Elizabeth Taylor, dead at 79: the last studio star and the first media celebrity

Elizabeth Taylor, dead at 79: the last studio star and the first media celebrity

Elizabeth Taylor died in Los Angeles on Wednesday, at the age of 79, from congestive heart failure after an extended hospital stay. Taylor had lived firmly in the public eye right from childhood, virtually up to her death. And while her 60 films made her famous, her off-screen life made her even more so - the result of her eight marriages (counting Richard Burton twice), numerous brushes with death, her work in HIV-Aids philanthropy later in life - and her rich collections of friends and magnificent jewels. By J BROOKS SPECTOR

Taylor was, above all, a survivor, famously saying “I’ve been through it all, baby. I’m Mother Courage.” By her mid-20s, she had already been a screen goddess, teenage bride, mother, divorcee and widow – and there was lots more to come.

Taylor was born in London to American parents and she first rose to global fame at the age of 12 when she starred in 1944’s “National Velvet” with Mickey Rooney. In “National Velvet”, one could already see the foreshadowing of the adult star to come in the child’s face.

What with her love affairs, jewellery collections, weight gain and weight loss and her very public schmoozing with the rich, famous and notorious, she virtually created the template for being famous – a model attempted by dozens of wannabes who tried to climb the ladder of success after Taylor had already claimed the top spot. Her face was on the cover of Life magazine 14 times, more than any other film star ever, and she was on People magazine’s cover more than 25 times – well after the bulk of her film career had already happened. Andy Warhol, in a combination of photography and silk-screening, used Taylor’s face as a totemic image of beauty – and fame – in a frequently-reproduced, famous work.

Watch National Velvet trailer:

Along the way, she had let loose some terrific one-liners as well. When then-husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash in 1958, she soon sought the company of the then-married singer, Eddie Fisher, a Todd protégée. Even before she married Fisher, luring him away from his American sweetheart bride, Debbie Reynolds, she told a reporter, “Well, Mike is dead and I’m alive. What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?” (In the interest of full disclosure, I have a tenuous connection here – sort of 3.5 degrees of separation. A relative actually was Fisher’s accompanist on the piano in high school, in Philadelphia, many, many years ago.) On another occasion, Taylor told friends after her first divorce, “I’ve been able to wear plunging necklines since I was 14 years old, and ever since then, people have expected me to act as old as I look. My troubles all started because I have a woman’s body and a child’s emotions.”

Although she was born in London, her parents were American and they moved to southern California in 1939 where her mother began to promote her daughter as a younger look-alike version of Vivien Leigh. She was cast in “Lassie Come Home” in 1943, but it was “National Velvet” that sealed her career choice. On the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio lot, her slight British accent made her a natural for films set in England that were essentially designed to nurture ties between the two Allied nations during World War II.

Watch trailer for Cleopatra:

As she grew up, films like “A Place in the Sun”, based on Theodore Dreiser’s stern novel, “An American Tragedy,” gave her roles with more dramatic depth and, crucially, put her in contact with Montgomery Clift. Clift became a close friend and she credited him with helping her find an adult pathway to acting. A few years later, “Giant,” with James Dean and Rock Hudson, was the first time her career was resuscitated through a smash hit, after a series of forgettable films. She got Oscar nominations for “Raintree County” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, but then won her first statue with “Butterfield 8”.

Although the critics had their doubts about her as an actress, some of Taylor’s juiciest, richest roles seemed to look back on her own real circumstances, and her best work usually happened when the film came from a serious literary work. These included Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew ”,“Butterfield 8” from a John O’Hara novella, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” from the Tennessee Williams, “The Comedians” based on the Graham Green novel and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” from the stunning Edward Albee play.

“Virginia Woolf” and “Butterfield 8” gave her roles for which she garnered two Oscars for best actress. Her film craft was often derided as critics chose to focus instead on her extraordinary beauty, simultaneously voluptuous and vulnerable and with those extraordinary violet-coloured eyes rather than her skill as an actress. Film historian Jeanine Basinger could write of Taylor that “No actress ever had a more difficult job in getting critics to accept her onscreen as someone other than Elizabeth Taylor. Her persona ate her alive.” She claimed her first Oscar direct from hospital after nearly dying from pneumonia, but she always averred she won that one on a sympathy vote.

Watch a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf:

Nonetheless, her best work on film was impossible to ignore. The critics were virtually unanimous in praising her portrayal of Martha in Albee’s play turned film – even to the point of comparing her favourably to actress Uta Hagen’s triumph in the same role on Broadway.

As acting waned, she gave more of her time to her HIV-Aids charity work, throwing herself into it even before Aids became a de rigueur fashion statement among actors and actresses. She worked hard to turn Aids into a mainstream issue, explaining that her interest began when she chaired a benefit function for Aids patients in 1984.

Then in 1985, her long-time friend, Rock Hudson, died of Aids-related illnesses and she became the founding national chairwoman of the American Foundation for Aids Research. She then initiated the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation. About her work with the disease, she told the media, “People were telling me not to get involved. I got death threats, I got angrier and angrier. So I put myself out there.”

Watch a trailer for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:

Her marriages encompassed hotel heir Conrad Hilton Jr, actor Michael Wilding, Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton (2x), then-Sen. John W. Warner, and construction worker Larry Fortensky. She and Fortensky met at the Betty Ford Clinic while both were being treated for substance abuse. Political analysts often said Taylor was the real reason John Warner was elected senator – and it is true that she certainly drew more people at campaign rallies than he ever managed to do.

When Mike Todd died, she took up with Eddie Fisher, but then suddenly dropped him when she was cast as Cleopatra opposite Richard Burton. Their public affair became even bigger news than the film and her salary – $1 million – was an unheard-of amount for 1963. The film nearly bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox by the time it was made, but the films the couple then made together were great successes and helped feed the Taylor legend. Of her role as the drunken, foul-mouthed Martha in “Virginia Woolf”, Taylor – once again the master of a one liner that went to the heart of things – told The Washington Post, “Oh, I’m wonderful playing bitches”.

As acting paled, Taylor moved on to cosmetics and perfume lines and wrote books about dieting and her astonishing diamond collection that included 69.42 carat and 33.19 carat sparklers. Less well-known, perhaps, was her work in a few voice-over roles – most surprisingly as Maggie Simpson when the Simpson’s third child said her first words in 1992 on the animated television serial.

Go ahead, collect her films on DVD, invite some friends over, and make a whole weekend of it. DM

For more, read:

Photo: Elizabeth Taylor arrives for a play in Los Angeles in this December 1, 2007 file photo. Taylor has been admitted to a Los Angeles hospital to treat symptoms from congestive heart failure, her spokeswoman said February 11, 2011. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni.


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