Dame Elizabeth Taylor may be remembered for a number of things; such as the number of husbands she had, her tempestuous relationship with the actor Richard Burton, or even her bizarre relationship with Michael Jackson. This however would be a disservice to an actress whose career spanned over fifty years. She emerged initially from the Golden age of Hollywood as a child star, where her beguiling looks was perfect fodder for the big screen. The camera exemplified her dark features, her piercing eyes with thick eyelashes, and her soft skin, to which she looked very much like a real life porcelain doll. One could imagine her in a real life adaption of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
But Taylor was more than just a beauty; she was an actress of great depth and quality who managed to fit between the role of actress and film star. She first appeared in film aged 9 in the There’s One Born Every Minute in ’41. This was followed by her successful turn as Priscilla in Lassie Come Home. Her breakthrough role, which would earn her a rooted place in Hollywood was as Velvet Brown, the farmer’s daughter and Grand National winner in National Velvet (1944).Having established herself as a child actor with a string of hits, she was able to make the transition from child actor, to adult slowly but surely and with better success than the likes of either Shirley Temple or Mackuley Culkin. Father of the Bride (1950) with Spencer Tracy provided her the opportunity to grow up on film through her adolescence in a light hearted comedy.
A Place in the Sun
One of her best roles was 1951’s A Place in the Sun which established Taylor as a dramatic actress. Her performance as the spoiled debutante who causes a rift between Montgomery Clift and Shelly Winters earned her many plaudits; with the New York Times commenting that “Elizabeth’s delineation of the rich and Beautiful Angela is the top effort of her career.” Other great performances followed in Elia Kazan’s Giant (1956) as the strong wife brought to Texas opposite Rock Hudson and James Dean, and as the wives of closet homosexuals in two of Tennessee Williams filmed adaptations in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) opposite Paul Newman, and Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
Cat on a hot tin roof
It was during this period of success that she became valuable material for the gossip columns that were big business in the America, and which begun a fascination of her private life that would last until her death. Her marriage to the hotel heir Nicky Hilton (the first of her seven husbands) collapsed and when she became the highest paid actress in Hollywood ever when she took on the part of Cleopatra in 1963; she had an affair with her married co-star Richard Burton whilst she was also married. Burton became her fifth husband, and the one she was married to the longest, and even went on to remarry him again in 1975 only to divorce him again a year later.
Whose Afraid of Virgina Wolf?
Her private life seemed to upstage the remarkable work she was doing on screen, nevertheless she received on Oscar for her turn in BUtterfield 8 (1960) and more deservedly in Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) which was a great example of method acting in a doomed relationship opposite her co star and husband Richard Burton. Her performance as Martha the tough, yet vulnerable survivor perhaps was more true to who she really was than any other character she ever played. Beyond the1970’s Taylor failed to become the box office draw she once was, but remained part of popular culture. In her later life through her close friendship with two Hollywood gays (Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift), her appearance in two homosexual subtexts (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer) and the money raised for Aids charities, she became a gay cultural icon.
Taylor died on March 23 2011 in California at the age of 79 of congestive heart failure. She is survived by her four children.