— When James Agee first wrote about Elizabeth Taylor, he sounded less like a prominent film critic than a schoolboy with a mighty crush.
Admitting that he was “choked with the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school,” he nevertheless attempted objectivity by toting up her faults as well as her virtues, claiming that she might not be a particularly gifted actress, but that she was “rapturously beautiful” and capable of “two or three speeds of hysterical emotion.”
She was 12 at the time, and the Taylor vehicle that had impressed Agee so much was “National Velvet,” in which she played a girl obsessed with a racehorse. Another great critic, Pauline Kael, thought she never topped this performance, perhaps because “the role coincided with the child’s own animal-centered universe.”
Doubts about Taylor’s talent persisted throughout her career, partly because she had to do so little to persuade the camera to find her stunning, and partly because her aggressive mother pushed her into acting (“I never wanted a career — it was forced on me,” she once said). Yet she ended up working with many of the most gifted filmmakers and writers, eventually winning two Academy Awards for best actress. If she didn’t bring the technique of a trained stage actress to her work, she often suggested an instinctive connection with her showiest roles.
In such 1950s movies as “Giant” and “A Place in the Sun,” both directed by George Stevens, she demonstrated that she was a better actress than Agee thought, and in “Suddenly Last Summer” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” she showed just how varied those speeds of hysterical emotion could be.
Against considerable odds, she turned into one of those rare performers who give career-peak performances as a child, a teenager, a young adult and as a middle-aged studio veteran. Only in her mid-forties did her work begin to hint at self-caricature.
Off-screen, Taylor’s life was defined by life-threatening illnesses and mystifying choices. The abusive Nicky Hilton didn’t last long as her first husband; the gentle Michael Wilding, who fathered her two sons, fared only slightly better as her second. One great love, Mike Todd, who gave her a daughter, Liza, died in a plane crash not long after their marriage.
“I can be content only with a man who’s a bit crazy,” she said, speaking of Todd. “My toughest role is trying to grow up.”
Taylor was nearly killed herself when she almost caught that plane, and she came to close to dying when she contracted pneumonia on the drafty London movie set for “Cleopatra.” She kept the gossip magazines busy and profitable in the late 1950s/early 1960s by famously breaking up a couple of marriages. When her film career was essentially over, she became actively involved in AIDS benefits and other charities.
Born to American parents, Francis and Sara (Warmbraten) Taylor, in London on Feb. 27, 1932, she moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1939. Her mother, an actress who used the stage name Sara Sothern, sent her to British private schools and then Hawthorne School in Beverly Hills, where she mingled with the children of Hollywood filmmakers.
She was 10 when she made an inauspicious movie debut in “There’s One Born Every Minute,” a mild comedy with Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer of “Our Gang.” Her father then made a connection with an MGM executive that led to a small role in “Lassie Come Home,” and the beginning of a lifelong friendship with co-star Roddy McDowall.
She was eerily affecting in a tiny role in “Jane Eyre,” as the heroine’s sickly young friend, though her precocious contribution was not recognized at the time. Despite the acclaim she received for playing the leading role in “National Velvet,” the only cast member to receive an Oscar was Anne Revere, who played her mother.
The Academy Awards voters who gave special “outstanding juvenile” Oscars to Judy Garland and Hayley Mills overlooked Taylor’s childhood work, which included another faithful-collie movie, “Courage of Lassie,” and an all-star remake of “Little Women.” The voters also passed over her late-teen years, when she was so effective as the doomed Montgomery Clift’s lover in “A Place in the Sun,” and as the rejected heroine of “Ivanhoe” -- a 1952 best-picture Oscar nominee that used Technicolor to make her look particularly ravishing.
While her co-stars in “Giant,” “Father of the Bride” and “A Place in the Sun” were receiving Academy recognition, Taylor was again taken for granted and treated as just another leading lady by the voters. This seems especially difficult to justify in the case of “Giant,” in which she gave one of her most satisfying performances, as a self-possessed feminist who refused to be shut out of male-only political discussions.
“Giant,” a box-office smash when it was released in 1956, is the film in which she truly became an adult movie star, holding her own with James Dean, Mercedes McCambridge and Rock Hudson, who played her frequently overwhelmed husband. Were the voters intimidated by the directness of this character, and/or Taylor’s enthusiastic portrayal of her?
In any event, they finally made up for years of neglect by nominating her four times in a row, beginning in early 1958 with “Raintree County,” a bloated Civil War drama that is notable only for her strenuous performance as a Southern belle who bedevils Montgomery Clift and goes mad.
She was even better as Maggie the Cat, the frustrated wife of a seemingly impotent man (Paul Newman), in MGM’s treatment of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Much of the film was shot after Todd’s death, and the story focuses on the terminal illness of a family patriarch. Taylor won considerable acclaim for revealing new depths.
A more sensational Williams adaptation, “Suddenly, Last Summer,” gave Taylor the opportunity to match wits with Katharine Hepburn, and it earned nominations for both actresses. “Cat” and “Summer” were released after Todd’s best friend, Eddie Fisher, left Debbie Reynolds to marry Taylor, who was almost universally portrayed as the wicked other woman. The scandal undoubtedly boosted the films’ box-office appeal while weakening her Oscar chances. She thought she should have won for “Summer,” but “I was a bad girl then.”
