For me, her best films were: A Place In The Sun , Butterfield 8 , Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , Suddenly, Last Summer , Reflections in a Golden Eye , and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? .
"Elizabeth Taylor, legendary actress, dies at 79"
Elizabeth Taylor, star of stage and screen who married multiple times, became a successful businesswoman and helped to pioneer the fight against AIDS, dies of congestive heart failure.
March 23rd, 2011
Los Angeles Times
Elizabeth Taylor, star of stage and screen who married multiple times, became a successful businesswoman and helped to pioneer the fight against AIDS, dies of congestive heart failure.
March 23rd, 2011
Los Angeles Times
Elizabeth Taylor, the glamorous queen of American movie stardom, whose achievements as an actress were often overshadowed by her rapturous looks and real-life dramas, has died. She was 79.
Taylor died early Wednesday of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said publicist Sally Morrison. She had been hospitalized six weeks ago.
"My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor and love," her son Michael Wilding said in a statement. "Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world. Her remarkable body of work in film, her ongoing success as a businesswoman, and her brave and relentless advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, all make us all incredibly proud of what she accomplished. We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts."
During a career that spanned six decades, the legendary beauty with lavender eyes won two Oscars and made more than 50 films, performing alongside such fabled leading men as Spencer Tracy, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Richard Burton, whom she married twice. She took her cues from a Who's Who of directors, including George Cukor, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, George Stevens, Vincente Minnelli and Mike Nichols.
Long after she faded from the screen, she remained a mesmerizing figure, blessed and cursed by the extraordinary celebrity that molded her life through its many phases: She was a child star who bloomed gracefully into an ingenue; a femme fatale on the screen and in life; a canny peddler of high-priced perfume; a pioneering activist in the fight against AIDS.
Some actresses, such as Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman, won more awards and critical plaudits, but none matched Taylor's hold on the collective imagination. In the public's mind, she was the dark goddess for whom playing Cleopatra, as she did with such notoriety, required no great leap from reality.
Taylor, New York Times critic Vincent Canby once wrote, "has grown up in the full view of a voracious public for whom the triumphs and disasters of her personal life have automatically become extensions of her screen performances. She's different from the rest of us."
Her passions were legend. She loved to eat, which led to well-publicized battles with weight over the years. She loved men, dating many of the world's richest and most famous, including Frank Sinatra, Henry Kissinger and Malcolm Forbes, and married eight times, including the two visits to the altar with Burton.
She loved jewels, amassing huge and expensive baubles the way children collect toys.
"It would be very glamorous to be reincarnated as a big ring on Elizabeth Taylor's finger," Andy Warhol once mused about the woman who owned the 33-carat Krupp diamond ring — a gift from Burton that she wore daily. It broadcast to the world that she was a lady with an enormous lust for life.
But Taylor attracted misfortune too. According to one chronicler, she suffered more than 70 illnesses, injuries and accidents requiring hospitalization, including an appendectomy, an emergency tracheotomy, a punctured esophagus, a hysterectomy, dysentery, an ulcerated eye, smashed spinal discs, phlebitis, skin cancer and hip replacements. In 1997, she had a benign brain tumor removed. By her own count, she nearly died four times.
In 2004 she disclosed that she had congestive heart failure and crippling spinal problems that left her in constant pain. For much of her life she struggled with alcohol and prescription painkillers.
She was often described as the quintessential Tennessee Williams heroine, a characterization Taylor did not dispute.
It meant, she once told the Los Angeles Times, "steamy, full of drama. I'm sure they didn't mean it kindly. Tennessee's heroines are all fraught. They're all on the brink of disaster."
On the evening of Oct. 6, 1991, two dozen helicopters carrying paparazzi and reporters whirred in the skies above singer Michael Jackson's ranch in Santa Barbara County. Despite an armada of hot-air balloons launched as a shield against prying eyes, a parachutist wearing a camera on his helmet managed to land mere yards from the 59-year-old bride and her 39-year-old groom.
Thus were Taylor and construction worker Larry Fortensky wed — amid Hollywood hoopla and conjecture about whether the movie star's eighth walk down the aisle would be her last.
Who could know? The only sure thing was that Elizabeth Taylor adored men.
"I'm more of a man's woman," she once admitted. "With men, there's a kind of twinkle that comes out. I sashay up to a man. I walk up to a woman."
She was 17 when Husband No. 1 laid eyes on her. That was Conrad Nicholas Hilton Jr., the handsome scion of the Hilton hotel clan. Their 1950 marriage, burdened by Taylor's celebrity and Hilton's gambling, drinking and abusive behavior, lasted eight months.
No. 2 was Michael Wilding, a British actor 20 years her senior, whose gentleness offered Taylor a safe haven. They had two children: Michael Howard, born in 1953, and Christopher Edward, born in 1955. They were divorced in 1957 after five years.
No. 3 was Mike Todd, a flamboyant producer ("Around the World in 80 Days") who would be one of the two great loves of her life. After he delivered an hour-long monologue about why they should marry and a 30-carat diamond to seal the deal, they exchanged vows in 1957. They had been married slightly more than a year when, on March 22, 1958, Todd was killed in a plane crash in New Mexico, leaving Taylor a widow at 26.
