March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Elizabeth Taylor was that rare screen legend who used her fame to help others


When Jennifer Lopez was at her peak in 2002-03, I remember
reading a gushy piece from an entertainment columnist who claimed Lopez and Ben
Affleck were the modern-day equivalent of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
As Public Enemy once said, don’t believe the hype. Not only were Taylor and
Burton more important figures in the 1960s than Lopez and Affleck would be in
their day, but the allure of Taylor and Burton was inescapable and irresistible
to fans worldwide. Lopez and Affleck co-starred in the box office dud “Jersey
Girl” and the infamous “Gigli,” which made them laughingstocks; when Taylor and
Burton made bad movies, like “Cleopatra” and “The Sandpiper,” everyone went to
see them, and when they made great ones, like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”
they became instant classics.

If Taylor was not the world’s most famous woman in the
1960s, she was certainly one of the most high-profile and easily identifiable.
But she’d already had two decades to get used to her celebrity status. The
English-born, Hollywood-bred Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor began her career as a
child star in the 1940s, in films like “Lassie Come Home” and “National
Velvet.” By the time she was a teenager, she had graduated to the big leagues,
playing noteworthy supporting roles in big hits like “Life With Father” and
“Little Women,” and acting alongside Greer Garson (the Meryl Streep of her era)
in “Julia Misbehaves.”

In 1951, at the age of 19, she finally made the leap to
certifiable stardom as a leading lady, thanks to plum roles in two of the
year’s most celebrated films. She gave a beguiling performance as Spencer
Tracy’s soon-to-be-wed daughter in “Father of the Bride,” then showed off
impressive dramatic skills as the rich girl who changes the course of
Montgomery Cliff’s life in “A Place in the Sun,” director George Stevens’ Oscar-honored
adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” Cliff and co-star
Shelley Winters received Academy Award nominations; Taylor did not, but her
skillful work made it clear she was more than just a stunningly lovely ingnue.
By the mid-1950s, Taylor’s career could have been neatly summed up by the title
of one of her films: “The Girl Who Had Everything.”

Little did her fans know she was merely warming up. Taylor’s
talents would come to full bloom as the East Coast woman who struggles to
adjust to life in Texas in the 1956 epic “Giant,” in which she effortlessly
holds her own against James Dean and the turbulent Mercedes McCambridge (who is
memorably merciless as Taylor’s unsympathetic sister-in-law). Once again, her
co-stars received Academy Award nominations — even Rock Hudson got a best actor
nod, his only recognition from Oscar voters — yet Taylor was passed over. That
trend was about to be reversed.

Taylor earned her first best actress nomination for the 1957
extravaganza “Raintree County,” in which she was cast as a scheming Southern
belle who tricks Montgomery Cliff into walking down the aisle. But she was far
more compelling as another calculating Southern beauty, the love-starved Maggie
in the 1958 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which
brought her a second Oscar nomination. The sizzle between Taylor and Paul
Newman, cast as Maggie’s chilly husband, was nearly audible; although the
censorship standards of the day forced the filmmakers to soft-pedal the themes
at the heart of Williams’ story, the stars did a marvelous job of suggesting
everything that could not be spelled out.

Taylor tackled Williams again the following year in the even
more sexually charged “Suddenly, Last Summer,” a Gothic psychological melodrama
in which domineering Katharine Hepburn has Taylor locked up in an asylum and
threatened with a lobotomy in the hopes of keeping some sordid family secrets out
of the public record. Taylor’s climactic monologue, in which she is forced to
recall how her decadent cousin met a grisly end, is one of the most wildly
entertaining scenes in her entire career. She’s constantly on the verge of
all-out hysteria, yet she always pulls back just enough to keep going, as if
the terrifying secret is a poison she must expel from her body.

Perhaps Taylor winning that elusive best actress Oscar in
1960 for a respectable but hardly dynamic performance as a depressed call girl
in “Butterfield 8” was more of a consolation prize for her previous three
losses. She reportedly detested the film, and there are hints of that hatred in
her line readings: She sometimes sounds as if even she doesn’t believe in what
she’s saying. Who can blame her? There’s only so much even a megawatt star can
do when she’s stuck embodying a character named Gloria Wandrous, who is devoted
to someone named Weston Liggett (played by Lawrence Harvey, who also seems to
be struggling to cover up his contempt for the script).