All was forgiven the next year, as she took home her first Oscar for “Butterfield 8,” a movie she despised. She may have won for the wrong reason: during the voting period, she became so ill while shooting “Cleopatra” that she stopped breathing; obituaries were prepared at several newspapers. When she recovered, she was still unimpressed by her performance as a pricey call girl in “Butterfield 8,” guessing that “the Academy wanted to make sure they honored me before anything else happened.”
Taylor’s health problems on “Cleopatra” led 20th Century Fox to move the production from chilly London to sunny Rome, where they started all over again, replacing Peter Finch’s Caesar with Rex Harrison, and Stephen Boyd’s Mark Antony with Richard Burton. When Taylor dumped Fisher and took up with the married Burton, gossip columnists couldn’t have been giddier.
Taylor and Burton's wild ride
The non-stop celebrity circus of the late 20th century may have had its true beginnings with this very public affair. Taylor and Burton’s off-screen relationship was clearly more interesting to the press than anything that happened between them on-screen, and indeed they received some of their most scathing reviews for the picture.
The budget for “Cleopatra” ended up passing the $40 million mark, more than doubling what any Hollywood movie had cost up to that time. Adjusted for inflation, the price tag would be close to $300 million today. It easily became the highest-grossing movie of 1963, topping the number of tickets sold to “Lawrence of Arabia,” and earning nine Oscar nominations, including best picture and actor (Harrison).
But its final box-office take of $26 million wasn’t enough to cover costs, 20th Century Fox was nearly bankrupted, and Taylor and Burton were blamed for its delays. When she converted to Judaism, her performance as queen of the Nile was banned in Egypt and most Arab countries. Still, Taylor once claimed to have made $7 million from the picture. “It was not a flop for me,” she said.
The extravagance of “Cleopatra” seemed to spill into their off-screen lives, as the Burtons dined on caviar and champagne and purchased a jet, a helicopter, jewels, yachts and several Rolls-Royces. After they’d spent tens of millions of dollars, The New York Times went after them in an editorial about “The Age of Vulgarity.”
The next Burton-Taylor movies, “The VIPs” and “The Sandpiper,” were more modest productions, but the couple hit the jackpot with their fourth picture together: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, adapted from Edward Albee’s play and directed by Mike Nichols. The stars played a feuding, reckless couple, George and Martha, who coerce a younger couple into sharing their long night’s journey into day. It pushed the Production Code limits for profanity and became an instant critical-commercial success.
Deglamorized and aged for the part, Taylor felt she deserved the Oscar she won this time (the role echoed her turbulent real-life relationships with both Todd and Burton), though she was mortified that Burton lost. They would never top their work together here, though their next collaboration, Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli, had its zesty moments.
Burton himself co-directed “Doctor Faustus,” based on Christopher Marlowe’s play, in which Taylor made a fleeting appearance as Helen of Troy. The critics were not kind. Judith Crist wrote that “‘Faustus’ has degenerated into the story of a man who has sold his soul for Elizabeth Taylor, and you can draw whatever parallel with that you would like to draw.”
As a team, they continued to make little-seen movies that sound more interesting than they are: an adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” that was even less widely circulated than “Faustus,” an all-star treatment of Graham Greene’s “The Comedians” that worked best as a vehicle for Alec Guinness, and a campy adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” retitled “Boom!”
By the end of this run of debacles, both Taylor and Burton had lost their audience, and they ended up doing the prophetically titled 1973 TV movie, “Divorce His/Divorce Hers.” They divorced in 1974, remarried in 1975, and split again in 1976. It was their last movie together, though they appeared on Broadway together in the early 1980s in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.”
On her own, Taylor did somewhat better, especially with John Huston’s 1967 adaptation of Carson McCullers’ “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” which she had planned to make with Montgomery Clift. When Clift died, he was replaced by Marlon Brando, who earned some of his best reviews as Taylor’s homosexual husband.
In late 1969, she was paid what was then a fortune ($1.2 million) to co-star with Warren Beatty in George Stevens’ disastrous last movie, “The Only Game in Town,” which was set in Las Vegas but filmed almost entirely in Paris because Taylor wanted it that way.
Taylor introduced film clips in “That’s Entertainment,” co-starred again with Rock Hudson in “The Mirror Crack’d,” played her gossip-columnist tormentor Louella Parsons in “Malice in Wonderland,” and tried on Geraldine Page’s aging-actress role in Nicolas Roeg’s 1989 remake of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth.” She sang “Send in the Clowns” in an ill-advised movie of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” then found her biggest audience in years as Pearl Slaghoople in the live-action 1994 version of “The Flintstones.”
Two more marriages, to Republican politician John Warner and then to construction worker Larry Fortensky, failed quite publicly. “Saturday Night Life” made fun of her friendship with Michael Jackson, her ballooning weight, and her incoherent appearance at a Golden Globe awards show in 2001.
In her last years, only her work with AIDS charities seemed immune to ridicule. She became committed to the cause when Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985, and she publicly attacked the first President Bush for ignoring the pandemic in 1991.
One of her biographers dubbed Taylor “The Last Movie Star,” and there’s some truth to that exaggeration. Unlike most child stars, she survived the studio system, escaped its pigeon-holing, and established herself as an independent performer with a rare instinct for choosing strong scripts and co-stars. In so many ways, it was a unique and valuable career.