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Star of the Month: Elizabeth Taylor
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Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor - 3/12-3/16

Raven-haired, violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor, TCM "Star of the Month" for March, was considered by many one of the most beautiful women in the world. In addition to being one of the last superstars of the Hollywood studio system, she was also an accomplished performer who progressed from radiant child star to Oscar®-winning adult actress. Our tribute traces her remarkable career through four decades and 30 films.

In reviewing 12-year-old Taylor's breakthrough performance in National Velvet (1944), critic James Agee admitted to "being choked by the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school." I have always sympathized with that quote because, like millions of other filmgoers, I too fell in love with the young Taylor.

Having grown up onscreen, she was perfectly at ease there with a natural manner and effortless technique that led many to underestimate her considerable gifts as an actress. As she matured, her talent was finally authenticated with a series of honors including two Best Actress Academy Awards.

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born February 27, 1932, in the Hampstead Garden Suburb of London, England. Her father, art dealer Francis Lenn Taylor, and mother, retired stage actress Sara Sothern, were American citizens (from Arkansas City, Kansas), meaning that Taylor received dual British-American citizenship. A brother, Howard, was three years older. In 1939, because of rising tensions in Europe, the Taylors moved back to the U.S., eventually settling in Beverly Hills, CA, where Taylor and Howard attended Hawthorne School.

Little Taylor's precocious beauty, with a perfect heart-shaped face and luminous eyes framed by lush double eyelashes, led friends of her parents in the film community to suggest that she audition for films. Rumor has it that at one point she was considered for the role of Bonnie Blue Butler, the young daughter of the characters played by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in 1939's Gone with the Wind.

In 1941, Taylor auditioned for both MGM and Universal studios. She was signed by Universal, but only made one film there, There's One Born Every Minute (1942). Taylor's looks didn't impress everyone and a casting director offered the opinion that "The kid has nothing... Her eyes are too old, she doesn't have the face of a child."

When she was 10, family friend and producer Samuel Marx arranged for Taylor's casting at MGM in Lassie Come Home (1943), in which she plays an English girl who is sympathetic to the collie of the title. She was given a standard seven-year contract by MGM in 1943 and promptly loaned out to 20th Century-Fox, where she had an unbilled yet memorable bit in Jane Eyre (1943).

Back at her home studio, Taylor played one more small part in The White Cliffs of Dover (1944) before being catapulted to fame in National Velvet, the film version of Enid Bagnold's best-seller about a girl who realizes her dream of riding her horse in the British Grand National. Legend has it that Taylor willed herself to grow three inches in order to be tall enough to play her dream role of Velvet. Her spirit and sense of dedication came through vividly onscreen, and a star was born.

MGM seemed at a loss for further showcases of their valuable new property, casting Taylor in minor leads in Courage of Lassie (1946) and Cynthia (1947), and supporting roles in Life with Father (1947, on loan-out to Warner Bros.), A Date with Judy (1948), Julia Misbehaves (1948) and Little Women (1949). Lending comic relief as the vain and selfish Amy in Little Women, she did manage to steal the focus of the film from cinematic sisters June Allyson, Janet Leigh and Margaret O'Brien.

Taylor's first adult role came at age 16, when she played the wife of Robert Taylor (then in his late 30s) in the political thriller Conspirator (1949). She then starred opposite Van Johnson (also in his 30s) in the comedy The Big Hangover (1950). Her real emergence as a maturing actress came with Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951), Vincente Minnelli's pair of family comedies about a married couple (Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett) coping with the coming-of-age of their beautiful and spoiled daughter (Taylor, of course).

In Paramount's A Place in the Sun (1951), a heartbreaking film version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Taylor responded exquisitely to the direction of George Stevens and her acting partnership with Montgomery Clift. She and Clift formed a close friendship that would last for the rest of his troubled life and result in two more films together.