In the days following Todd's death, Eddie Fisher — the singing idol who was Todd's best friend and actress Debbie Reynolds' husband — spent long hours by Taylor's side, crying with her as they read through thousands of sympathy letters and telegrams. When mutual consolation turned into romance, Fisher broke up with Reynolds and married Taylor in 1959.
After the wedding, Taylor's career reached new peaks, but Fisher's flagged, creating an opening for the second great love of Taylor's life.
The future No. 5 met Taylor at a Sunday afternoon swim party. "She was, I decided, the most astonishingly self-contained, pulchritudinous, remote, removed, inaccessible woman I had ever seen," Burton wrote in a diary passage quoted in Melvyn Bragg's 1988 biography of the Welsh actor. She was, Burton said, "beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography."
He and Taylor began a tumultuous affair in Rome on the set of "Cleopatra," the epic about the Egyptian queen who dies for love. Because both were huge stars married to other people, their adultery caused a worldwide scandal. A member of Congress introduced a motion to ban them from the U.S., and the Vatican condemned their "erotic vagrancy."
Such bad press, Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons wrote, "ought to have killed them." Others joked that it only encouraged the besotted stars. After a two-year separation, Taylor divorced Fisher in early 1964 and married Burton.
Theirs was a marriage on a grand scale. She gave him a Van Gogh, he lavished her with priceless gems, including the behemoth Krupp diamond and a 25-carat, heart-shaped pendant of diamonds, rubies and emeralds originally made for the bride of the man who built the Taj Mahal. Burton also outbid shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis for a $1.1-million, 69-carat diamond ring from Cartier in New York that became known as the Taylor-Burton diamond.
America's most famous couple not only spent extravagantly, but also fought and drank to excess. When their union finally unraveled, Burton told the London Daily Mail: "You can't keep clapping a couple of sticks [of dynamite] together without expecting them to blow up." They were divorced by a Swiss court on June 26, 1974.
The next year they retied the knot before an African tribal chief in Botswana. Less than a year later, in 1976, they severed the tie in a Haitian divorce, but their love for each other continued.
Taylor said that if Burton had not had a fatal brain hemorrhage in Geneva in 1984 she probably would have wound up with him a third time. "I was still madly in love with him until the day he died," she said. Long after his death, she kept a copy of his last letter — penned three days before his death — in her bedside drawer. She allowed many of the letters to be published in the book "Furious Love" by Sam Kushner and Nancy Schoenberger (2010).
Husband No. 6 appeared when the screen goddess needed an escort for a dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth and then-President Ford. The British Embassy paired her with John Warner, a ruggedly handsome former secretary of the Navy and gentleman farmer from Virginia. They were married in 1976, and in 1978 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Although Taylor had been a devoted campaigner, she found she was ill-suited for the role of political wife. While Warner spent long hours in Washington, she passed the time watching television and eating until her weight ballooned to 180 pounds on a 5-foot-4 frame. "I don't think I've ever been so alone in my life as when I was Mrs. Senator," she wrote in "Elizabeth Takes Off," her 1988 diet book-cum-autobiography.
Seeking relief in acting, she starred in a Broadway production of Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" and spent a year on the road. In 1982 she officially canceled her run as the senator's wife and moved to a mansion in Bel-Air.
By the end of 1983, she was burned out, bloated and abusing alcohol and pills. Confronted by her family and close friend Roddy McDowall, she checked into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, where she slept in a dormitory, went on clean-up detail and, as she later told writer Dominick Dunne, was "peeled down to the absolute core" in group therapy sessions. Her public announcement that she was being treated for substance abuse encouraged other celebrities, including Liza Minnelli, to disclose their own struggles.
A clean and sober Taylor held on to her newfound health for a few years, until pain from a crushed vertebra sent her back to pills and booze. According to an investigation some years later by the attorney general of California, her addictions were enabled by three of her personal doctors, who wrote more than 1,000 prescriptions over seven years for painkillers, tranquilizers, antidepressants and stimulants.
During her second visit to the Betty Ford Center in 1988, she met Fortensky, a twice-married construction worker who was seeking treatment for a drinking problem. After leaving the clinic, Taylor invited him to Bel-Air for weekend barbecues and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with him. Later she would tell gossip columnist Liz Smith that she was attracted to Fortensky because "he wasn't a wimp, and I'm not a wimp."
After the wedding in 1991, Fortensky tried to resume his working man's routine, rising before dawn to head to his construction job. At the end of the day, he would park his dirty boots outside the mansion door, shower and sit down to dinner with his wife by 6 p.m. The regimen seemed exotic to Taylor, who told Life magazine in 1992: "I used to go to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning. Now we're in bed by 10 o'clock, and I have to admit I like it."
But the charm wore off after Fortensky stopped working. Citing irreconcilable differences, she filed for divorce in 1996 and swore off marriage.
"I don't want to be a sex symbol," she once said. "I would rather be a symbol of a woman who makes mistakes, perhaps, but a woman who loves."
