One of the last great stars to emerge from the studio system, today Elizabeth Taylor passed away at the age of 79. Almost unspeakably beautiful, Taylor navigated the Hollywood machine thanks to a canny head for business – but it was her private life that earned her most attention, with eight marriages, a long campaign of AIDS activism and a close friendship with Michael Jackson keeping her in the headlines. Here, we remember the last of her kind…
Elizabeth Taylor was born in north London, already naturally gifted her with two sets of eyelashes and those astonishing violet eyes. Aged 7, her family moved to the US, and by 9 she appeared in her first film, There’s One Born Every Minute. That film’s studio, Universal, didn’t pick up her contract, but she found a more enthusiastic welcome at MGM, where she had early success with Lassie Come Home the following year, and then a breakthrough leading performance in National Velvet. Taylor campaigned for the part, and it proved the first of many canny career moves, giving her a chance to shine in a film whose subject matter was bound to appeal to young girls everywhere. She followed that up with Little Women, by which time she’d earned a reputation as a reliable performer and a box-office draw. But the next hurdle would be to successfully transition to adult stardom.
The first step of that transition came in 1950 when Taylor was 17. On one hand, she played a bride onscreen in the original Father of the Bride, opposite Spencer Tracy as her father and Joan Bennett as her mother. Meanwhile in real life, Taylor got married to playboy Nicky Hilton, son to the hotel magnate Conrad. Unfortunately the young husband was prone to drink and, it emerged years later, to emotional and physical violence, and the marriage ended in January of 1951. Still, at the very least the ill-fated union signalled that Elizabeth Taylor, teen starlet, had given away to Elizabeth Taylor, star. And she soon proved that she had the talent to back up her fame.
Subtitled “An American Tragedy”, this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s book sees Taylor play a wealthy and beautiful young socialite who falls for penniless young George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) who’s trying to work his way up at his wealthy uncle’s factory. But George got fellow worker Alice (Shelley Winters) pregnant, and divides his time between wooing Taylor’s Angela on one hand and trying to get rid of Alice on the other. Inevitably, it doesn’t end happily. What was a surprise, however, was how well Taylor emerged from the film, with critics praising her to the heavens. However she didn’t land an Oscar nomination, as her co-stars did, and was moved to note that, “If you were considered pretty, you might as well have been a waitress trying to act – you were treated with no respect at all.” Still, it hinted that she was capable of meatier roles. It’s a pity that the studio took no notice.
Typically of her early 1950s roles, Ivanhoe saw Taylor’s potential pretty much wasted. Cast as second lead Rebecca rather than Ivanhoe’s true love Rowena, Taylor had more to do with the plot but not much to do overall, stuck moping about as the Jewish girl in love with the stupendous knight. It’s Joan Fontaine who ends up with him, however, while poor Rebecca has to satisfy herself with a declaration of love from a dying knight played by George Sanders. Still, compared to her roles in The Girl Who Had Everything and Rhapsody, this was a virtual highlight of the period.
It was while making Ivanhoe that Taylor met and married Michael Wilding, 20 years her senior. "This, to me, is the beginning of a happy ending," said Taylor of the match. Their marriage lasted five years and produced two sons – Michael Howard and Christopher Edward – before dissolving in 1957. Taylor had difficulties balancing her family life with stardom, with the studio forcing her to work long days to get The Girl Who Had Everything in the bag before her pregnancy began to show and refusing (at first) to allow her to star in Elephant Walk, in a part written with her in mind. Despite the pressure, however, she kept working and fighting for better parts. As luck had it, one would come along just as her marriage was ending.
Starring with Rock Hudson and James Dean, Taylor landed in one of the dreamiest casts of all time in this epic tale about rival Texas ranchers. Hudson’s the established rancher who woos and wins the gorgeous Leslie (Taylor); Dean’s the upstart who quite fancies Leslie himself and begins a lifelong rivalry with Hudson. It’s big, it’s epic and it was inevitably an Oscar favourite, managing to nab Best Director from nine nominations. Once again, however, Taylor was overlooked come awards time: the two male leads and supporting actress Mercedes McCambridge received nods, but not Elizabeth. It’s hard not to suspect that her nod the following year, for the now all-but-forgotten Raintree County, wasn’t a compensatory nomination after being overlooked here.
About two weeks after her divorce from Michael Wilding became final, Taylor married Michael Todd, a Hollywood producer and entrepreneur who was 23 years older than her and who had already been married twice. All the signs, however, are that the high-living Todd found a genuine connection with Taylor, and the pair seem to have enjoyed a happy union, during which they produced a daughter, Elizabeth or Liza, in August of 1957. However, perhaps it simply never had a chance to go sour: just over a year later, Todd died in a plane crash.
The very day that Todd was killed, the ever-professional Taylor started shooting on Cat On A Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman. While her personal life was in tatters, Taylor turned in a smouldering and powerful screen performance as neglected wife, Maggie, to Newman’s brooding and injured football player Brick. The film deviated substantially from the original play, but Newman and Taylor’s performances see both on top form (and at the height of their astonishing looks). Fun fact: this was originally due to be shot in black-and-white, until those two leads were cast and producers decided to make the most of their extraordinary eyes.
