Elizabeth Taylor was the ultimate movie star: violet-eyed, luminously beautiful, and bigger than life; although never the most gifted actress, she was the most magnetic, commanding the spotlight with unparalleled power. Few figures have been the recipient of such adoration, the target of such ridicule, or the subject of such gossip and innuendo, and where so many before and after her withered and died in the intense glare of their fame, Taylor thrived; celebrity was her lifeblood, the public eye her constant companion. She knew no moderation — it was all or nothing. Whether good (two Oscars, one of the first million-dollar paychecks, and charity work), bad (health and weight problems, drug battles, and other tragedies), or ugly (eight failed marriages, movie disasters, and countless scandals), no triumph or setback was too personal for media consumption.
Born February 27, 1932, in London, Taylor literally grew up in public. At the beginning of World War II, her family relocated to Hollywood, and by the age of ten she was already under contract at Universal. She made her screen debut in 1942’s There’s One Born Every Minute, followed a year later by a prominent role in Lassie Come Home. For MGM, she co-starred in the 1944 adaptation of Jane Eyre, then appeared in The White Cliffs of Dover. With her first lead role as a teen equestrian in the 1944 family classic National Velvet, Taylor became a star. To their credit, MGM did not exploit her, despite her incredible beauty; she did not even reappear onscreen for two more years, returning with Courage of Lassie. Taylor next starred as Cynthia in 1947, followed by Life With Father. In Julia Misbehaves, she enjoyed her first grown-up role, and then portrayed Amy in the 1947 adaptation of Little Women.
Taylor’s first romantic lead came opposite Robert Taylor in 1949’s Conspirator. Her love life was already blossoming offscreen as well; that same year she began dating millionaire Howard Hughes, but broke off the relationship to marry hotel heir Nicky Hilton when she was just 17 years old. The marriage made international headlines, and in 1950 Taylor scored a major hit as Spencer Tracy’s daughter in Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride; a sequel, Father’s Little Dividend, premiered a year later. Renowned as one of the world’s most beautiful women, Taylor was nevertheless largely dismissed as an actress prior to an excellent performance in the George Stevens drama A Place in the Sun; soon, she was earning upwards of 5,000 dollars a week.
Taylor’s marriage to Hilton proved short-lived, and in 1952 she married actor Michael Wilding. Often her romantic life overshadowed her career; indeed, her films of the early ’50s were largely undistinguished and frequently performed poorly at the box office. In 1956, however, the actress reunited with Stevens to star in his epic adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel Giant. It was a blockbuster, as was her 1957 follow-up Raintree County, for which she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination. That same year, Taylor’s marriage to Wilding ended, and she soon announced her much-publicized engagement to producer Mike Todd; his tragic death in a plane crash the following year left her the world’s most glamorous widow, and her fame grew even larger. Whatever sympathy audiences held for Taylor quickly vanished, however, when she was soon identified as the other woman in the break-up of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds; their romantic triangle played out in the headlines of tabloids the world over, and although Taylor eventually stole Fisher away, the careers of all three performers were boosted by the scandal — the public simply could not get enough.
Taylor’s sexy image was further elevated by an impossibly sensual performance in 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; another Tennessee Williams adaptation, Suddenly Last Summer, followed a year later, and both were highly successful. To complete the terms of her MGM contract, she grudgingly agreed to star in 1960’s Butterfield 8; upon completing the film Taylor traveled to Britain to begin work on the much-heralded Cleopatra, for which she received an unprecedented one-million-dollar fee. In London she became dangerously ill, and underwent a life-saving emergency tracheotomy. Hollywood sympathy proved sufficient for her to win a Best Actress Oscar for Butterfield 8, although much of the good will extended toward her again dissipated in the wake of the mounting difficulties facing Cleopatra. With five million dollars already spent, producers pulled the plug and relocated the shoot to Italy, replacing co-star Stephen Boyd with Richard Burton. The final tally placed the film at a cost of 37 million dollars, making it the most costly project in film history; scheduled for a 16-week shoot, the production actually took years, and despite mountains of pre-publicity, it was a huge disaster at the box office upon its 1963 premiere.