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London of American parents on Feb. 27, 1932. Her mother, a former stage actress named Sara Sothern, and her father, art dealer Francis Taylor, gave her and brother Howard seaside holidays, servants and plenty of toys. Adults doted on little Elizabeth, who had luminous eyes, alabaster skin framed by raven-black tresses and a tiny birthmark on her right cheek that her mother highlighted with a cosmetic pencil.
When she was 7, her family moved to Beverly Hills, where Francis managed an art gallery in the Beverly Hills Hotel. With her fetching little-woman looks and a mother who aggressively pushed her into auditions, Elizabeth was noticed by talent scouts and soon had a contract at Universal Pictures. In 1942 at age 10 she made her film debut in a little-noticed comedy, "There's One Born Every Minute." Soon she was earning more than her father, whose resentment of this fact deepened his reliance on alcohol and fueled occasional beatings of his daughter.
"I stopped being a child the minute I started working in pictures," she told writer Paul Theroux in 1999.
She changed studios in 1943 when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was looking for a dog-loving English girl to play a small role in "Lassie Come Home." Elizabeth landed the part and became an MGM contract player.
Critics did not really take notice of her until MGM cast her in "National Velvet" as Velvet Brown, a girl who dreams of riding in England's Grand National steeplechase. "I wouldn't say she is particularly gifted as an actress," James Agee wrote in The Nation in 1944. "She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful. I hardly know or care whether she can act or not."
After the success of "National Velvet," it was difficult for Taylor to call her life her own. Her contract, she said later, "made me an MGM chattel" for the next 18 years. The studio chose her roles, controlled her public appearances, picked her dates and stage-managed her first wedding. After a string of ingenue roles, she won her first romantic lead opposite Robert Taylor in the forgettable melodrama "Conspirator" (1950). She experienced enough success to be noticed by the Harvard Lampoon, which teased her for "so gallantly persisting in her career despite a total inability to act."
In 1951 she answered those skeptics with her work in "A Place in the Sun," directed by Stevens. Playing a restless, sexually eager society girl drawn to a young man from a lower-class background, Taylor won her first critical praise as an adult actress.
Shelley Winters, who played Taylor's lower-class rival in the movie, said in 1985 that "A Place in the Sun" was "still the best thing she ever did. Elizabeth had a depth and a simpleness which were really remarkable."
Stevens later hired her for another demanding role in "Giant" (1956), an epic about two generations of Texans. She played the wife of cattleman Rock Hudson, and James Dean, who died in a car crash before the movie was released, played a wild young ranch hand. Critics hailed her artistry, her "astonishing revelation of unsuspected gifts," the Times of London put it.
Her next three films would bring her Oscar nominations.
The first was for "Raintree County," a 1957 release directed by Edward Dmytryk, in which Taylor played a passionate Southern belle capable of madness.
The next nomination was for her portrayal of Maggie in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958). Taylor played the beautiful, sexually seething wife of Paul Newman, the alcoholic, latently homosexual son of a Mississippi plantation owner. Although the actress was widowed in the midst of filming when Todd's plane crashed, she managed to turn in a performance widely considered one of the best of her adult career.
"She was an intuitive actress," Newman said years later of the woman who never took an acting lesson. "I was always staggered by her ferocity, and how quickly she could tap into her emotions. It was a privilege to watch her."
Her third nomination recognized her work in "Suddenly Last Summer," another Williams story, which explored insanity, homosexuality and cannibalism. A commercial success like "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," it boosted Taylor into the box-office top 10 for the first time. She remained in the top 10 almost every year for the next decade.
In 1961 she won her first Oscar for her portrayal of a call girl in a tortured affair with a married man in "Butterfield 8." Although she hated the part and the script, she agreed to the role because it ended her contractual obligations to MGM.
Her next project was "Cleopatra" for Twentieth Century Fox. Taylor was loath to take the title role and set her asking price at $1 million. According to Fisher, she eventually earned $7 million after her percentages and other fees were paid.
With a record-breaking final price tag of $62 million, the film ushered in a new era of excess in Hollywood. It nearly bankrupted Fox, which was forced to sell its back lot bordering Beverly Hills to a developer, who turned those 200 acres into Century City.
The production also launched the most turbulent period of Taylor's life. She contracted pneumonia during filming in Rome and underwent an emergency tracheotomy. She was reported to be near death for days.
After she recovered and returned to the "Cleopatra" set, headlines around the world began to scream details of her affair with Burton. When the movie was finally released in 1963, the reviews were brutal, but audiences flocked to see its shameless-in-love stars.
Taylor co-starred with Burton in several more movies, including "The V.I.P.s" (1963); "The Sandpiper" (1965); "Doctor Faustus," "The Comedians" and "The Taming of the Shrew" (all 1967); "Boom!" (1968); "Under Milk Wood" and "Hammersmith Is Out" (both 1972); and an aptly titled television movie, "Divorce His, Divorce Hers" (1973). Critics found most of their collaborations unremarkable.
The exception came in 1966, when the ritzy couple were cast against type in Edward Albee's drama of marital angst, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Taylor gained 25 pounds and donned a gray wig and extra padding to play Martha, the frumpy, foul-mouthed, highly educated wife of Burton's henpecked college professor. She was reportedly terrified by the challenge of playing a role so far removed from her glamorous persona.
