Wednesday 23 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor RIP

Age 79

Dame Elizabeth Taylor
Dame Elizabeth Taylor, who died on March 23 aged 79, made more than 50 films, won two Oscars, was a grandmother at 39 and was married eight times to seven men.

Statistics related to her lifestyle filled more column inches in the press than assessments of her acting ability. Her $1 million fee for appearing in Cleopatra (1963) set a new record at the time, as did the film’s ultimate $37 million budget. It was a moot point whether the cost of the diamonds bestowed upon her by her fifth (and sixth) husband, Richard Burton (they divorced and remarried), notched up more millions than they weighed in carats.

A woman of exceptional physical beauty, she grew into the most photographed Hollywood film star of all. Other love goddesses, such as Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, were not in her league in terms of public and press attention. Everything she did was news.

Her career was long and many-stranded. She began as a child star and, with Natalie Wood and Judy Garland, shared the rare distinction of enjoying even greater fame as an adult. Her affair with, and subsequent marriage to, Richard Burton catapulted her into world headlines and gave her waning popularity a fillip just when it was needed. With Burton she embarked on a long series of films which, at least at first, became box-office hits thanks to curiosity alone, regardless of their quality.

In later life she moved into television and cameo roles, barely needing to act. Her mere presence at a party or at one of her multiple weddings was sufficient to command attention. She was renowned for gaining weight, for losing it, for alcoholism, drug dependency, detoxification and — throughout her life — for a succession of often life-threatening ailments. Ulcers, amoebic dysentery, bursitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, brain tumours — she had them all. And survived, every time — until now. She underwent more than 30 operations, once after nearly choking on a chicken bone.

To her credit, she was a tireless fund-raiser on behalf of Aids and cancer research and a generous supporter of Jewish and Israeli causes following her conversion from Christian Science to Judaism, the religion of her third husband, Mike Todd. This resulted in her films being banned in many Arab countries.

As an actress, she improved with practice. Most of her early work, as a child star and young teenager, was indifferent, relying on giant close-ups of her dazzling beauty and violet eyes. In 1951, however, under the direction of George Stevens in A Place in the Sun, she gave a performance of some subtlety, hinting at better things to come.

Critics found her acting aspirations easy to mock. Joseph L Mankiewicz, who directed her in the Tennessee Williams adaptation Suddenly Last Summer (1959), was congratulated on extracting from her a mediocre performance, “which is a definite step up in her dramatic career”. The British theatre critic Jack Tinker greeted her attempt to conquer the West End with the observation that “she teeters on the brink of competence”.

Yet in the right part she could be effective. She registered strongly in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on A Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly Last Summer, and won her first Oscar in 1960, for Butterfield 8, in which she played a call girl. It was not her best work, and even she conceded that it was largely a sympathy award since she had nearly died of pneumonia — and lost a husband in a plane crash — the previous year.

Nevertheless, it was a solid performance, and in 1966 she won a second Oscar, this time better deserved, for the film of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was her finest work — a splendidly blowsy, foul-mouthed performance for which she added several pounds to accentuate her overripe figure.

Marrying (and getting divorced) became almost a second career, and became her principal claim to fame. She was still almost a child when she married Conrad (Nicky) Hilton, heir to the hotel fortune, in 1951. It was publicised as a marriage made in heaven but lasted only a few months. Subsequent evidence suggests that he beat her even on their honeymoon.

Her second marriage, in 1952, was to the debonair English actor Michael Wilding, then 40 years old and twice her age. This lasted five years and was followed immediately by a brief marriage to the movie mogul Mike Todd, who was killed in a plane crash in 1958; contracted as she was to the studio, she was allowed a week off and then compelled to finish filming Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The singer Eddie Fisher had been best man at her wedding to Todd and rushed to console her in her grief. The following year they married, earning Elizabeth Taylor a reputation in some quarters as a home-wrecker, since Fisher had been married through much of this period to Debbie Reynolds. For her part, Elizabeth Taylor strongly denied the charge. “I’m not taking anything away from Debbie Reynolds,” she insisted, “because she never really had it.”

