productions, most recently in a 2007 performance opposite James Earl Jones in The Love Letters. Somewhat sadly, her last big-screen appearance was in 1994’s execrable live-action version of The Flintstones, but she also memorably provided, to date, the only word ever uttered by Maggie Simpson (“Daddy”) and contributed another voiceover cameo to God, The Devil And Bob, which would prove to be her final film credit. Fittingly, her last on-screen role was in the 2001 TV movie These Old Broads, in which she shared the stage with other Hollywood legends like Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins, and even her old romantic rival Debbie Reynolds, with whom she shares a poignant, winking scene in which they make amends over a man that Taylor stole from her ages ago.

That scene is a fitting coda to Taylor’s life, a career that was so often inextricably intertwined with her personal drama, but which Taylor always seemed to float above—strong-willed, ballsy, untouchable, and luminously celestial. In an industry that so often throws around the term “star,” few were ever as worthy of the word.

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