Nichols put the Burtons and the other two cast members — George Segal and Sandy Dennis — through weeks of private rehearsals and closed the set during filming. Gradually, Taylor said, she grew so comfortable in her "Martha suit" that it freed her acting.
Critics lavished praise on her performance, calling it the best of her career. The film won five Oscars, including Taylor's second for best actress. She also won awards from the National Board of Review, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the New York Film Critics Circle and what is now the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Her next film, "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1967) with Brando, showed more of Taylor as a serious actress, but it was followed by a torrent of bad movies that made it easy for critics to dismiss her again. Her voice, thin and inflexible, was considered one of her chief limitations.
Nonetheless, she played a surprisingly broad range of roles, including a rollicking performance as a bitchy wife in the 1972 movie "X Y & Zee." Critic Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker, said Taylor knocked "two fine performers [Michael Caine and Susannah York] right off the screen."
Taylor portrayed an aging movie star in "The Mirror Crack'd" (1980), an all-star adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel. She also dabbled in television movies and returned to the stage, earning mixed reviews on Broadway in 1981 in "The Little Foxes." In 1983, she reunited professionally with Burton in the Noel Coward farce "Private Lives," a play about a divorced couple whose romance is rekindled by a chance meeting. "Life doesn't imitate art in this 'Private Lives,'" the New York Times' Frank Rich wrote, "it obliterates it."
With her acting career in decline, she turned to business. In 1987 she introduced Elizabeth Taylor's Passion, a perfume sold in a purple, heart-shaped flask for $165 an ounce. It would eventually become the fourth-bestselling women's fragrance in America, grossing $70 million a year. In the 1990s she introduced another successful scent, White Diamonds.
Among her last acting jobs was the modest role of Fred Flintstone's mother-in-law in the 1994 release "The Flintstones," Universal's live-action version of the cartoon series. Critic Leonard Maltin called her performance "deliciously funny." She also lent her voice to a character on Fox Television's popular animated show "The Simpsons."
In 2001, she co-starred with Debbie Reynolds in the ABC movie "These Old Broads," in which Reynolds played an aging Hollywood actress and Taylor her agent. The movie — written by Carrie Fisher, Reynolds' daughter with the man who four decades earlier had left her for Taylor — brought a happy ending to one of Hollywood's most famous feuds.
Taylor said she would have relished more character roles but the market was limited for aging glamour queens. Neither could she slowly fade away: Her every move was still fodder for the tabloid press. "So I thought, if you're going to screw me over, I'll use you," she told Vanity Fair in 1992. "I could take the fame I'd resented so long and use it to do some good."
Taylor had many gay friends and, as the AIDS epidemic mushroomed, some of them were dying. In 1985, she became the most prominent celebrity to back what was then a most unfashionable cause. She agreed to chair the first major AIDS benefit, a fundraising dinner for the nonprofit AIDS Project Los Angeles.
She began calling her A-list friends to solicit their support. Some of Hollywood's biggest stars (Sinatra reportedly among them) turned her down. Taylor redoubled her efforts, aided along the way by the stunning announcement that Hudson, the handsome matinee idol and "Giant" co-star, had the dreaded disease.
Thanks to Taylor's high profile and public sympathy for Hudson, the star-studded AIDS fundraiser netted $1 million and attracted 2,500 guests, including former First Lady Betty Ford. Hudson was too ill to attend but used the occasion to release a major public statement about his illness.
Randy Shilts, who wrote the pioneering AIDS chronicle "And the Band Played On," said Taylor made a profound difference.
"Elizabeth Taylor got AIDS on 'Entertainment Tonight,' and you can't underestimate the value of that kind of exposure," Shilts said. "It made the disease something that respectable people could talk about."
Taylor went on to co-found, with Dr. Mathilde Krim, the first national organization devoted to backing AIDS research, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, or AmFAR. In 1991 she formed the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which directly supports AIDS education and patient care. She denounced President George H.W. Bush, accusing him of inaction on AIDS; called for AIDS testing; and emphasized personal responsibility in prevention of the disease. "People shouldn't stop having sex — I'd be the last person in the world to advocate that — but safe sex," she said, "is important."
Her AIDS work brought her the Legion of Honor, France's highest civilian award, in 1987 and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993.In 2000, Queen Elizabeth made her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an honor on the level of knighthood.
Through her various efforts she would eventually raise more than $270 million for AIDS prevention and care.
In late 2007 she made a rare return to the stage to raise another million in a benefit performance of A.R. Gurney's bittersweet play "Love Letters" at Paramount Studios. Striking Writers Guild members temporarily laid down their picket signs to allow Taylor and guests to support the event without guilt or rancor. After her moving reading brought the audience to its feet, the frail actress stood up from her wheelchair to acknowledge the ovation. She was still regal — and dripping diamonds.
In addition to her sons Michael and Christopher Wilding, Taylor is survived by daughters Liza Todd and Maria Burton, 10 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.