Fisher lasted no longer than his predecessors. In a much-reported affair during the making of Cleopatra in 1963, she left him for her co-star Richard Burton, who became the most durable of all her husbands. They were initially married for 10 years, divorced in 1974, remarried in the following year and divorced for good in 1976.

She had two more husbands — the politician John W Warner, to whom she was married between 1976 and 1982, and the former truck driver Larry Fortensky, 20 years her junior, whom she had met when they were both attending a treatment centre for drink and drug abuse. They married in 1991 (when she had just turned 60) at a ranch owned by her close friend Michael Jackson, and divorced in 1996. “I’m not marrying again,” she vowed. “I promise.”

She was born Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor on February 27 1932 in London. Her mother had been an actress before her marriage under the stage name Sara Sothern, while her father, who had been born in Kansas, had come to England as a buyer for his uncle, a successful St Louis art dealer. Later he established his own gallery in Old Bond Street.

They lived in Hampstead, where Elizabeth attended a co-educational private school and took dancing lessons from Madame Vacani. She had made her stage debut at the age of three, dancing a recital before members of the Royal family at the London Hippodrome. Her godfather, Victor Cazalet, also encouraged her to take up riding, presenting her with a pony which she was allowed to exercise on his estate in Kent. This proved invaluable practice for one of her earliest film roles, in National Velvet (1944).

Shortly before the Second World War the family returned to America, settling in Pasadena and later in Beverly Hills. Elizabeth’s mother supported her daughter in her film ambitions, and in 1941 she landed a one-year contract with Universal, which used her only once, in a small part in There’s One Born Every Minute (1942).

Elizabeth’s father, however, became friendly with the MGM producer Sam Marx, with whom he shared air-raid warden duties. Marx was seeking a little girl to play the granddaughter of an English lord in Lassie Come Home (1943) and agreed to give Elizabeth a test. It was a notable success and she got the part.

Still a child, she had to complete her education at MGM’s own school, and in 1950 she obtained her diploma from the University High School in Hollywood.

MGM used her skilfully as a child actress, both in its own films — such as National Velvet, in which she played the first little girl ever to win the Grand National as a jockey, and Courage of Lassie (1946), a sequel to Lassie Come Home — and in those for which she was lent to other studios, such as Twentieth Century-Fox’s Jane Eyre, in which she played Jane’s tragic friend Helen Burns.

Throughout the late 1940s she gradually matured on screen, receiving her first on-screen kiss (from Jimmy Lydon) in Life with Father (1947), playing Amy in the 1949 version of Little Women, and graduating to adult roles in Conspirator (1950), a Cold War thriller in which she played the wife of her namesake Robert Taylor.

Capitalising on her engagement to Nicky Hilton, MGM shrewdly cast her in Father of the Bride (1950), as Spencer Tracy’s daughter. It proved so successful that a sequel — Father’s Little Dividend, depicting the birth of Tracy’s first grandchild — was made the following year with the same cast.

For A Place in the Sun (1951), the George Stevens production based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, she was lent to Paramount. A powerful drama about a yuppie before his time who is caught between two different social milieux and pays for it with his life, it was one of the most celebrated pictures of its year and contained a love scene between Taylor and Montgomery Clift, dissolving from one giant close-up to the next, that has become a cinematic classic. Taylor’s performance, as the spoilt rich girl with whom Clift falls in love, earned the first favourable notices of her adult career.

Well cast as the Jewish girl Rebecca in Ivanhoe (1952), her star was rising fast, and she was able to command a much-improved seven-year contract at $5,000 a week. Highlights of this period included Elephant Walk (1954), again made for Paramount when the original star, Vivien Leigh, was forced to withdraw through illness; the Regency romance Beau Brummell (1954); and Giant (1956), her second appearance for George Stevens. In this film, she was required to age some 30 years from start to finish; her co-stars were James Dean (in his last screen role) and Rock Hudson, who became a personal friend.

