In the pantheon of Hollywood's brightest stars, it's unlikely anyone will ever shine quite as bright as Elizabeth Taylor. Forever Hollywood royalty until the universe ends, this beloved brunette shall be remembered for a number of things, among them her breath-taking beauty, smouldering sexual intensity, torrid personal life and charitable spirit. In her 79 years on this planet she endeared herself to many, alienated a few others, reinvented herself several times over, made some of the most beloved movies in history, won two Oscars, became an actual Dame instead of just a figurative one and helped reshape society as we know it. Overall, not a bad way to live a life.
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in a small suburb of London, England in 1932, the daughter of American expatriates Francis Taylor, an art dealer, and Sara, a former stage actress. Her mother retired from acting after marrying Francis, but later became a driving force in young Elizabeth's early career as an actress. When Elizabeth was 3, her parents decided to move the family back to America ahead of rising tensions in Europe in the years before WWII. They settled in Los Angeles, where her father opened a new art gallery. His paintings, many brought back from Europe, were an instant success with the well-to-do LA establishment, which consisted of many a big time movie star, producer and director. Thus the Taylors were quickly ushered into the high profile world of the LA rich and famous, setting the stage for bigger things to come in young Elizabeth's life.
While Elizabeth's parents were the first to make their mark on Hollywood, it wasn't long before Elizabeth herself began to draw the full attention of an enamored Hollywood, always on the lookout for a pretty face. Many of her mother's friends, well connected to the industry through their husbands, began to urge her to have Elizabeth screen tested for roles in movies in production, like GONE WITH THE WIND which at the time was looking for someone to play the child character Bonnie Blue. Her mother, unwilling to delve too far into Hollywood culture in anticipation of their return to England following the war, ignored these recommendations at first. Eventually the torrent of interest in young Elizabeth became so overwhelming that soon multiple studios were fighting to sign up this remarkable young beauty to be their next child star cash machine. Some were even willing to skip the screen test process entirely, offering contracts on the strength of her pretty face alone.
Possessing haunting eyes of such deep blue they looked violet and a genetic "disorder" that gave her double thick eyelashes, Elizabeth wowed and sometimes disturbed people with the degree of maturity she displayed, not only visually but also emotionally. She had a self possession about her and a level of concentration unusual for children of her age. While this air of maturity may have been great for an adult actress, it only made it difficult for Elizabeth to adequately assume the sweet and bubbly personality that was making Shirley Temple world famous at this time. She had the same trouble with the innocent vulnerability of Judy Garland. All this is thought to be one of the reasons why Elizabeth's first big contract with Universal went sour after just one year, giving her enough time to complete the one and only movie she ever made there - 1942's THERE'S ONE BORN EVERY MINUTE.
Elizabeth didn't stay unsigned for long though. She was quickly scooped up by MGM, a studio she and her family found much more to their liking, thanks to their willingness to work with Elizabeth to develop her natural talents. Despite all this excitement over her daughter, Elizabeth's mother Sara was still unsure about whether her daughter was as talented as everyone thought she was. Resolving to test Elizabeth's worthiness once and for all, Sara had her read a scene from an old script she herself had performed years before. Stunned by how perfectly her daughter read the scene, Sara was moved to tears. After that, she no longer had any doubts about Elizabeth's worthiness as an actress.
Elizabeth's first film with MGM, 1943's LASSIE COME HOME with Roddy McDowall, was successful enough to earn her a real contract for $100 a week and regular raises. She was then loaned out to 20th Century Fox for their adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's JANE EYRE. She made THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER, again with McDowell, the following year. At 12, Elizabeth pressed hard to play the role of Velvet Brown in the immortal NATIONAL VELVET. Elizabeth eventually got the part and owned it completely, injecting something extra special into the already inspiring story of a young girl who goes against the odds and trains her horse to run in the Grand National. She made the film one of the biggest hits that year, a much beloved film in her repertoire and a timeless children's classic. All this despite suffering chronic back pains that plagued her the rest of her life as a result of falling off her horse during filming.
Elizabeth continued to dazzle as an adolescent following the war, making another Lassie movie, COURAGE OF LASSIE, in 1946 (she later said of her career "some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses"), LIFE WITH FATHER in '47 and A DATE WITH JUDY and JULIA MISBEHAVES in '48. She earned the nickname "One-Shot Liz" during this time for her ability to nail a scene in just one take. However, being an ever-growing name in the biz began to take its toll on her childhood. Removed from regular schools and placed in tutored classrooms on studio grounds, she found herself missing the company of kids her age, despite being increasingly alienated from her peers due to her growing fame. As Elizabeth later recalled:
I hated school, because it wasn't school. I wanted terribly to be with kids. On the set the teacher would take me by my ear and lead me into the schoolhouse. I would be infuriated. I was 16 and they weren't taking me seriously. Then, after about 15 minutes, I'd leave class to play a passionate love scene as Robert Taylor's wife.