"Elizabeth Taylor, Lifelong Screen Star, Dies at 79"
March 23rd, 2011
The New York Times
March 23rd, 2011
The New York Times
Elizabeth Taylor, the actress who dazzled generations of moviegoers with her stunning beauty and whose name was synonymous with Hollywood glamour, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 79.
A spokeswoman at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said Ms. Taylor died at 1:28 a.m. Pacific time. The cause was congestive heart failure, her publicist, Sally Morrison, told The Associated Press. Ms. Taylor, who had had a series of medical setbacks over the years, was treated for heart problems at Cedars-Sinai last month.
In a world of flickering images, Elizabeth Taylor was a constant star. First appearing on screen at age 9, she grew up there, never passing through an awkward age. It was one quick leap from “National Velvet” to “A Place in the Sun” and from there to “Cleopatra,” as she was indelibly transformed from a vulnerable child actress into a voluptuous film queen.
In a career of more than 70 years and more than 50 films, she won two Academy Awards as best actress, for her performances as a call girl in “Butterfield 8” (in 1960) and as the acid-tongued Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (in 1966). Mike Nichols, who directed her in “Virginia Woolf,” said he considered her “one of the greatest cinema actresses.”
When Ms. Taylor was honored in 1986 by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, “More than anyone else I can think of, Elizabeth Taylor represents the complete movie phenomenon — what movies are as an art and an industry, and what they have meant to those of us who have grown up watching them in the dark.”
Ms. Taylor’s popularity endured throughout her life, but critics were sometimes reserved in their praise of her acting. In that sense she may have been upstaged by her own striking beauty. Could anyone as lovely as Elizabeth Taylor also be talented? The answer, of course, was yes.
Given her lack of professional training, the range of her acting was surprisingly wide. She played predatory vixens and wounded victims. She was Cleopatra of the burnished barge; Tennessee Williams’s Maggie the cat; Catherine Holly, who confronted terror suddenly last summer; and Shakespeare’s Kate. Her melodramatic heroines would have been at home on soap operas.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in “Suddenly, Last Summer” and “Cleopatra,” remembered seeing her for the first time, in Cannes, when she was 18. “She was the most incredible vision of loveliness I have ever seen in my life,” he said. “And she was sheer innocence.”
Mr. Mankiewicz admired her professionalism. “Whatever the script called for, she played it,” he said. “The thread that goes through the whole is that of a woman who is an honest performer. Therein lies her identity.”
It was also Mr. Mankiewicz who said that for Ms. Taylor, “living life was a kind of acting,” that she lived her life “in screen time.”
Marilyn Monroe was the sex goddess, Grace Kelly the ice queen, Audrey Hepburn the eternal gamine. Ms. Taylor was beauty incarnate. As the director George Stevens said when he chose her for “A Place in the Sun,” the role called for the “beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy, some time or other, thinks he can marry.”
There was more than a touch of Ms. Taylor herself in the roles she played. She acted with the magnet of her personality. Although she could alter her look for a part — putting on weight for Martha in “Virginia Woolf” or wearing elaborate period costumes — she was not a chameleon, assuming the coloration of a character. Instead she would bring the character closer to herself. For her, acting was “purely intuitive.” As she said, “What I try to do is to give the maximum emotional effect with the minimum of visual movement.”
Sometimes her film roles seemed to be a mirror image of her own life. More than most movie stars, she seemed to exist in the public domain, where her indiscretions were bared under a spotlight. She was pursued by paparazzi and denounced by the Vatican. But behind the seemingly scandalous behavior was a woman with a clear sense of morality: she habitually married her lovers. People watched and counted, with vicarious pleasure, as she became Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky — enough marriages to certify her career as a serial wife. Asked why she married so often, she said, in an assumed drawl: “I don’t know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me.”
During a lifetime of emotional and physical setbacks, life-threatening illnesses and accidents, and several near-death experiences, Ms. Taylor was a survivor. “I’ve been lucky all my life,” she said in 1992, just before turning 60. “Everything was handed to me. Looks, fame, wealth, honors, love. I rarely had to fight for anything. But I’ve paid for that luck with disasters.” At 65, she said on the ABC News program “20-20”: “I’m like a living example of what people can go through and survive. I’m not like anyone. I’m me.”
Her life was played out in print: miles of newspaper and magazine articles, a galaxy of photographs and a shelf of biographies, each one painting a different portrait. “Planes, trains, everything stops for Elizabeth Taylor, but the public has no conception of who she is,” said Roddy McDowall, who was one of her earliest co-stars and a friend for life. “People who damn her wish to hell they could do what they think she does.”
There was one point of general agreement: her beauty. As cameramen noted, her face was flawlessly symmetrical; she had no bad angle, and her eyes were of the deepest violet.
One prominent and perhaps surprising dissenter about her looks was Richard Burton, who was twice her husband. The notion of his wife as “the most beautiful woman in the world is absolute nonsense,” he said.
“She has wonderful eyes,” he added, “but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she’s rather short in the leg.”
On screen and off, Ms. Taylor was a provocative combination of the angel and the seductress. In all her incarnations she had a vibrant sensuality. But beneath it was more than a tinge of vulgarity, as in her love of ostentatious jewelry. “I know I’m vulgar,” she said, addressing her fans with typical candor, “but would you have me any other way?”
