Few film stars ever attracted more acres of newsprint, from the adoring to the acerbic, than Elizabeth Taylor. For most of her life in the cinematic spotlight she was the answer to a gossip columnist’s prayers. When there wasn’t a triumph there was a crisis; when there wasn’t stardom there was scandal.
Beginning as a child actress, she became the defining beauty for postwar American cinema. She also became Hollywood’s best-known liver of the high life, serial collector of husbands, and heroine of her own ever-expanding legend.
She was married eight times, twice to her fellow actor and partner in celebrity Richard Burton. Her willingness to challenge social taboos and shibboleths was reflected in her broad choice of friends, including film-maker Joseph Losey (blacklisted during the McCarthy era), gay fellow actors Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson, and later the scandal-harassed Michael Jackson. Late in life she saw no incongruity between marrying a conservative Republican senator, John Warner, and being the movie world’s leading campaigner for Aids charities, a cause adopted in 1985 after Hudson’s death from the disease.
Taylor’s life was frequently more dramatic than her films. There were rehabilitation sessions in drink clinics; a series of health crises; dramatic weight fluctuations that played havoc with the beauty queen image. She could also bawl at the press when fame’s pressures became too much. The different but complementary Taylors – goddess and gorgon – were epitomised in the two roles for which she won Oscars. Butterfield 8 (1960) was a glossy melodrama with Taylor at her most Hollywood-glamorous, even though she was playing a call girl victimised by men. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) let the feral Taylor off the leash, barking and growling in Mike Nichols’ powerful version of Edward Albee’s stage play.
Taylor was born on February 27th 1932, to American parents living in London. When the family returned to the US in 1939, on the outbreak of war in Europe, Elizabeth, already a violet-eyed ballet student, was discovered by movie scouts. Signed to an MGM contract in 1943, she was a child star by 1944, helped by two popular, tearjerking tales of girl-meets-animal: the canine Lassie Come Home; the equine National Velvet. MGM filled her early career with family crowd-pleasers, including Little Women and Father of the Bride, before allowing her to come of age in Ivanhoe.
That there was a temperament simmering under the ingénue beauty, and fighting to transcend a voice that remained squeaky and shrill through much of her career, was recognised in the films chosen for her in the 1950s. She was a Texas cattle baron’s wife opposite Rock Hudson in the grandiloquent oil drama Giant. She deployed a Deep South accent in the sprawling love story Raintree County and in two Tennessee Williams adaptations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer.
From early on, audiences were tempted to see in her film roles a reflection of her precocious off-screen life. Like many child stars she was fast-forwarded into adulthood. After dating Howard Hughes at 17, she married hotel heir Nicky Hilton before she was 18. The next husbands were Michael Wilding (married in 1952) and impresario Mike Todd (1957), for whom Taylor converted to Judaism. When an air crash killed Todd the following year – the man the actress later claimed she had loved most of all – she married the former best man at their wedding, singer Eddie Fisher (1959). The match drew public opprobrium for breaking up Fisher’s marriage to film star Debbie Reynolds.
The world lapped up the tittle-tattle and was soon served more. In 1962 Burton was a young matinee idol and former Shakespearean actor drafted to Rome by 20th Century Fox to play Mark Antony to Taylor’s Cleopatra. The production went into overspend. The scandal writers went into overdrive when a romance began between the two married stars. One love affair was soon enough to destroy two marriages and turn a protracted movie shoot into a confusion of life and art. By the time the historical lovers’ screen wooing was unveiled to the public, few could tell the difference between Antony and Cleopatra and Taylor and Burton.
In the tradition of grand romances, the film star couple would lavish jewels on each other, or Burton on Taylor, including the 69-carat $1m ‘Cartier diamond’ that became, briefly, the most famous gem in the world. (Later still Taylor auctioned it to fund a hospital in Botswana).
Married in 1964, Taylor and Burton acted together in a half-dozen films. Their magic flickered playfully and energetically in The Taming of the Shrew, more fitfully in The Comedians, Boom! and The Sandpiper. Their finest partnership was in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Taylor proving that, given the opportunity and material, she could be a formidable screen presence. The film made amends for her earlier Oscar-winning performance in Butterfield 8, a film she hated so much she threw a high-heeled shoe at the preview screen (before adjourning to the ladies’ room to be sick).
The Butterfield 8 Oscar was regarded as a sympathy prize for the latest, at that time, of Taylor’s health sagas. Illness and surgical intervention followed close after the film’s completion. After Oscar night the one-time favourite for Best Actress, Shirley MacLaine, cracked, “I lost out to a tracheotomy”. Taylor’s health crises in these years included spinal injuries, a brain tumour removal and a diagnosis of congestive heart failure.
Her increasingly uninsurable medical status contributed to the curtailment of her acting career. This began to falter in the 1970s, with a series of low-power love dramas (Zee and Co, Ash Wednesday) and a last reckless star turn in A Little Night Music, where she sang (after a fashion) “Send in the clowns.” After that it was TV roles and the cameo conveyor belt: Winter Kills, The Mirror Crack’d and, as a favour to her friend Franco Zeffirelli, a role in his barely-released biopic Young Toscanini.
She continued to be a star and media phenomenon in the newspapers, on TV chat shows and on any platform promoting favoured causes and charities. She appeared at the Cannes Film Festival annually to host an Aids gala dinner. On the marital front, wedding number seven to John Warner, congressman and former secretary of the Navy, yielded in 1991 to wedding number eight. (Wedding six had been a 10-month remarriage to Richard Burton). The new groom was Larry Fortensky, a 20-years-her junior construction worker she met at the Betty Ford alcohol rehabilitation clinic. That marriage too finally foundered.
In 2005 Taylor gave vocal support to her friend Michael Jackson during his trial, though she was prevented by illness from testifying personally in court.
Other career diversifications included a successful perfume campaign, a House of Taylor jewellery launch, a stint of guest voice-dubbing on television series The Simpsons and a surprise comic role in the movie The Flintstones. That typified Taylor’s colourful, unpredictable career. What other legendary beauty, five years before being made a Dame in Britain’s New Year’s honours list in 1999, would have been sporting enough to make a late, last film bow as a Stone Age mother-in-law rejoicing in the name Pearl Slaghoople? Even in the year 1994 the Taylor name and mystique were multi-carat enough to earn her a fee of $2.5m.
She is survived by four children and 10 grandchildren.