Elizabeth Taylor: 1932-2011
Elizabeth Taylor, one of the last great screen legends and winner of two Academy Awards, died Wednesday morning in Los Angeles of complications from congestive heart failure; she was 79. The actress had been hospitalized for the past few weeks, celebrating her birthday on February 27th (the same day as this year’s Academy Awards) while at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with friends and family. Her four children, two sons and two daughters, were by her side as she passed.
A striking brunette beauty with violet eyes who embodied both innocence and seductiveness, and was known for her flamboyant private life and numerous marriages as well as her acting career, Taylor was the epitome of Hollywood glamour, and was one of the last legendary stars who could still command headlines and standing ovations in her later years. Born to American parents in England in 1932, Taylor’s family decamped to Los Angeles as World War II escalated in the late 1930s. Even as a child, her amazing good looks — her eyes were amplified by a double set of eyelashes, a mutation she was born with — garnered the attention of family friends in Hollywood, and she undertook a screen test at 10 years old with Universal Studios. She appeared in only one film for the studio (There’s One Born Every Minute) before they dropped her; Taylor was quickly picked up by MGM, the studio that would make her a young star.
Her second film was Lassie Come Home (1943), co-starring Roddy McDowall, who would become a lifelong friend. She assayed a few other roles (including a noteworthy cameo in 1943’s Jane Eyre) but campaigned for the part that would make her a bona fide child star: the young Velvet Brown, who trained a champion racehorse to win the Grand National, in National Velvet. The box office smash launched Taylor’s career, and MGM immediately put her to work in a number of juvenile roles, most notably in Life With Father (1947) and as Amy in 1949’s Little Women. As she blossomed into a young woman, she began to outgrow the roles she was assigned, often playing women far older than her actual age. She scored another hit alongside Spencer Tracy as the young daughter preparing for marriage in Father of the Bride (1950), but her career officially entered adulthood with George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951), as a seductive rich girl who bedazzles Montgomery Clift to the degree that he kills his pregnant girlfriend (Shelley Winters). The film was hailed as an instant classic, and Taylor’s performance, still considered one of her best, launched the next part of her career.
Frustrated by MGM’s insistence at putting her in period pieces (some were hits notwithstanding, including 1952’s Ivanhoe), Taylor looked to expand her career, and took on the lead role in Elephant Walk (1954) when Vivian Leigh dropped out after suffering a nervous breakdown. As her career climbed in the 1950s, so did Taylor’s celebrity: she married hotel heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr. in 1950, and divorced him within a year. She then married British actor Michael Wilding in 1952, with whom she had two sons, though that marriage ended in divorce in 1957, after she embarked on an affair with the man who would be her next husband, producer Michael Todd (who won an Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days). As her personal life made headlines, she appeared alongside James Dean and Rock Hudson in Giant (1956), and received her first Academy Award nomination for Raintree County in 1957. Roles in two Tennessee Williams adaptations followed — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly Last Summer (1959), both considered two of her best performances — earning her two more Oscar nominations, just as tragedy and notoriety would strike her life.
Todd, whom she married in 1957 and had a daughter with, died in a plane crash in 1958 in New Mexico, leaving a bereft Taylor alone at the height of her stardom. Adored by millions, she went from lovely widow to heartless home-wrecker in the tabloids after starting an affair with Eddie Fisher, Todd’s best friend and at the time husband of screen darling Debbie Reynolds. The relationship was splashed across newspapers as Fisher left Reynolds and their two children (including a young Carrie Fisher) for Taylor. The two appeared together in 1960’s Butterfield 8, where Taylor played prostitute Gloria Wandrous in a performance that was considered good but nowhere near her previous films, and earned her another Oscar nomination. As the Academy Awards ceremony approached, Taylor was thrust into the headlines again when a life-threatening case of pneumonia required an emergency tracheotomy, leaving her with a legendary scar on her neck. Popular opinion swung yet again as newspapers and fans feared for her life, and the illness was credited with helping her win her first Oscar for Butterfield 8.
Taylor was now the biggest female star in the world, in terms of film and popularity, and her notoriety was only about to increase. Twentieth Century Fox, making a small biopic about the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, tried to offer Taylor the part; she laughed them off, saying she would do it for $1 million, a then-unheard of sum for an actress. The studio took her seriously, and soon she was signed to a million-dollar contract (the first for an actress) and a movie that would soon balloon out of control as filming started. Initially set to film in England with Peter Finch and Rex Harrison as Marc Antony and Julius Caesar, the movie encountered numerous problems and after a first shutdown was moved to Italy, with director Joseph L. Manckiewicz at the helm. Finch left and was replaced by acclaimed stage actor and rising movie star Richard Burton.
The rest was cinematic and tabloid history, as Taylor and Burton, whose electric chemistry was apparent to all on set, embarked on quite possibly the most famous Hollywood affair ever, while the filming of the epic movie took on gargantuan proportions and its budget increased exponentially. After the dust settled, Fox was saddled with a three-hour-plus film that, despite starring the two actors whose every move was hounded by photographers and reporters, was considered a bomb. The 1963 film almost sunk the studio (which only rebounded thanks to the megahit The Sound of Music two years later), while Burton and Taylor emerged from the wreckage relatively unscathed and ultimately married in 1964.
However, despite carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, the newly married couple made two marginally successful films, The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Sandpiper (1965), both glossy soap operas that made money but hardly challenged their talents. That opportunity would come with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), the adaptation of the Edward Albee play directed by first-time filmmaker Mike Nichols. As the beleaguered professor George and his shrewish wife Martha, whose mind games played havoc one fateful night with a younger faculty couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis), the two gave perhaps their best screen performances ever, tearing into the roles — and each other — with a gusto never seen in their previous pairings. They both received Oscar nominations, but only Taylor won, her second and final Academy Award.
A successful adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew (1967) followed, but the couple’s next films were a string of notorious bombs, including Doctor Faustus, The Comedians, and the so-bad-it’s-good Boom. Though still one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Taylor’s cinematic output in the 1970s became somewhat dismal, as her fraying marriage with Burton took center stage in the press, as did her weight gain after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The couple divorced in June 1974, only to remarry briefly in October 1975; by then, Taylor was more celebrity than movie star, still appearing occasionally onscreen and in television, but to less acclaim.
Taylor married U.S. Senator John Warner at the end of 1976, and during the late 1970s and 1980s played the politician’s wife, and her unsatisfying life led her to depression, drinking, overeating and ultimately a visit to the Betty Ford Center. After TV and stage appearances during the 1980s (including a reunion in 1983 with Burton for a production of Private Lives), Taylor found another, surprising role, that of social activist as longtime friend Rock Hudson died of complications from AIDS in 1985. She threw herself into fund-raising work, raising by some accounts $50 million to fight the disease, helping found the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR).
Though later generations only saw Taylor on television in films like Malice in Wonderland, and the mini-series North and South, and in her final screen appearance as the mother of Wilma in the live-action movie adaptation of The Flintstones, she remained a tabloid fixture through her marriage to construction worker Larry Fortensky (her eighth and final husband), her friendship with singer Michael Jackson, and her continual charity work, which was only sidelined by hospital visits after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2004. She is survived by four children — two sons with Michael Wilding, a daughter with Michael Todd, and another daughter adopted with Richard Burton — and nine grandchildren.
Elizabeth Taylor: 1932-2011