Still, the notice paid to Cleopatra paled in comparison to the scrutiny which greeted Taylor’s latest romance, with Burton; she left Fisher to marry the actor in 1964, and perhaps no Hollywood relationship was ever the subject of such intense media coverage. Theirs was a passionate, stormy relationship, played out in the press and onscreen in films including 1963’s The V.I.P.’s and 1965’s The Sandpiper. In 1966, the couple starred in Mike Nichols’ controversial directorial debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, arguably Taylor’s best performance; overweight, verbally cutting, and defiantly unglamorous, she won a second Oscar for her work as the embittered wife of Burton’s alcoholic professor. Their real-life marriage managed to survive, however, and after Taylor appeared opposite Marlon Brando in 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, she and Burton reunited for The Comedians. She also starred in Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew, but none were successful at the box office; 1968’s Doctor Faustus was a disaster, and later that year Boom! failed to gross even one-quarter of its costs. After 1969’s Secret Ceremony, Taylor starred in The Only Game in Town, a year later; when they too failed, her days of million-dollar salaries were over, and she began working on percentage.
With Burton, Taylor next appeared in a small role in 1971’s Under Milk Wood; next was X, Y and Zee, followed by another spousal collaboration, Hammersmith Is Out. In 1972 the Burtons also co-starred in a television feature, Divorce His, Divorce Hers; the title proved prescient, as two years later, the couple did indeed divorce after a decade together. However, few anticipated the next development in their relationship: In 1975, it was announced that Taylor and Burton had remarried, but this time their union lasted barely a year. In the meantime, she was largely absent from films, and did not reappear until 1976’s The Blue Bird; a year later, she starred in the telefilm Victory at Entebbe. Taylor concluded the decade with a prolific burst of feature films (A Little Night Music, Winter Kills, The Mirror Crack’d) and TV work (Return Engagement), but audiences no longer seemed interested. Indeed, she made more headlines for her increasing weight, continued health problems, and revelations of drug and alcohol abuse than she did for any of her films. As always, Taylor’s love life remained the focus of much speculation as well, and from 1976 to 1982 she was married to politician John Warner.
With no movie features forthcoming, Taylor turned for the stage, and in 1981 she starred inside a production of The minor Foxes. In 1983, she and Burton additionally reunited to co-star on Broadway in Private Lives. Television also remained an alternate, and in 1983 she and Carol Burnett co-starred in Between pals. However, Taylor’s primary focus in the decades to follow was charity work; following the death of her close friend, stone Hudson, she became a leader in the conflict against AIDS, as well as for her efforts won the 1993 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian trophy. She in addition launched a successful line of perfumes. And of course, Taylor remained a fixture of tabloid headlines; she kept a close friendship with another favorite target in the tabloids, King-of-Pop Michael Jackson, and during a well-publicized stay at the Betty Ford Clinic, she began a romance with Larry Fortensky, a construction worker many years her junior. They married in 1989, however like her other relationships, it did not last. In between, there was into addition the occasional movie or television project. In 1988, she and Zeffirelli reunited for Young Toscanini, however the picture was never released; a 1989 TV adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth earned Taylor considerable publicity, however she didn’t appear in a verynother movie until 1994 with The Flintstones.
In 1997, the actress yet again became a featured tabloid topic when she underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. The same year, she bought attention of a more favorable number with Happy Birthday Elizabeth: A Celebration of Living, a TV single by which she was paid trineverthelesse by a number of stars as well as Madonna, Shirley MacLaine, John Travolta, Dennis Hopper, and Cher. In 2001, Taylor handled the impressive feat of dredging up both old tabloid headlines and spawning fresh ones, thanks to her starring role in the television film These Old Broads. Co-starring with Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins, and her old rival, Debbie Reynolds, Taylor’s involvement with the project — which was co-written by Reynolds’ daughter, Carrie Fisher, and featured her son, Todd Fisher, in a supporting role — engendered more than a few inches in the nation’s gossip columns, although both Taylor and Reynolds were fast to point out that they had laid their differences to slumber a lengthy time ago.
Academy Award-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor has died of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. She had been a patient there for more than six weeks before succumbing to her illness. “She was surrounded by her children: Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd, and Maria Burton,” Sally Morrison, Taylor’s publicist, said in a statement.
Starting out as a child star, Taylor enjoyed a remarkable career in film. She won two Academy Awards for her dramatic work in Butterfield 8 in 1960 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1965. In recent decades, Taylor had stepped away from acting to focus on charity work. She established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991.
Married eight times, Taylor also attracted a lot of media attention for her personal life. She even wed fellow performer Richard Burton twice. Health issues also plagued the actress over the years. She suffered a terrible fall from a horse during the making of her breakthrough film National Velvet (1944). Most recently, Taylor underwent heart surgery in 2009 to repair a valve.
Funeral plans have yet to be announced. Taylor’s family is asking that contributions be made to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in lieu of flowers.
Taylor died on March 23, 2011, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She was 79 years old. Through all her triumphs and difficulties, she will always be remembered as a beautiful, much-beloved woman with a presence seemingly larger than life, both on and off the screen