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Elizabeth Taylor: Death of a film legend

PUBLISHED: 10:59 24 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor was a screen icon

Elizabeth Taylor was a screen icon

LEGENDARY Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor has died at the age of 79. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke looks at her career.

Taylor with her Best Actress Oscar in 1961

Elizabeth Taylor was a true Hollywood legend. She had glamour, she had sex appeal but more importantly she could act.

In a life which became to be dominated by scandal and tabloid speculation about her latest romantic escapade, it was something which became sadly overlooked. But casting a look back at her film career reveals a filmography which is dominated by some powerful performances.

Like many great actresses, perhaps it was her great beauty which got in the way. Sadly it is easier to be regarded as a great actress if you are more of a blank canvas and can be transformed by the role you are playing.

The story of Elizabeth Taylor will always be associated with her tempestuous affair with her Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton. In the beginning the pair didn’t get along. Burton, a theatre-trained, Shakespearean actor, thought she was just a typical vacuous Hollywood beauty. He learnt during filming of what was then the most expensive epic in Hollywood history that here was not only a very good actress but a woman who could hold her own in an argument.

Richard Burton and Taylor at Heathrow Airport in 1967

Although they were both married – she to singer/actor Eddie Fisher who she had lured away from Debbie Reynolds – they soon embarked on a passionate affair which scandalised the world’s press. The pair married and divorced twice – first from 1964 to 1974, then from 1975 to 1976. Even after their second divorce they remained close. Burton famously commented: “We can’t live together but we can’t stay apart.

“Elizabeth and I lived on the edge of an exciting volcano. I’m not easy to be married to or live with. I exploded violently about twice a year with Elizabeth. She would also explode. It was marvellous, but it could be murder.”

Speaking after their second divorce in July 1976, Taylor said: “We had a good marriage. Something went wrong, but we’re still good friends. I know I did everything in my power to make the marriage work. It seemed that our kind of love was not conducive to carrying on a long affair. It turned into the kind of love that spells marriage.”

Burton and Taylor also had a very close working relationship, apart from Cleopatra, the pair co-starred in seven other films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967), The V.I.P.s (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), Doctor Faustus (1967), The Comedians {1967} and Boom! (1968).

Taylor poses as Queen Cleopatra in this photo from Joseph L. Mankiewiez' 1963 film, "Cleopatra"

She appeared in a supporting role in Burton’s long-cherished film production of Under Milk Wood and the pair finished their on-screen career in 1973 in a TV movie Divorce His, Divorce Hers. In the real world divorce and her declining box office appeal couldn’t keep them apart. In 1983 she famously agreed to co-star with Burton in a Broadway production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

Apart from Burton, Taylor’s other great love was Hollywood executive Michael Todd – the creator of the alternative widescreen process Todd AO. She was devastated when he died in a plane crash in New Mexico on March 23, 1958. They had a daughter before he was killed.

Although she has always been regarded as the personification of Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor was born in born in Hampstead, north London, on February 27, 1932. She had dual English/US nationality though as her parents were Americans living in London. Her father was an art dealer and her mother a retired actress.

Young Elizabeth was to become a child star before she was 10 and had begun taking ballet lessons at the age of three.

Taylor poses with her then new husband Nick Hilton in Paris in 1950

When her parents returned to the US, Taylor was snapped up by top studio MGM and got her first taste of cinema success in the Lassie movies alongside that other British child-star Roddy McDowell. However, her career really took off when, aged 12, she was cast in National Velvet. The film was a worldwide hit - a wonderful antidote to the horrors of World War II. This was swiftly followed by a highly popular re-make of Little Women and then Father of the Bride co-starring Spencer Tracy.

In the 1950s, as adolescence turned into adulthood, her career sky-rocketed with leading roles opposite James Dean in Giant, Montgomery Clift in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Taylor won her first Academy Award, for Best Actress for her performance as Gloria Wandrous in the taut thriller BUtterfield 8.

Other hits from this very productive period included Raintree County (1957) opposite Montgomery Clift; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) opposite Paul Newman; and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959 with Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn. She received academy award nominations for all these performances.

In 1960, Taylor became the highest paid actress up to that time when she signed a one million dollar contract to play the title role in Cleopatra, which, because of illness and production delays, would not reach the world’s cinema screens until 1963.

Taylor and Burton in 1983

The death from Aids in 1985 of her friend Rock Hudson set her on a crusade against the illness. She became the first celebrity in this campaign and stuck to her guns with tenacity, even though at first it was an unpopular campaign. This involved trips to London to promote the cause, in memory of Queen star Freddie Mercury in 1992.

She became Dame Elizabeth Taylor in 2000, saying: “I’ve always been a broad, now I’m a Dame...”

In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens’ Medal in recognition of her commitment to philanthropy: the second-highest civilian honour in the United States, awarded to US citizens “who have performed exemplary deeds or services” for their country or fellow citizens.

Although the latter half of her career was over-shadowed by her on-off love affairs and multiple marriages (she was married eight times), her involvement with AIDS charities and her friendship with Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor was a dazzling actor - just witness her second Oscar-winning performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Taylor won two Oscars

With her lush black hair, her striking violet eyes, her heart-shaped face and dark eyelashes she was the unchallenged sex symbol of her generation.

Forget the tabloid stories, remember her for her work.

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