Elizabeth Taylor, who died last night in Los Angeles at the age of 79, will be remembered as the greatest, and sadly the last, star of Hollywood's classic era. In a career that spanned all but the first few years of her life, Taylor embodied the glamour of the movies while compiling a collection of performances that allowed her to prosper beyond the celebrity bubble she helped generate.
The actress, who passed away from complications caused by congestive heart failure at the Cedars-Sinai medical centre in Los Angeles, lived a wild, sometimes unbelievable life, with her eight marriages (to seven men) overshadowing her two Academy Awards. But she outlasted the punchlines, and her self-aware wit – “the problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they're going to have some pretty annoying virtues,” she once noted – gave away to a graceful final era. As was often the case, she handled matters on her own terms.
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor (she never cared for the abbreviated Liz) was born on February 27, 1932 to American parents residing in London. They moved to California when she was a young girl and it was Taylor's mother, a former Broadway actress, who introduced the young girl to the movies and encouraged her to act. She made her film debut, in the now forgotten There's One Born Every Minute, in 1942, caught the public's eye the following year with Lassie Come Home, and then ascended to stardom, at the mere age of 12, as Velvet Brown, the young English girl preparing her beloved horse for England's Grand National horse race, in 1944's National Velvet.
From that point on Taylor was famous, and she became renowned for a captivating beauty that would prove mesmeric when filmed and projected on a giant screen. To audiences sitting in the dark she was both unobtainable and all too real. And once she applied herself to the task of screen acting, she knew that restraint and suggestion could only add to her allure; “what I try to do is to give the maximum emotional effect with the minimum of visual movement,” she once explained.
Unlike most child stars, Taylor transitioned easily to adult roles after successful teenage turns in the likes of Mervyn LeRoy's 1949 adaptation of Little Women, and the following year's Father of the Bride, where Spencer Tracy gave her away before director Vincente Minnelli's camera. The defining moment was 1951's A Place in the Sun, where Taylor's debutante, Angela Vickers, so transfixes Montgomery Clift's George Eastman, that the young man falls into tragedy in trying to put aside his pregnant girlfriend.
The next decade would be Taylor's golden era. She was the most famous woman in the world, but her best worked was more than equal to the glitz and nascent paparazzi that trailed in her wake. She was married four times in the fifties, to hotel heir Nicky Hilton, English actor Michael Wilding, Michael Todd (who perished in a plane crash, widowing Taylor), and singer Eddie Fisher, but more importantly she starred in Giant (opposite James Dean), Raintree County, alongside Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and 1960's Butterfield 8, for which she won her first Oscar as a morally ambiguous Manhattan model.
There was no denying Taylor's carnal appeal – she oozed sex appeal. Yet her best performances often played against that illicit promise, revealing a melancholic interior. Her beauty is torture for Paul Newman's disaffected Brick in the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, while the image of Taylor disconsolately wrapped in a bed sheet would become a reoccurring visual motif. The movies were drawn to her as stunningly poisoned chalice, safer to admire than possess.
Taylor played independent women, sometimes living on the margins and willing and able to cruelly bargain for their own gain. She was a premonition of the future amidst the prim blandishments of 1950s America.
The 1960s would be defined by Cleopatra, the infamous 1962 epic that was the most expensive film ever made at the time (even then it cost approximately US$40 million) and also the meeting place of Taylor and Richard Burton, who she subsequently married and divorced twice. The ancient melodrama, for which Taylor earned a million dollar salary (and a million more in overtime because of legendary production overruns), made most of its budget back, but as a couple Taylor and the classically trained Burton were more famous than productive. Aside from a young Mike Nichols' vituperative domestic drama, 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, their joint offerings tended more towards 1968's disastrous Boom.
After 1967's underrated Reflections in a Golden Eye, overseen by John Huston, in which Taylor and no less than Marlon Brando play a military couple silently at war in their marriage, her work fell away. As if sensing that the decade couldn't accommodate her, Taylor spent a good part of the 1970s as a Washington-based political wife to U.S. Senator John Warner. It was this period that required treatment for depression and addiction at the Betty Ford Clinic, and the Taylor that emerged a grand dame, essentially playing herself in cameos or in soap opera stints.
Her final two decades began with the glitzy 1991 marriage (it was her final nuptials, lasting five years) to construction worker Larry Fortensky at Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch, but while it was an ostentatious occasion Taylor was eventually able to channel that excess and fame for the public's good. Following the death of her friend, Rock Hudson, in 1985 from AIDS-related illnesses, she became a leading fundraiser for AIDS research.
There were various screen goodbyes, more often on television than for the cinema, and each was coloured with self-deprecating humour. Taylor's final years were marked by various health difficulties, and as she struggled with osteoporosis and heart and back problems she withdrew from the public eye. The public, however, never stopped watching for her. She was, and will be, Elizabeth Taylor.