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.