Her last, so-called "adolescent" role was 1949's LITTLE WOMEN.
As a teenager, Elizabeth contemplated quitting acting for good. By the age of 16, she had grown frustrated with her mother, who routinely monitored her on set and insisted on relentless drills to keep her sharp on various acting techniques. She could no longer stand not having anyone around her own age and was so poorly educated that she could barely do basic arithmetic and then only with her fingers. Informing her parents of her desire to retire from acting, they steadfastly refused to let her quit, telling her "you have a responsibility...not just to this family, but to the country now, the whole world."
Elizabeth embarked on her transition to adult roles with the weight of that world on her shoulders, though her adjustment was relatively painless. At 16, she was playing characters in their 20s, opposite men twice her age or older in movies like 1949's CONSPIRATOR and 1950's THE BIG HANGOVER. Always far more mature than her years belied, she played these roles convincingly and without hesitation. Her first big success in an adult role came with 1950's FATHER OF THE BRIDE with Spencer Tracy. The film was so successful that it spawned a sequel the following year.
She was still just 16 when she started work on the role of Angela Vickers, opposite her much older leading man Montgomery Clift, in 1951's A PLACE IN THE SUN. Playing the young temptress who comes between Clift's character and his wife, Elizabeth dazzled in the highly sexualized role, despite being almost completely unfamiliar with the deeper psychological nuances at play in the story. Her co-star later marveled at her performance, asking of her after one of their more intense scenes together "Elizabeth, where on earth did you ever learn how to make love like that?" He apparently wasn't aware of her early relationships with some of Hollywood's biggest names, among them Howard Hughes, who it is said offered Elizabeth her own movie and even her own movie studio if she agreed to marry him. Of course, she refused, despite being quite literally showered in diamonds by Hughes himself, from a helicopter no less. Whatever her early relationship experiences, Elizabeth's involvement with A PLACE IN THE SUN helped earn the movie big money at the box office and earned her praise from several critics, many who said she deserved an Oscar for her performance.
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, the next few years ushered in a relatively tedious period in her career, filled with roles she found of little challenge or substance. Perhaps this was the studio's way of moderating their young phenom's transition to adult roles, allowing the little girl from National Velvet to grow up a little before trying to take on anything too extreme again. The result was that it wasn't until 1956 that Elizabeth won another really juicy role in the form of Leslie Benedict in 1956's GIANT, with co-stars Rock Hudson and James Dean. This film ushered in the beginning of the most celebrated time in her career. She was nominated with 4 consecutive Oscars every year between 1957 and 1960 for the movies RAINTREE COUNTY, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER and BUTTERFIELD 8, the last of which won her her first Oscar in 1960. This 4-time Oscar repeat is equaled by only a few others, among them legendary actors like like Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.
The end of the 1950s also saw Elizabeth embarking on her 4th marriage, the previous 3 having entirely begun and ended in that decade. Her first marriage to hotel mogul Conrad Hilton in 1951 was just as much an attempt at separating from her parents as anything else. Being an abusive man with multiple addictions, their marriage was troubled from the start. After attacking her in a drunken rage and potentially causing her to miscarriage with their child, Elizabeth ended the marriage after only a few months. Her second marriage to actor Michael Welding, despite lasting 5 years and producing 2 children, began as a rebound from Hilton and never seemed to be all that stable. They divorced in 1957. This led almost immediately to another marriage with producer Mike Todd. While perhaps just as troubled as her other marriages, they never had a chance to divorce. Todd was killed in a plane crash in 1958, leaving Taylor widowed with a new daughter.
Distraught over the loss of her husband, Elizabeth sought comfort in her friend, singer Eddie Fisher, who at that time was married to actress Debbie Reynolds and with whom he had produced a daughter, Carrie Fisher. Perhaps the sight of those deep, violet eyes bathed in tears was too much for Eddie to resist. Honestly, who could blame him? Soon enough, the two had started an elicit affair with each other and by 1959 Fisher had obtained a divorce and married Elizabeth. Their marriage ended in 1964, following the start of yet another, far more passionate and intense love affair for Elizabeth.
