|Actress Elizabeth Taylor died yesterday of congestive heart failure. She was 79. (Everett Collection)|
A Hollywood giant, right from the start
As actress, celebrity, Taylor glittered across eras
Elizabeth Taylor, one of the last of the great Hollywood studio stars and the first of the modern mega-celebrities, died of congestive heart failure early yesterday at Los Angeles’s Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Although seemingly ageless, she was 79.
Miss Taylor began her career as a child actress and rose to fame in the movies, but it was as herself — or a melodramatic projection of herself the media dubbed “Liz’’ (a nickname she detested) — that she captured the often outraged attention of the world.
She was nominated for five Oscars and won twice, for “BUtterfield 8’’ (1960) and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’’ (1966). She married eight times — twice to Richard Burton — and was denounced by the Vatican for “erotic vagrancy.’’ She stole husbands only to abandon them and as a result became an ever larger object of fascination.
In her final decades, as her stardom outgrew the need for movies, Miss Taylor sailed on in a state of perpetual celebrity, buoyed by personalized perfumes, a diet book, pioneering AIDS charity work, and romance, always romance. Her final husband was a construction worker she had met in rehab. She called her close friend Michael Jackson “the most normal person I know.’’ She had her 60th birthday party at Disneyland, and irony was not on the menu.
Friends said we will not see her like again.
“We have just lost a Hollywood giant, but more importantly we have lost an incredible human being,’’ said singer Elton John, who credited Taylor for speaking out about AIDS.
Mike Nichols, who directed Miss Taylor in “Virginia Woolf,’’ said the actress is “singular and indelible on film and in our hearts.’’
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born Feb. 27, 1932, in London, the daughter of a St. Louis art dealer and his actress wife who had relocated to England to open a gallery. Although Miss Taylor was only 7 when her parents moved to Los Angeles to escape the oncoming war, an air of British refinement clung to the young girl and, coupled with her striking, violet-eyed prettiness, led to a screen test and a brief contract with Universal Pictures.
Miss Taylor’s first film was a 1942 short called “There’s One Born Every Minute.’’ She also appeared that year opposite Carl “Alfalfa’’ Switzer from the “Our Gang’’ comedies in “Man or Mouse.’’
Her father’s chance meeting with an MGM producer resulted in a new contract and her first large film role, at 11, as Roddy McDowall’s sweetheart in “Lassie Come Home’’ (1943). Miss Taylor’s quality of intense self-possession was seen in “Jane Eyre’’ (1943), where she played Jane’s doomed childhood friend, and “The White Cliffs of Dover’’ (1944); but “National Velvet’’ (1944) turned the young actress into a household name.
As the horse-crazy Velvet Brown, she so visibly throbbed with emotion that one British reviewer wrote that “whenever she speaks or thinks about horses her strange azure eyes gleam and her whole frame trembles with the intensity of her passion.’’
In the aftermath of the film’s success, MGM promoted its new discovery as a small pantheist — a nature freak who literally talked to animals. The young Miss Taylor even wrote a children’s book about her pet chipmunk, describing returning the animal to the wild in terms that oddly predicted her attitude toward husbands: “(I knew a new one) would come to me — not to take his place, but to bring the same sense of love to me, and he did — and I knew him immediately, and I named him Nibbles — not Nibbles the Second, but just Nibbles — my favorite chipmunk.’’
Miss Taylor’s early persona was of a girl living on the knife-edge of her senses, but MGM rushed to cast her in frothy comedies and light dramas: a spoiled child in “Cynthia’’ (1947), a cousin in “Life With Father’’ (1947). She played the youngest March sister in a remake of “Little Women’’ (1949) and finally had a romantic lead, opposite Robert Taylor, in “Conspirator’’ (1949).
In 1951, she took on her first major adult role, in George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun,’’ as Angela Vickers, the spoiled rich girl who dazzles Montgomery Clift into committing murder. Stevens told Miss Taylor to play her as “not so much a real girl but the girl on the candy box cover,’’ and critics, never her best friends, acknowledged that her performance marked a new and mysterious complexity. Even modern audiences are shaken when Miss Taylor enfolds Clift in her arms and murmurs into his ear, “Tell mama . . . Tell mama all.’’