For many years she was high on the list of box-office stars. Even when her movies were unsuccessful, or, late in her career, when she acted infrequently, she retained her fame: there was only one Liz (a nickname she hated), and her celebrity increased the more she lived her life in public. There was nothing she could do about it. “The public me,” she said, “the one named Elizabeth Taylor, has become a lot of hokum and fabrication — a bunch of drivel — and I find her slightly revolting.”
Late in her life, she became known as a social activist. After the death of her friend Rock Hudson, she was a founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and devoted a great deal of her time to raising money for it. In 1997, she said, “I use my fame now when I want to help a cause or other people.”
Twice she had leading roles on Broadway, in a 1981 revival of Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes” and two years later in Noël Coward’s “Private Lives,” with Burton, at that point her former husband. In the first instance she won some critical respect; in the second she and Burton descended into self-parody. In any case, theater was not her most appropriate arena; it was as a movie star on a wide screen that she made her impact.
In a life of many surprises, one of the oddest facts is that as an infant she was considered to be an ugly duckling. Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London on Feb. 27, 1932, the second child of American parents with roots in Kansas. Her father, Francis Lenn Taylor, was an art dealer who had been transferred to London from New York; her mother, the former Sara Viola Warmbrodt, had acted in the theater in New York, under the name Sara Sothern, before she was married. (Her brother, Howard, was born in 1929.) At birth, her mother said, her daughter’s “tiny face was so tightly closed it looked as if it would never unfold.”
Elizabeth spent her early childhood in England. It was there, at 3, that she learned to ride horseback, a skill that was to help her win her first major role. Just before the beginning of World War II, her parents returned to the United States, moving to Pasadena, Calif., and later Beverly Hills, with their son and daughter.
Ms. Taylor’s mother shared with her an infatuation with the movies, and encouraged her to act. Elizabeth made her movie debut in 1942 as Gloria Twine in a forgettable film called “There’s One Born Every Minute,” with Carl Switzer, who was best known as Alfalfa, the boy with the cowlick in the “Our Gang” series. The casting director at Universal offered this capsule criticism: “The kid has nothing.”
Despite that inauspicious debut, Sam Marx, an MGM producer who had known the Taylors in England, arranged for their daughter to have a screen test for “Lassie Come Home.” She passed the audition. During the filming, in which she acted opposite Roddy McDowall, a cameraman mistakenly thought her long eyelashes were fake and asked her to take them off.
The power of her attraction was evident as early as 1944, in “National Velvet.” MGM had for many years owned the film rights to the Enid Bagnold novel on which the film was based but had had difficulty finding a child actress who could speak with an English accent and ride horses. At 12, Elizabeth Taylor met those requirements, though she was initially rejected for being too short. Stories circulated that she stretched herself in order to fill the physical dimensions of the role: Velvet Brown, a girl who was obsessed with horses and rode one to victory in the Grand National Steeplechase. “I knew if it were right for me to be Velvet,” she said, “God would make me grow.”
In one scene, her horse, which she called the Pie, seemed to be dying, and Ms. Taylor was supposed to cry — the first time she was called on to show such emotion on screen. Her co-star was Mickey Rooney, a more experienced actor, and he gave her some advice on how to summon up tears: pretend that her father was dying, that her mother had to wash clothes for a living and that her little dog had been run over. Hearing that sad scenario, Ms. Taylor burst out laughing at the absurdity. When it came time to shoot the scene, she later said: “All I thought about was the horse being very sick and that I was the little girl who owned him. And the tears came.”
Ms. Taylor gave a performance that, quite literally, made grown men and women weep, to say nothing of little girls who identified with Velvet. In his review of the film in The Nation, James Agee, otherwise a tough-minded critic, confessed that the first time he had seen Ms. Taylor on screen he had been “choked with the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school.”
She was, he said, “rapturously beautiful.”
“I think that she and the picture are wonderful,” he added, “and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not.”
The movie made her a star. Decades later, she said “National Velvet” was still “the most exciting film” she had ever made. But there was a drawback. To do the movie, she had to sign a long-term contract with MGM. As she said, she “became their chattel until I did ‘Cleopatra.’ ”
At first she played typical teenagers (in “Life With Father,” “A Date With Judy” and “Little Women”). At 16 she was “an emotional child inside a woman’s body,” she later said. But in contrast to other child actresses, she made an easy transition to adult roles. In 1950, she played Robert Taylor’s wife in “Conspirator.” The same year, she was in Vincente Minnelli’s “Father of the Bride,” with Spencer Tracy. And, life imitating art, she became a bride herself in 1950, marrying the hotel heir Conrad N. Hilton Jr. After an unhappy nine months, she divorced him and then married the British actor Michael Wilding, who was 20 years older than she.
By her own estimation, she “whistled and hummed” her way through her early films. But that changed in 1951, when she made “A Place in the Sun,” playing her prototypical role as a seemingly unattainable romantic vision. The film, she said, was “the first time I ever considered acting when I was young.”
In the film, she is a wealthy young woman of social position who is the catalyst for Montgomery Clift’s American tragedy. To the astonishment of skeptics, she held her own with Clift and Shelley Winters.