Taylor disappeared from the screen for three years after
“Butterfield,” although she certainly wasn’t on vacation or resting on her
laurels. She was stuck as the eye of the storm that was “Cleopatra,” an
enormously expensive, laughably lavish historical romance that nearly brought
down Twentieth Century Fox as it brought Taylor into the orbit of Richard
Burton, whom she would eventually marry — and divorce — twice. The various
jinxes and misfortunes that plagued the production team behind “Cleopatra” are
now legendary, as is the fact that the four-hour-long “Cleopatra” managed to be
both the top-grossing film of 1963 and, because of the mammoth cost overruns,
one of the biggest financial fiascoes of all time. The movie was advertised as
“the motion picture the world has been waiting for!” — and that wasn’t just
puffy publicity. Newspapers and magazines all over the world had been
chronicling the torturous journey of “Cleopatra,” particularly Taylor’s
near-fatal illness midway through shooting and the off-screen love scenes she
and Burton had been playing, even though both of them were married (Taylor to
singer Eddie Fisher, Burton to actress Sybil Williams).

For the next four years, Taylor and Burton would be
inseparable as a couple both on the screen and in the media. They co-starred in
“The V.I.P.s” (which opened only a few months after “Cleopatra”), “The
Sandpiper” and “Virginia Woolf” (which brought Taylor a second best actress
Oscar for her ferocious portrayal of a hard-drinking wife with a memorably tart
tongue). They did Shakespeare in director Franco Zeffirelli’s rollicking 1967
film of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Taylor played Helen of Troy in “Doctor
Faustus,” with Burton in the title role. Altogether, they collaborated on 11
films, some excellent — and others fairly excruciating.

In her first film without Burton in years, Taylor again
turned to Tennessee Williams, playing a sexually frustrated officer’s wife in
“Reflections in a Golden Eye,” a bizarre tale of repressed homosexuality,
voyeurism, self-mutilation and suicide in which we’re treated to the sight of
Taylor using a riding crop on the face of Marlon Brando.

The 1970s were far less fruitful for Taylor as she made some
ill-advised choices — playing multiple characters in the fanciful flop “The
Blue Bird” in 1976 and starring in the critically savaged screen version of
Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” — that cost her the box office
bankability she had sustained for 20 years. If Taylor was in the spotlight in
the 1970s, it was more often because of her not-so-private life than because of
her work. Much was made of her 1974 divorce from Burton, her remarriage to him
shortly thereafter and then a second divorce in 1976, followed by a wedding
months later to Virginia senator John Warner. Menawhile, Taylor’s old-school
style of movie stardom was now being eclipsed by more contemporary types such
as Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Faye Dunaway and Diane Keaton.

The 1980s saw Taylor concentrating on doing television,
including a well-reviewed turn as famed gossip columnist Louella Parsons in the
1985 comedy-drama “Malice in Wonderland,” as well as a splashy stint on ABC’s
daytime drama “General Hospital” that made headlines. And let’s not forget who
provided Maggie Simpson’s voice when it was time for the serenely silent infant
to say her first word.

It was also in the 1980s that Taylor began using her
celebrity to call attention to what she saw as a crisis no one wanted to talk
about. In 1985, Taylor’s friend and former co-star Rock Hudson died of AIDS,
known at the time as “the gay cancer,” if it was discussed at all. Taylor
shattered the taboo by throwing her support behind AIDS Project Los Angeles and
the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). Using her status in the
entertainment community, she was able to turn the media’s attention to benefits
and fun-raising activities for AIDS/HIV charities. She spoke to Congress in
support of the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act and
addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations to call attention to World
AIDS Day. She launched the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991 to provide
funding to organizations devoted to helping people who are living with HIV and
AIDS. It is estimated that Taylor raised approximately $100 million for her
causes during her more than 25 years of work as an activist.

To write her off as merely a movie star or a tabloid darling
is to overlook so much of what Elizabeth Taylor accomplished in her life. Not
content with being The Girl Who Had Everything, she devoted enormous amounts of
time, energy and money toward helping people who stood to lose everything. Many
of today’s stars could take a lesson or two from this woman who found a way to
use her star power to illuminate millions.