With Montgomery Clift she appeared in another epic, Raintree County (1957), though production was interrupted by a serious car accident in which Clift’s features were damaged and had to be partly reconstructed by plastic surgery. The crash happened outside Elizabeth Taylor’s house, and she was the first to reach him. After several minutes she managed to decipher his mumbled request: “Please take out my teeth.” With characteristic bravery, she pulled out the four lodged in his tongue. The ambulance took 45 minutes to arrive.

Then followed her Tennessee Williams years, her Oscar for Butterfield 8 and the momentous meeting with Richard Burton during the shooting of Cleopatra.

This was a famously troubled production. She had not originally wanted the role (which was offered to Joan Collins) and asked for a record fee of $1 million only to try to put off the producers. Filming started in London but had to be suspended — after $5 million had been spent — when Miss Taylor fell ill and was admitted to the London Clinic. After she recovered, Twentieth Century Fox decided to scrap what had already been filmed, change the cast and director and start from scratch in Italy.

Rex Harrison replaced Peter Finch as Caesar; Burton took over Antony from Stephen Boyd; and Joseph L Mankiewicz, who had directed Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer, took the helm. But as location work strung out and the running time lengthened to almost four hours, the budget rocketed to $37 million, nearly bringing Fox to its knees.

Despite this fiasco, the liaison with Burton opened a new phase in Elizabeth Taylor’s career. They appeared constantly together — in lowbrow fare such as The VIPs (1963), The Sandpiper (1965) and Hammersmith Is Out (1972), as well as in highbrow literary ventures such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Others in a literary vein included The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Dr Faustus and an adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians (both 1967); another Tennessee Williams movie in 1968, based on his early work The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore but renamed Boom! for the screen; and, in 1971, a version of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, for which she worked for no salary but a share of the profits. Her final collaboration with Burton was on a two-part television drama called Divorce His, Divorce Hers (1974).

With the exception of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? none of these was a critical success, but many were box-office hits thanks to the apparently insatiable public appetite for anything pertaining to “the Burtons”. She made other, better films with distinguished casts and fine directors — John Huston’s film of Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), for example, opposite Marlon Brando; and Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony, with Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum. But they were commercial failures. By this stage in her career, Taylor was a superstar only in harness with Burton.

Much of her later film work was not well received. George Stevens, who had steered her through two of her earlier successes, A Place in the Sun and Giant, directed her again in his last film, a romantic drama called The Only Game in Town, with Warren Beatty, but lightning did not strike thrice. X, Y and Zee (1972), based on an Edna O’Brien novel, found more favour, but few had time for the thriller Night Watch or the soap opera Ash Wednesday (both 1973).

Other films included an ill-starred Russian-American co-production, The Blue Bird (1976); a film of the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music (1977); a non-speaking cameo in the political thriller Winter Kills (1979); and a role in one of the Agatha Christie adaptations, The Mirror Crack’d (1980). Among her last screen appearances was as an opera singer in Franco Zeffirelli’s Young Toscanini (1980), which was launched at the Venice Film Festival but jeered off the screen and never released.

In 1981 Elizabeth Taylor made her Broadway debut in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s melodrama The Little Foxes, playing the scheming Regina Giddens, a role Bette Davis played in the 1941 film version. Reviews were mostly snooty, though the production subsequently toured to New Orleans, Los Angeles and London, where the limited run was cut short in 1982.

A second Broadway venture, a 1983 revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives opposite Richard Burton, from whom she was then divorced, ran for only 63 performances.

Elizabeth Taylor was appointed DBE in 1999.

In recent years she had been in poor health, but took a keen interest in her scent and jewellery lines. She was also one of Michael Jackson’s most vocal supporters in 2005 when he was accused, and acquitted, of sexually abusing a child.

In December 2007 she and James Earl Jones gave a benefit performance of AR Gurney’s play Love Letters to raise money for her Aids foundation.

Elizabeth Taylor was mother to four children: two sons by Michael Wilding; a daughter by Mike Todd; and a handicapped German girl whom she adopted with Richard Burton. In recent years she had been close to Jason Winters.


  1. One of the last true Hollywood stars. They don't make 'em like Liz any more. She will be missed.

  2. What can we really say? RIP, Liz.

  3. I'm hard-pushed to think of more than a handful of good films she was in, however...