The film marked the beginning of her deep friendship with Clift, one of many troubled Hollywood outsiders Miss Taylor would take under her wing. He nicknamed her Bessie Mae, and his advice would serve her well in both acting and star attitude: “Let them come to you.’’
Audiences and fan magazines did. So did husbands. Her first marriage, in 1950, was to hotel heir Nicky Hilton, a month before Spencer Tracy was escorting Miss Taylor down the aisle in “Father of the Bride.’’ But Hilton was a party boy who spent their honeymoon drinking and gambling, and the couple soon separated. The divorce was finalized by the time Miss Taylor played pregnant in the 1951 “Bride’’ sequel.
Public sentiment remained with the actress through her five-year marriage (1952-1957) to Michael Wilding, a British actor 19 years her senior with whom she had two sons, Michael and Christopher. Miss Taylor’s film career languished, however, with decorative roles in formula pictures. Of such movies as “Rhapsody’’ and “Beau Brummell,’’ both in 1954, she later said, “A lot of them I haven’t seen, but I must have been appalling in them.’’
A corner was turned with her 1957 marriage to showman Mike Todd, the dynamo producer/impresario of “Around the World in 80 Days.’’ Miss Taylor appeared with James Dean in “Giant’’ and starred in “Raintree County,’’ both lavish melodramatic epics that cost and made a lot of money. The latter costarred Clift, who was involved in a serious car accident during production. Miss Taylor, who was nearby, cradled his ruined face while waiting for the ambulance. “Raintree’’ marked her first Oscar nomination.
When Todd died in a 1958 plane crash, after a year of marriage and a daughter, Liza, sympathy for the widow ran high. Todd’s funeral was mobbed by photographers and gawkers while newspapers blared the details of “Liz Taylor’s Year of Disaster.’’ Within months, however, newspapers were vilifying her.
Miss Taylor’s crime: stealing her late husband’s best man, Eddie Fisher, from his all-American wife, Debbie Reynolds. Unrepentant, Miss Taylor famously said, “I’m not taking anything away from Debbie Reynolds because she never really had it,’’ and told gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?’’ She received bags of hate mail and was denounced in editorials and pulpits.
Even her children’s birth by caesarean section was chalked up to spoiled impatience in one newspaper account that stated, “Gestation was impossibly long from Liz’s viewpoint.’’ It was the premier scandal of the 1950s.
The movies reflected that persona. In “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’’ (1958), she was Maggie the Cat, clinging seductively to her brass bed and daring Brick (Paul Newman) to come back. Next, she was Catherine Holly in “Suddenly, Last Summer’’ (1959), hoping to reveal the bizarre secret of her cousin’s death before her aunt (Katharine Hepburn) has her lobotomized. Both films were written by Tennessee Williams, and both netted Miss Taylor Oscar nominations; her next, “BUtterfield 8’’ (1960) came from a novel by John O’Hara and cast her as a model-escort who describes herself as “the slut of all time.’’
Miss Taylor reportedly hated the movie. By the time the 1961 Oscar season rolled around, the actress was hospitalized with double pneumonia, the newspapers were breathlessly reporting on her emergency tracheotomy, and a sympathy Best Actress statuette was in the cards.
Miss Taylor later said, “I won the Oscar because I almost died — plain and simple.’’
By then, she and Fisher were married; shortly thereafter, Fisher picked up the phone on the set of “Summer’’ and heard producer Walter Wanger offering Miss Taylor the part of Cleopatra. Thinking it was a joke, the actress responded, “Sure, tell him I’ll do it for a million dollars.’’ She thus became the first star to earn a million for a single film.
“Cleopatra’’ was three years in the making, and Miss Taylor’s illness shut down production and sent director Rouben Mamoulian and stars Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd off to other projects. Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz took over behind the camera, with Rex Harrison replacing Finch as Julius Caesar, and, stepping into Boyd’s Marc Antony sandals, a Welsh actor named Richard Burton.
Within months, all of Miss Taylor’s previous scandals seemed like a school play.
It’s an overstatement to say the Taylor-Burton romance rocked the civilized world — but not by much. When Jackie Kennedy ran into a Hollywood publicist at the White House, her first question was “Do you think Richard Burton will marry Elizabeth Taylor?’’