In 1960, Elizabeth became the highest paid actress in history with her $1 million salary for the title role in the historical epic CLEOPATRA. They spent the next 3 years completely blowing the film's budget and slogging through several production lags. Adjusting for inflation, it remains today the most expensive movie ever made. The result was a film that certainly delivered in scale, but not much in substance. It earned middling reviews and never came close to making its money back at the box office. However, the one thing Cleopatra did do was bring together Elizabeth and her co-star, Richard Burton. Both married to other people during the film's production, the strain of making such a troubled movie, coupled with the intensity of their scenes together, soon sparked a real life love affair between them, very much like that of the real Antony and Cleopatra.
Their relationship was well publicized in the gossip rags of the day, which posted every sordid rumor about their on set infidelities and further complicated the film's already troubled production. These reports on their relationship created controversy and drew rebuke by all aspects of society, from the general public all the way up to the Pope, who called their relationship an "erotic vagrancy." All this publicity ultimately destroyed both their marriages, freeing them up to tie the knot in 1964.
Tabloid obsession with their relationship continued even after they married. Though very much in love with one another, their relationship was a rocky one, complicated by Burton's alcoholism, Elizabeth's temperamental nature, as well as external pressures from constant tabloid intrusions. Despite this, they still managed to make 5 more films together, among them 1965's THE SANDPIPER, 1967's TAMING OF THE SHREW and gave two memorable performances as Martha and George in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF?, for which Elizabeth won her second Oscar in 1966. Throughout their time together, Elizabeth remained devoted to her man, even going so far as to gain weight to detour studios from wanting to cast her in anything. Still, Burton's chronic instability soon got the better of them and by 1974, they had divorced.
That wasn't quite the end though. They reunited the following year and were married again in October of 1975. Sadly, this reunion proved short lived, only 16 months. By August 1976, they were divorced again, this time for good.
While Elizabeth's acting career began to wind down in the '80s and '90s, she still did the occasional film, stage and TV role. She became much better known during this time for her charitable efforts, celebrity friendships, strange relationships and several successful entrepreneurial endeavors. She became close to fellow child star Michael Jackson during this time, the two very much kindred spirits thanks to their child star past. She also married twice more, first to future Republican Senator from Virginia, John Warner. Unable to deal with Washington life and suffering from alcoholism, Elizabeth ended the relationship in 1982, shortly before entering the Betty Ford Clinic for the first time. Her last marriage was to construction worker Larry Fortensky, who Elizabeth met during her second stay at Betty Ford. They were married at Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch in 1991. Like many of her previous marriages, theirs was plagued by constant tabloid intrusions. Unable to stand being seen as "Mr. Elizabeth Taylor," Fortensky and Elizabeth divorced in 1996, yet remained in touch right up to her passing.
Following the death of her good friend and co-star Rock Hudson from AIDS-related illnesses, Elizabeth became an outspoken advocate for AIDS awareness, helping to bring it and those suffering from it out of the shadows and into the realm of broad public awareness. Her high profile advocacy of this issue also had an ancillary benefit of establishing a foothold to those working for the recognition and acceptance of LGBT people, which we see coming to fruition today.
Elizabeth also kept herself relevant via her many well publicized perfume lines as well as her own jewelry line. Her private collection of jewelry, much of it bought by for her by Burton and her other husbands, was said to be worth some $150 million at the time of her death.
By the mid 90s, life long health problems had begun to truly take their toll on Elizabeth. A smoker from her teens into her 50s, she had also been a fan of several so-called "yo-yo diets" throughout her career, loosing and gaining weight with enough rapidity to take a permanent toll on her health. Several on set injuries had almost killed her as a younger woman and multiple bouts with alcoholism throughout her life didn't help much either. As a result of all this, by the time Elizabeth reached her elderly years, she was practically crippled and suffered from many different disabilities, disorders and sicknesses. She had 3 hip replacements, had been diagnosed with skin cancer, dealt with phlebitis, osteoporosis and may have suffered from scoliosis and Alzheimer's disease. The gene mutation that gave her those legendary lashes may also have contributed to her diagnosis of congestive heart failure in 2004. In a life filled with health problems, this one proved to be too great to bear for Elizabeth. Though she hung on for a few years more after her diagnosis, by February 2011 her heart was simply too weak to do its job. She died in hospital just a few weeks later in March of 2011, surrounded by her 4 children.
Considered by many to be one of the great actresses of all time, Elizabeth was a true phenomenon even before she became famous. Unfortunately, her rapid rise proved to be both a blessing and a curse, leaving her suffering from the same problems as many a child star vaulted into stardom far sooner than they should have been. As a result of these early traumas, she often found it difficult to get a footing in life and especially love. Still, her strengths, talents and contributions to the world far outweigh anything else she did in her brief time on Earth. If nothing else, she will forever be remembered as one of Hollywood's brightest stars and most recognizable faces. That's enough of a legacy for anyone to admire.