Back at MGM, it was a return to more routine assignments such as Love Is Better Than Ever (1952), a comedy opposite Larry Parks. Taylor has an almost unearthly loveliness in Ivanhoe (1952), an enjoyable romantic epic also starring Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine. MGM then cast her in three films in which she plays the spoiled daughter of a dominant father (with no mother in sight): The Girl Who Had Everything (1953), with William Powell; Rhapsody (1954), with Louis Calhern; and The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), with Walter Pidgeon. The last-named was by far the best of these films and introduced Taylor to Richard Brooks, a director who would prove important to her career in a few years. In the midst of these projects, Taylor looked stunning in powdered wigs in Beau Brummell (1954), but had little to do in the remake of the 1924 film.

Taylor's graduation from important leading lady to movie megastar came with Warner Bros.' Giant (1956), the George Stevens epic about life in Texas through the decades when the state was transitioning from cattle ranches to oil fields. In perhaps her most sensitive performance, Taylor embodies the spirit of this film version of Edna Ferber's novel, playing a civilized, warm-hearted woman who has to come to terms with Texas and some of its rowdy citizens. These include Rock Hudson as her rancher husband and James Dean as a hired hand who hankers for her.

This was the beginning of a golden period for Taylor, one in which she would earn four consecutive Best Actress Academy Award® nominations (a record achieved by only two others: Bette Davis and Greer Garson). In the sweeping Civil War romance Raintree County (1957), opposite Clift, Taylor strikingly enacts an anguished Southern belle beset by mental problems. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), costarring Paul Newman and directed by Brooks, she is the lovelorn Tennessee Williams heroine Maggie the Cat. She plays another beleaguered Williams' heroine in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), again opposite Clift and costarring Katharine Hepburn.

The movie that finally brought Taylor an Oscar® win was BUtterfield 8 (1960), in which she pulls out all the acting stops as Gloria Wandrous, the troubled playgirl of John O'Hara's novel. Taylor herself disliked the role and the movie, but film historian David Thomson writes that she "serenely inhabits the melodrama in exactly the way that cinema encourages its audiences to live through its stars."

By this time, with the approaching spectacle of Cleopatra (1963), Taylor's private life had become fodder for paparazzi and tabloids. She endured the death of her third husband Mike Todd under highly publicized media scrutiny. Later, her marriage to Eddie Fisher then Richard Burton produced endless gossip about her record-breaking salary, elaborate jewelry and other possessions, as well as her constant entourage of lovers, children, pets, employees and hangers-on.

Taylor settled into a pattern of making films with Burton, beginning with Cleopatra and continuing with The V.I.P.'s (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), The Comedians (1967), Doctor Faustus (1967), Boom! (1968), Under Milk Wood (1972) and Hammersmith Is Out (1972). For her brilliantly executed performance in the film version of Edward Albee's corrosive play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966; airing on TCM on March 23), Taylor took home a second and well-deserved Best Actress Oscar®.

In between the Burton movies, Taylor turned in interesting, often adventurous performances in such films as Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Secret Ceremony (1968; airing as part of TCM Underground), The Only Game in Town (1970, TCM premiere), X, Y & Zee (1972), Night Watch (1973; airing as part of TCM Underground), Ash Wednesday (1973), and The Driver's Seat (1974).

From the late 1970s through the end of her career, the bulk of Taylor's acting work was for television although she continued to appear in film. In 1981, she had a Tony-nominated success in a Broadway production of The Little Foxes. Her final role in a theatrical film was, of all things, playing a character called Pearl Slaghoople in The Flintstones (1994).

Taylor had eight marriages to seven husbands (twice married to Burton), and four children: Michael and Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd and Maria Burton. A convert to Judaism, Taylor was a loyal supporter of Jewish and Israeli causes. She was even more celebrated for her HIV/AIDS activism through amfAR and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. She was also known for an immense collection of valuable jewelry and her great success in merchandising a line of perfumes. After a long, influential career and a fascinating life, Taylor died of congestive heart failure on March 23, 2011.

by Roger Fristoe

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