The two met on the “Cleopatra’’ set, and their affair swiftly became public knowledge, with Eddie Fisher sent packing and Burton filing for divorce from his actress wife, Sybil Williams. But the 1960s had begun, and the adultery Miss Taylor had been pilloried for two years earlier now made her more alluring. When Mankiewicz shot the scene in which the Egyptian queen enters Rome, the extras were supposed to chant “Cleopatra!’’ Instead, they shouted “Leez! Leez!’’
Miss Taylor was at her peak; impossibly glamorous, she was the most photographed, sought-after star on the planet. “Cleopatra’’ opened in 1963, a sprawling four-hour dud that remains one of the most expensive films ever made, in today’s dollars. The much splashier production was Miss Taylor and Burton’s 1964 wedding, after which the couple became welded in the public eye into a single, absurdly high-living entity called “Liz and Dick.’’
He bought her mountains of jewels and said things like “I love [Taylor] not for her breasts, her buttocks, or her knees but for her mind. . . . She is like a poem.’’ There was a daughter, Maria, born the year of their marriage.
They made movies, too, one of which was the brilliant “Virginia Woolf,’’ directed by Mike Nichols from Edward Albee’s play and bringing Miss Taylor her second Best Actress Oscar for getting down and dowdy as a professor’s alcoholic virago of a wife. As for the other Taylor-Burton pairings, the less said about “The VIPs’’ (1963), “The Sandpiper’’ (1965), “The Taming of the Shrew’’ (1967), “Doctor Faustus’’ (1967), “The Comedians’’ (1967), “Boom!’’ (1968), and “Hammersmith is Out’’ (1972), the better.
That the couple had become a parody of jet-set opulence was apparent well before they appeared on “The Lucy Show’’ in 1970, playing their showy selves. But years of drinking and squabbling took their toll, and in 1974, not long after starring in a made-for-TV movie called “Divorce His — Divorce Hers,’’ they did. Sixteen months later, they remarried in the African bush. Ten months after that, they divorced for good. In 1983, the couple appeared in a stage revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,’’ but Burton had remarried by then, and his new wife pointedly did not invite Miss Taylor to the actor’s funeral after his death in 1984.
By then, Miss Taylor’s life had become more notable than any of her movies, and she never had a role to match her run in the late ’50s. The best of her later efforts included “The Mirror Crack’d’’ (1980), an Agatha Christie mystery in which she played an actress striving for a comeback, a string of made-for-TV movies — “There Must Be a Pony’’ (1986), “Poker Alice’’ (1987), and “These Old Broads’’ (2001) — and the role of Wilma Flintstone’s mother, Pearl Slaghoople, in “The Flintstones’’ (1994).
Miss Taylor’s marital marathon continued to provide the press with headline fodder. Husband number seven (if you count Burton twice) was handsome Virginia senator John Warner, former secretary of the Navy. He gave her an engagement ring made of red, white, and blue gems; it was 1976.
Soon, Miss Taylor began to put on weight; and on “Saturday Night Live,’’ John Belushi caricatured her stuffing her face.
“We’ve spent half our lives wishing we could look like Elizabeth Taylor,’’ said a D.C. matron, “and, my God, now we do.’’
The marriage to Warner was over by 1982, and the next year Miss Taylor checked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic for treatment for substance abuse. She was one of the first stars to go public in such fashion.
During a later rehab stint, she met her final husband, Larry Fortensky, a construction worker 20 years her junior. That union, an ill-fitting match between commoner and tabloid royalty, lasted from 1991 until 1996.
Miss Taylor’s final decades were most notable for her charity work, a string of medical problems, and increasingly loopy public appearances. Having long ago befriended closeted Hollywood homosexuals such as Clift and Rock Hudson, she worked to raise money and awareness in the fight against AIDS; for her efforts she received the a humanitarian award at the 1993 Academy Awards. Miss Taylor was back in the news in 1997 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Two years later, in 1999, she was named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
By the time of Miss Taylor’s appearance at the 2001 Golden Globe Awards, during which she rambled on in a state of either inebriation or extreme stardom, it was clear she had ceased taking the Hollywood rat race seriously. She had no reason to, having long since provided her own epitaph. “I’ve been through it all, baby,’’ she once told an interviewer. “I’m Mother Courage.’’
She leaves four children — Michael and Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd, and Maria Burton, all of whom were by her side when she died — 10 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Mark Shanahan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.