“A Place in the Sun” was followed by “Ivanhoe,” “Beau Brummel” and “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” Then she made two wide-screen epics back to back, “Giant” (with Rock Hudson and James Dean, who died after finishing his scenes) and “Raintree County” (with Clift, who became one of her closest friends). Her role in the Civil War-era drama “Raintree,” as Susanna Drake, a Southern belle who marries an Indiana abolitionist, earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress in 1957. It was the first of four consecutive nominations, the last of which resulted in a win for “Butterfield 8.” Ms. Taylor was filming “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Paul Newman in 1958 when her third husband, the flamboyant impresario Mike Todd, was killed along with three others in New Mexico in the crash of a small plane called the Lucky Liz. They had been married little more than a year and had a newly born daughter, Liza.
A bereaved Ms. Taylor was consoled by her husband’s best friend, the singer Eddie Fisher, who in a storybook romance was married to the actress Debbie Reynolds, one of America’s sweethearts. Soon a shocked nation learned that Debbie and Eddie were over and that Mr. Fisher was marrying Ms. Taylor, continuing what turned out to be a chain of marital events. (In 1993, at an AIDS benefit, Ms. Reynolds appeared on stage 20 minutes before Ms. Taylor and said, to waves of laughter, “Well, here I am, sharing something else with Elizabeth.”) Mr. Fisher died in 2010.
After Ms. Taylor finished “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” MGM demanded that she fulfill her contract and act in a film version of John O’Hara’s “Butterfield 8” (1960). Her performance as the call girl Gloria Wandrous brought her an Oscar as best actress.
The award was bestowed less than six weeks after she was forced to undergo an emergency tracheotomy in a London hospital after being overcome by pneumonia and losing consciousness, one of several times tabloid headlines proclaimed her close to death. She and others felt that the Oscar was given to her more out of sympathy for her illness than in appreciation of her acting.
Next was “Cleopatra,” in which she was the first actress to be paid a million-dollar salary. Working overtime, she eventually made more than twice that figure. The movie was made in Rome and cost so much ($40 million, a record for its time) and took so long that it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox and caused an irrevocable rift between the producer Darryl F. Zanuck and the director Mr. Mankiewicz.
When “Cleopatra” was finally released in 1963, it was a disappointment. But the film became legendary for the off-screen affair of its stars, Ms. Taylor, then married to Mr. Fisher, and Richard Burton, then married to Sybil Williams.
Taylor and Burton: it seemed like a meeting, or a collision, of opposites, the most famous film star in the world and the man many believed to be the finest classical actor of his generation. What they had in common was an extraordinary passion for each other and for living life to the fullest. Their romantic roller coaster was closely chronicled by the international press, which began referring to the couple as an entity called “Dickenliz.”
After finishing the film, Ms. Taylor went with Burton to Toronto, where he was on a pre-Broadway tour with “Hamlet.” In Toronto, and later in New York, the two were at the height of their megastardom, accompanied by a retinue as large as that of the Sultan of Brunei and besieged by fans, who turned every public appearance into a mob scene. In New York, as many as 5,000 people gathered outside the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on West 46th Street after every performance of “Hamlet,” hoping Ms. Taylor was backstage and eager to see the couple emerge.
They were married in 1964, and Ms. Taylor tried without success to keep herself in the background. “I don’t think of myself as Taylor,” she said, ingenuously. “I much prefer being Burton.” She told her husband, “If I get fat enough, they won’t ask me to do any more films.” Although she put on weight, she continued to act.
The life of Dickenliz was marked by excess. They maintained mansions in various countries, rented entire floors of hotels and spent lavishly on cars, art and jewelry, including the 69.42-carat Cartier diamond and the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond. (In 2002, Ms. Taylor published “My Love Affair With Jewelry,” a coffee-table memoir as told through the prism of her world-class gems.)
Since childhood, Ms. Taylor had been surrounded by domestic animals. When she was not allowed to take her dogs with her to London because of a quarantine rule, she leased a yacht for them at a reported cost of $20,000 and moored it on the Thames.
After “Cleopatra,” the couple united in a film partnership that gave the public glossy romances like “The V.I.P.’s” and “The Sandpiper” and one powerful drama about marital destructiveness, the film version of Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” As Martha, the faculty wife, a character 20 years older than she was, Ms. Taylor gained 20 pounds and made herself look dowdy. After she received her second Academy Award for the performance, Burton, who played Martha’s husband, George, offered a wry response: “She won an Oscar for it, he said, bitterly, and I didn’t, he said, equally bitterly.”
The Burtons also acted together in “Doctor Faustus” (1968), in which she was a conjured-up Helen of Troy; “The Comedians” (1967), with Ms. Taylor as an adulterous ambassador’s wife in Haiti; Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967), with Ms. Taylor as the volatile Katharina to Burton’s wife-hunting Petrucchio; “Boom!” (1968), an adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” with Ms. Taylor as a rich, ailing woman living on an island; “Under Milk Wood” (1972), an adaptation of the Dylan Thomas play; and “Hammersmith Is Out” (1972), a retelling of the Faust legend in which she played a diner waitress.
