She was one of the last bigger-than-life stars from the old Hollywood era who bridged to the modern celebrity era. Possibly the most photographed woman in history – and an outsized personality whose onscreen work felt like a footnote to her dramatic life. Emerging from childhood to adulthood in the late 1940s during the last gasp of the old studio system, she carried a gift for old-fashioned publicity spin and a contemporary skill for scandal. She took movie roles that could reflect or exploit aspects of her colourful life, a biographical dialogue with her career that turned out to be her real legacy.
The Beautiful Child
Elizabeth Taylor began acting at nine, and starred at 10 in Lassie Come Home. But it was her fifth film, National Velvet (1944), for which she had campaigned hard, that made her a star. In a review of her breakthrough performance, the venerable author James Agee struggled with the problem of her beauty:
“Ever since I first saw the child I have been choked with the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school. I wouldn’t say she is particularly gifted as an actress. She seems, rather, to turn things off and on, much as she is told, with perhaps a fair amount of natural grace and a natural-born female’s sleepwalking sort of guile. She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful. I think that she and the picture are wonderful, and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not.”
Initially, MGM marketed her as an animal-loving adolescent in family-friendly teenage roles, but by 16, she was playing grown-up parts both in her life and her movies. During this transition period, when she was just 17, she shot one of the most memorable films of her career, director George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, in which she played a beautiful spoiled debutante who bewitches a working-class social climber (Montgomery Clift). Film critic Andrew Sarris wrote that the film’s young actors were “the most beautiful couple in the history of cinema.” The studio promoted both Ms. Taylor’s movie Father of the Bride and her first marriage to Nicky Conrad Hilton when she was just 18. In 1955, Mr. Stevens cast her in the Western epic Giant, co-starring Rock Hudson as her husband and James Dean as the young man in love with her. In the film, Ms. Taylor, then 23, plays a woman who ages over the course of 30 years. The role immediately increased her clout and led to stronger films that earned her a string of Oscar nominations – Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer.
The Artist as Scarlet Woman
Her most artistically rewarding period saw great fluctuations in public sympathy. Ms. Taylor’s third husband, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash in 1958, a little more than a year after they married. But she squandered the goodwill the tragedy brought when she took off with Eddie Fisher, the husband of her friend Debbie Reynolds. The betrayal may have cost her an Oscar for her luminous performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Subsequently, MGM cast her in Butterfield 8 (1960) as a call girl, a role she considered a punishment. A health crisis that led to near-fatal pneumonia and emergency surgery to save her life was largely considered to be the reason she won an Oscar for the film. (Shirley MacLaine, the favourite that year for her role in The Apartment, later complained: “I lost to a tracheotomy.”)
The Rebel Queen and her Emperor
The transition from scandal queen to historical seductress wasn’t a big one. Ms. Taylor’s next major role was as the legendary Egyptian queen Cleopatra in the Joseph L. Mankiewicz epic. The film’s budget soared to $44-million from $2-million and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. In some respects, it typified Ms. Taylor as Hollywood royalty (she was the first star to earn a $1-million payday), as well a disaster magnet.
Cleopatra also launched her love affair with Richard Burton, who played Mark Antony and greeted her with the words, “Has anyone ever told you you're a very pretty girl.”
It was not until 1964 that they were free to marry, which they did in Montreal. But in the meantime, they conducted their tempestuous, globe-trotting affair, complete with yacht filled with Picassos, meals flown across the ocean and jewel-bedecked appearances. In Boston, fans tore Mr. Burton’s coat and bloodied Ms. Taylor by tearing at her earrings, and their extravagance defined pop culture in the 1960s as surely as The Beatles or Vietnam.
The Bawd Emerges
The couple’s collaborative highpoint was their work in the 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Plump, frowsy and loud, Ms. Taylor finally made audiences forget the obstacle of her beauty. By the end of the 1960s, her box office appeal was diminishing, although she showed some promise in comedy. Reviewing her performance in another blowsy role in the forgotten sex comedy XY and Z (1972), critic Pauline Kael noted: “Like everyone else, I adored the child Elizabeth Taylor, but I have never liked her as much since as in this bizarre exhibition. She’s Beverly Hills Chaucerian, and that’s as high and low as you can get. Taylor has changed before our eyes from a fragile child with a woman’s face to the fabled beauty to this great bawd.”
The Missing Pieces
To look back at Ms. Taylor’s work is to be reminded of the parts that are left out. She did little acting of significance in the past 40 years. Even in her heyday in the 1950s, she failed to work with many of the great directors of her time – Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, or Stanley Kubrick. She also missed out on making films with some of the great actors of her generation, including Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas or Cary Grant. Yet, in a chaotic life, she managed to make a handful of highly watchable films that range from charming to mesmerizing to, at worst, wonderfully campy. All those parts were footnotes to grand persona of Elizabeth Taylor – the fashion queen, the man-stealer, the figure of jewels and cleavage and depthless gaze – who often seemed more an exotic priestess than a run-of-the-mill celebrity. Her grand, bejewelled post-Hollywood persona echoed Gloria Swanson’s line in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”