Elizabeth Taylor had so many brushes with death during her life that by now I practically thought she was immortal. I was sad to wake up to discover that the brilliant actress and ultimate Movie Star died this morning at the age of 79 of congestive heart failure. She was surrounded by her four children.
So much has been written about her eight marriages, the famous Hollywood scandals in which she was a key player, her struggles with her weight, her friendship with Michael Jackson, her passion for jewelry, and other aspects of her life during the past 30 years that I worry some people may have forgotten what a magnificent actress Elizabeth Taylor was.
One of Taylor’s biggest legacies will undoubtedly be her tireless work as an AIDS activist and fundraiser. She was the first celebrity who was willing to fight the disease head-on and she had an enormous impact on the world’s acceptance and understanding of the crisis.
The only time I saw Elizabeth Taylor in the flesh was in her Broadway debut in the 1981 revival of Lillian Hellmann’s “The Little Foxes.” Taylor played matriarch Regina Giddens, the role Tallulah Bankhead originated on stage in 1939 and Bette Davis played in the 1941 film. Though the play got mixed reviews at the time, I loved Elizabeth's portrayal of the tough-as-nails Regina who tried to claw her way out of the traps of early 20th century life when only sons were considered legal heirs. I remember the shocking end of Act 1 when Regina’s husband Horace suffers a heart attack, just after telling her that he planned to cut her out of his will. Instead of running to get his heart medication or calling for help, Regina just stands there, frozen in place. I will never forget Taylor’s delivery of that chilling line just before the curtain comes down on the first half of the play. “I hope you DIE!”
I ask you, was there ever an actress more beautiful than Elizabeth Taylor? It’s hard to imagine, although Taylor herself declared that her friend Ava Gardner was the greatest beauty in Hollywood. Taylor started acting as a child, of course, and seemed to have completely bypassed the awkward stage many attractive child stars go through on their way to adulthood. Elizabeth Taylor was literally breath-taking—I still find myself gasping audibly when I see her in some of her films.
Growing up in the studio system, Taylor was often frustrated by the parts she was given. She made her share of lousy movies (although she was always fascinating to watch) and yet still managed to appear in some of the greatest films ever to come out of Hollywood. Taylor won two Best Actress Oscars, first for the so-so “Butterfield 8” in 1960 (many thought it was a make-up prize for being passed over the previous two years for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Suddenly Last Summer”) and again in 1966 for her gut-wrenching portrayal of Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Elizabeth Taylor gave so many memorable performances, from her career-boosting turn as Velvet Brown in “National Velvet” to her series of historical epics to the 11 films she made with two-time husband Richard Burton that showcased the couple’s sizzling chemistry. I have a strong memory of a 1970 episode of “Here’s Lucy” with Taylor and Burton in which Lucy gets Elizabeth’s famous diamond ring stuck on her finger. Hard to believe that the actress was only in her 30s when that episode was shot—what an amazing career she had.
If I was forced at gunpoint to pick my five favorite performances of Dame Elizabeth, I might choose the following:
Little Women (1949). This is by far my favorite film version of the Louisa May Alcott classic and a big reason for that is Elizabeth Taylor’s presence as the spoiled Amy March. Her scene with her teacher in which the teacher can’t bring himself to strike the beautiful child is wonderful, as is Elizabeth’s snide retort to her classmates when she finds them listening at the door. I love the scene in which the ever-hungry Amy is persuaded to bring her Christmas breakfast to her less fortunate neighbors and then manages to get her fair share of popovers while feeding all the impoverished children. “One for you…one for me…one for you…one for me.” Taylor’s character truly matures in this film and her transformation from spoiled brat to the young woman who eventually marries Peter Lawford’s Laurie is remarkable. This was Elizabeth’s final role as an adolescent. She moved seamlessly into adult roles the following year.
A Place in the Sun (1951). Made when she was 19 years old, this film, based on the Theodore Dreiser novel, “An American Tragedy,” was arguably Elizabeth Taylor’s most haunting role on screen. She was at the absolute height of her beauty and the contrast between Taylor’s charmed Angela Vickers and dowdy working class Alice played by Shelley Winters is so great that you want to chuck your own values out the window and hurl Winters off that boat yourself so that poor Montgomery Clift is free to be with Elizabeth. This gorgeous George Stevens film, which won six Academy Awards, is a torture to watch but I am incapable of not tuning in whenever it airs.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Wait, did I just say Elizabeth Taylor was at the height of her beauty in 1951? Now that I think back to her amazing turn as Maggie the Cat seven years later, I may have to revise that. At 26, Taylor was at her sexiest playing this frustrated, ambitious Tennessee Williams icon. Considering the fact that the censors forced the studio to cut some of the most important aspects of the plot (including all references to Brick’s homosexuality), this is one of the most powerful films of the 1950s, in no small way thanks to Taylor’s desperate performance opposite Paul Newman’s Brick. And a special shout-out to one of my favorites, Madeleine Sherwood (later known as the Mother Superior on TV’s “The Flying Nun” who also appeared in some of Kendall’s father’s plays) recreating her Broadway role as Elizabeth’s vile sister-in-law, or as Maggie calls her, the “fertility monster.” Taylor’s husband, Mike Todd, died on the first day of shooting which may have sadly contributed to the depth of Taylor's emotional scenes.
Cleopatra (1963). Yes, you heard me right—I’m naming the film that almost single-handedly sank Twentieth-Century Fox because of its runaway budget and runaway egos. Like everyone else, I assumed the film was a total abomination and I avoided it at all costs. Until last year, that is, when a restored version of the film (over four hours long) was screened at the First Annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. To my utter surprise, I loved every second of it, especially Elizabeth Taylor’s over-the-top performance as our feisty African Queen. I’m not saying that the film would win any awards from historical scholars, but I was entranced by Elizabeth and her conquests (Rex Harrison and Richard Burton) from beginning to end. Taylor made headlines by being the first actress to get a cool million for a single film. Because of various delays and other problems that plagued the set, Taylor’s payday eventually increased to seven million for “Cleopatra,” which is the equivalent of about $47 million today. You go, girl! Having already gone through several death-defying episodes, Taylor experienced another one during the making of this film and had to get an emergency tracheotomy at one point. The scar from this procedure is clearly visible throughout the film.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). I’m just realizing that all my favorite Elizabeth Taylor films (with the possible exception of “Little Women”) are painful to watch but oh-so-satisfying. She was adept at tapping into dysfunction and there were few characters more dysfunctional than Edward Albee’s Martha in this exquisite Mike Nichols film. It’s hard to believe Taylor was only 32 when she made this movie, her world-weary, take-no-prisoners Martha may have been the most skilled performance she ever gave. And playing off actual hubby Richard Burton only added to the yummy horror of the role.
But wait…I didn’t mention “Father of the Bride, “ “Quo Vadis,” “Giant,” “Raintree County,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” and so many others. Farewell, Dame Elizabeth. Years ago, when Barbara Walters asked Taylor what she would like her epitaph would be, she said:
“Here lies Elizabeth. She hated being called Liz. But she lived!”