On her own, Ms. Taylor was an adulterous Army major’s wife in “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967), with Marlon Brando; a fading prostitute in “Secret Ceremony” (1968); an aging Las Vegas chorus girl in “The Only Game in Town” (1970), with Warren Beatty; a rich widow who witnesses a murder in “Night Watch” (1973); and a wife who tries to save her marriage through plastic surgery in “Ash Wednesday” (1973), among other films.
After 10 high-living and often torrid years, the Burtons were divorced in 1974, remarried 16 months later (in a mud-hut village in Botswana), separated again the following February and granted a divorce in Haiti in July 1976.
Burton died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 58 in 1984 in Switzerland. Thirteen years later, Ms. Taylor said that Todd and Burton were the loves of her life, and that if Burton had lived they might have married a third time. For years after his death, she told The Times in 2000, she couldn’t watch when the films they had made were shown on television.
After her second divorce from Burton, she wed John W. Warner, a Virginia politician, and was active in his winning campaign for the United States Senate. As she had done with Burton, she tried to subordinate her career to that of her husband. For five years she acted as a Washington political wife and became, she said, “the loneliest person in the world.” Overcome by depression, she checked herself into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She later admitted that she had been treated as “a drunk and a junkie.”
In addition to alcohol and drugs, she had a problem with overeating, and it became the butt of frequent jokes by the comedian Joan Rivers (“She has more chins than a Chinese phone book”). Ms. Rivers later apologized to Ms. Taylor through a friend, though Ms. Taylor shrugged off the insults, saying they did not “get me where I live.” Ms. Rivers said, “From then on, I was crazy about her.” Always one to admit to her mistakes and misfortunes, Ms. Taylor wrote a book about her weight problems, “Elizabeth Takes Off: On Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-Image, and Self-Esteem” (1988).
When she returned to the Ford center for further treatment, she met Larry Fortensky, a construction worker, who was also a patient. In a wedding spectacular in 1991, she and Mr. Fortensky were married at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif., with celebrated guests sharing the grounds with Mr. Jackson’s giraffes, zebras and llamas. Although the press was not invited to the ceremony, a photographer parachuted in and narrowly missed landing on Gregory Peck. Five years later, the Fortenskys were divorced. Ms. Taylor, a longtime friend of Mr. Jackson’s, was a visible presence at his funeral in 2009.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, Ms. Taylor acted in movies sporadically, did “The Little Foxes” and “Private Lives” on Broadway, and appeared on television as Louella Parsons in “Malice in Wonderland” in 1985 and as the aging actress Alexandra Del Lago in Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth” in 1989.
In 1994 she played Fred Flintstone’s mother-in-law in “The Flintstones,” and in 1996 she made consecutive tag-team appearances on four CBS situation comedies. In 2001, she and Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and Debbie Reynolds made fun of their own images in “These Old Broads,” a tepidly received television movie — written by Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Ms. Reynolds and Eddie Fisher — about aging movie stars (with Ms. Taylor, getting little screen time, as their caftan-wearing agent) who despise one another but reunite for a television special.
Ms. Taylor was often seen as a caricature of herself, “full of no-nonsense shamelessness,” as Margo Jefferson wrote in The New York Times in 1998, adding, “Whether it’s about how she ages or what she wears, she has, bless her heart, made the principles of good and bad taste equally meaningless.”
Increasingly, Ms. Taylor divided her time between her charitable works (including various Israeli causes) and commercial enterprises, like a line of perfumes marketed under her name. She helped raise more than $100 million to fight AIDS.In February 1997, she celebrated her 65th birthday at a party that was a benefit for AIDS research. At the party, which was later shown on television, Madonna ended the festivities by announcing that Ms. Taylor had always been her idol. After the party, Ms. Taylor entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for an operation on a brain tumor.
There were other medical setbacks. In recent years she was forced to use a wheelchair because of osteoporosis/scoliosis. In October 2009 she underwent surgery to address her heart problems. She told the press that surgeons had tried a new procedure in which a clip was inserted to fix a leaky heart valve. Earlier this year she refused to undergo back surgery, saying she had already had a half-dozen operations and wasn’t up for another. In February she entered Cedars-Sinai for the final time suffering symptoms related to congestive heart failure.
Her survivors include two sons, Michael and Christopher, from her marriage to Michael Wilding; her daughter Liza Todd-Tivey, from her marriage to Michael Todd; another daughter, Maria Burton Carson, whom Ms. Taylor and Burton adopted in 1964; 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
In 2002, Ms. Taylor was among five people to receive Kennedy Center Honors in the performing arts.
Married or single, sick or healthy, on screen or off, Ms. Taylor never lost her appetite for experience. Late in life, when she had one of many offers to write her memoirs, she refused, saying with characteristic panache, “Hell no, I’m still living my memoirs.”
Mel Gussow, the principal writer of this article, died in 2005. William McDonald contributed updated reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 23, 2011
An earlier version misstated the first name of an actor, best known as Alfalfa, who appeared with Ms. Taylor in her first film, "There's One Born Every Minute." He was Carl Switzer, not Alfred.
Elizabeth Taylor [Wikipedia]