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International violet: Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

March 24, 2011

The eyes have it: Elizabeth Taylor, arguably the last of the great stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, who was more famous for her melodramatic love-life than her on-screen acting talent

It’s unlikely to have escaped your notice that Elizabeth Taylor, one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest stars has died, aged 79. Incredibly famous, unquestionably beautiful and impossible to ignore, in her own – and very much her own – way she was a Tinseltown icon arguably as great as either John Wayne or Marlon Brando. And she possessed surely the most famous and captivating pair of violet eyes in history.

Her life, as with all ludicrously famous people, is so widely known that frankly it seems almost a bore to chart it here – born in London and taken to Los Angeles by her parents at seven-years-old; child-star in the flick National Velvet (1944); adult-star and bombshell thanks to her breakthrough in A Place In The Sun (1951); married eight times, including twice to the love of her life, the brilliant classical actor Richard Burton, whom she met on the set of and co-starred with in 1963’s notorious epic Cleopatra; champion of awareness of and fundraising for AIDS; lover of jewels and perfumier businesswoman; friend of Michael Jackson and made a Dame in 1999.

Love Story: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in publicity stills for the infamous movie Cleopatra – from the set of which the couple’s sizzling scenes together tumbled over into reality

Indeed, her story is so larger than life that it genuinely does overshadow her career in front of the camera, which is a bit of a shame as, at her best, she was a damn good actress. And that’s really what I want to focus on in this post. In her Hollywood prime, she was nominated five times for the Best Actress Oscar, winning it twice. Indeed, her first three noms came for back-to-back films, the American Civil War drama Raintree County (1957) co-starring Montgomery Clift (with whom she shared a much recalled screen kiss in the earlier A Place In The Sun), the Tennessee Williams adaptation Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) opposite Paul Newman, and another Williams effort Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) alongside Katharine Hepburn.

Of course, Taylor usually got the men she wanted, and she finally got her hands on the gold little chap thanks to the role of the promiscuous Gloria Wanderous in the drama Butterfield 8 (1960). Despite the success it brought her though, ironically Taylor disliked the film as the character she played (often chastised in the flick as a ‘slut’ and a ‘homewrecker’) reflected how she was being cast in public at the time owing to her relationship with film producer Eddie Fisher, whom was still married to Debbie Reynolds, star of Singin’ In The Rain (1954) – Fisher and Reynolds’ daugher is Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. Anyway, it can’t be denied, Taylor’s performance in Butterfield 8 was very good indeed; see for yourself in this video clip (warning: the content could be deemed somewhat adult)…

Six years later and, right in the midst of her tempestuous relationship with the Welsh firebrand that was Richard Burton, came her performance opposite the latter in Mike Nichols’ film adaptation of the play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Here the Burtons played an unhappy couple in the shape of history professor George and his wife Martha, who very much don’t enjoy a warring relationship that one night is buoyed on by booze and the temptations of an attractive young couple they get to know.

Although controversial on release for its level of profanity, the movie was a roaring critical and public success, ending up nominated for every category in which it was eligible at the Academy Awards. Burton and Taylor, in particular, were singled out for praise for their barnstorming performances as the lugubrious and angry marrieds. Indeed, it was for this role (probably her best) Liz won her second Oscar; see the video clip below…

So, in the end, what to make of Elizabeth Taylor? Is it a pity she’ll be remembered far better for her you-couldn’t-make-it-up real-life than for the captivating acting ability she only sometimes showcased? Well, in truth, probably not. No question, Hollywood has generated a slew of great screen actresses down through the ages (Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore to name but just four), but although it’s certainly also produced its share of great female stars, it maybe has never produced one quite so dazzling, dramatic, undiluted and famous as the unsinkable Ms Taylor. Movie stars are important to Hollywood (they’re pretty much its gold standard) and to the masses too – and they come no grander than her.

Apparently, she once told American broadcaster Barbara Walters that she couldn’t remember a time she wasn’t famous. Of all the epitaphs one could assign to her, that one, methinks, may well be the most fitting for Tinseltown’s queen Liz.


Selective filmography

Lassie Come Home (1943)

National Velvet (1944)

Father Of The Bride (1950)

A Place In The Sun (1951)

Giant (1956)

Raintree County (1957)

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Butterfield 8 (1960)

Cleopatra (1963)

The V.I.P.s (1963)

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

The Taming Of The Shrew (1967)

The Flintstones (1994)

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