Michael Todd’s best friend had been all-American star and blue-eyed boy Eddie Fisher, who was married to Debbie “America’s Sweetheart” Reynolds and father to Carrie Fisher and Todd Fisher (named after Michael Todd). While Todd was alive the two couples had spent a lot of time together, and naturally Fisher and Reynolds offered comfort and support following Todd’s death. But Fisher and Taylor soon developed a relationship that went beyond friendship, resulting in a scandal, a divorce, a marriage and a permanent estrangement from Reynolds (years later, Reynolds reported keeping a picture of Taylor at her fattest on the fridge to remind her not to snack. Taylor, to her credit, laughed at this). Taylor and Fisher, meanwhile, starred together in Butterfield 8, which finally bagged Taylor an Oscar win. But it was her next role that proved her most iconic.
Taylor signed the contract to star in Cleopatra in 1960, but the production was plagued by delays and problems from the start. Taylor, never physically robust, was suffering from illness which held up production – and those delays, in turn, required several parts to be recast. The film was moved from London to Cinecitta in Italy, where extras stole from the set or sold gelato to one another, resulting in the forced scrapping of several wide shots. And the director, Joseph L.Mankiewicz, was briefly fired during post-production, and never got to complete the six-hour, two-film opus he was planning. Still, the four-hour epic that remains is impressive in its scale and ambition, with Taylor electric as the feisty Queen of the Nile and viewers straining to see the real-life chemistry that she was developing with Richard Burton. "I really don't remember much about Cleopatra. There were a lot of other things going on," said Taylor of the shoot.
A few years back, we at Empire found ourselves on set with the late, great unit publicist Geoff Freeman, who was in an expansive mood. His first job came on Cleopatra, and proved a baptism of fire. Almost as soon as filming began, rumours spread that something was going on between megastar Elizabeth Taylor and up-and-comer Richard Burton. Soon the three miles of the Via Appia between their respective villas was lined solid with little white tents, each one containing a paparazzo determined to picture the two together, and Freeman was walking into his office in the morning to find Burton dead-drunk on his desk, despairing of his inability to stay away from his gorgeous star. The pair sneaked in and out of nightclubs with Freeman and other minders trying to fend off the photographers, with Taylor condemned by the Vatican as an “erotic vagrant” and the pair finally bowing to the inevitable, divorcing their blameless spouses and marrying each other. "This marriage will last forever," said Taylor.
Proving that she was a decent judge of her own work, Taylor felt that this Oscar-winning performance was her best. As the shrewish, unpleasant Martha opposite Burton’s quiet but biting college professor, she’s unlikeable but utterly compelling. Taylor put on 30lbs for the role and moved a world away from the sex bombs and mystery women that were her stock in trade, and there’s a sense of both Taylor and Burton revelling in the chance to portray a very different relationship to the one that seemed the obsession of every newspaper in the world. Then again, with their globe-trotting, jewellery-buying (notably the 69 carat Burton-Taylor diamond) and even reputation-skewering turns on sitcoms like I Love Lucy, they were hard to miss.
Taylor and Burton stayed together for a decade, shared 11 films and adopted a daughter, Maria, together, but eventually cracks began to appear. His drinking kept escalating and he suffered feelings of guilt about the collapse of his first marriage, she became paranoid about his female co-stars and their fighting went from occasional to nuclear. They divorced in 1974, but it didn’t take. Just over a year later they remarried, and spent another year together. While that second attempt also ended in divorce, the pair remained in contact for the rest of his life, even appearing in a Broadway play together in 1983 (Private Lives).
The late 1970s and early 1980s marked a fallow period in Taylor’s career, and it was during this time that she met Virginia Senator John Warner. They married in 1976, following her (latest) divorce from Burton, and were together until 1982. During and following their marriage, Taylor gained and lost a considerable amount of weight, leading her to a brief second career as a weight-loss guru with the book Elizabeth Takes Off (it’s surprisingly good, and very sensible). But her time in Washington also marked the period where Taylor’s philanthropic efforts moved from rather scattershot generosity to focused campaigning, most notably for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, which Taylor helped to found in 1985 following the death of her friend Rock Hudson from the disease. She even voiced a character in an awareness-raising episode of Captain Planet to protest discrimination.
By the late 1980s, Taylor had grown dangerously dependant on drugs and alcohol (“I had a hollow leg. I could drink everyone under the table and not get drunk. My capacity was terrifying.”) to control the continuing pain from her back and various health problems. She entered rehab, where she met construction worker Larry Fortensky. He was 20 years younger than her when they married (her close friend Michael Jackson escorted her to the wedding), balancing out the age inequalities in her early marriages, but the pair seemed largely happy during their 5 years together, despite the unlikely match. After their divorce, there would be no other husbands.
With deteriorating health (which included bouts with skin cancer, a brain tumour, hip replacement operations and pneumonia) Taylor retreated further and further from the limelight during the 1990s and 2000s. She did, however, find time for a couple of final pieces of work. For one, she appeared in The Simpsons in two roles. One was, of course, herself. The second saw her speak the single word ever uttered by Simpsons baby Maggie, when she said, “Daddy!” in the episode Lisa’s First Word in 1992. Yes, Maggie spoke, and she sounds like Elizabeth Taylor. That baby’s been holding out on us.
Taylor’s final film role was a less-than-stellar, but extremely self-aware, cameo in The Flintstones as Fred’s mother-in-law. Clad in furs and more rocks than the rest of the cast put together (heck, they’re probably worth more than the budget) Taylor looks like several million dollars and displays all her old vivacity and spirit as she cries “Conga line!” to get the party going. While she cropped up on the small screen a couple more times – cameoing on The Nanny, for instance, making TV movie These Old Broads and voicing an old girlfriend of the Almighty in shortlived cartoon series God, The Devil & Bob – this was her last film role. Taylor continued to fight her ill-health enough to keep campaigning for her charitable causes, and even to tweet to her fans, but passed away on March 23, 2011.