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Memorial Tribute to Elizabeth Taylor
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TCM Remembers Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) - April 10

There may be other contenders for the honor, but if you want the definitive picture to put next to the phrase "movie star" in the dictionary, there's only one person who truly fills the bill -- Elizabeth Taylor. One of the last of the great studio stars, Taylor encompasses all of the glamour and all of the contradictions of stardom. A beautiful child who never went through an awkward phase, she grew up to become one of the most desired women in Hollywood. Even as she matured as an actress of surprising depth, she was generating headlines that made her the focus of unbridled idolatry and unreasoning hatred.

In her 79 years, she has dazzled audiences with her talents for acting and living large, and inspired them with her refusal to give in to heartache or illness. Like every great star she has re-invented herself as needed, ranging from child beauty to budding actress to fallen woman to diva to respected leader in the fight against AIDS. Through it all, the studio manipulations, the broken marriages, and the constant headlines, her greatest accomplishment is simply being her own woman.

Taylor's legendary beauty preceded her first films. According to legend, a talent scout spotted her playing as a child and tried to interest her mother in putting her up for the role of Bonnie Blue Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939). She started dancing at three in her native London, where she performed in a recital for Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. When World War II started, her art dealer father sent the girl and her mother to California to escape the Blitz.

As more and more people commented on the child's beauty, her mother finally decided to make the rounds, winning her a screen test at Universal, where she made her big-screen debut opposite "Our Gang" star Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer in There's One Born Every Minute (1942). When the studio didn't have any other roles for her, Taylor's father, now in the U.S., ran into MGM executive Sam Marx while volunteering as an air warden. That led to another test and a contract. Studio head Louis B. Mayer kept a stable of child stars that at various times included Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Lana Turner to play out variations on his dreams of the perfect American family. With her dark hair, perfect face and violet eyes, Taylor was a welcome addition to Mayer's vision. Her first Metro film was Lassie Come Home (1943), which started a lifelong friendship with co-star Roddy McDowall.

Taylor worked out for months to win the role of Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944), a project that years earlier had been planned for Katharine Hepburn. At 13, however, Taylor was perfect as the young girl devoted to her horse. She so loved the film that the studio gave her the horse that played Pie after the picture wrapped. The critical and box-office success made it clear that Taylor was a very special child indeed. The studio didn't always heed that lesson. Some of her early films, like Cynthia (1947), were pedestrian at best. But in the right vehicle, as when she tried to rehabilitate Lassie after wartime service in Courage of Lassie (1946), she was dazzling.

Taylor matured early. By the time she was 16, she seemed adult enough to win Robert Stack from Jane Powell in A Date with Judy (1948), even though both leading ladies were cast as high-school girls. At 18, she graduated to adult roles as Spencer Tracy's daughter in Father of the Bride (1950), a film that got a big publicity boost out of her marriage to hotel heir Conrad "Nicky" Hilton, and as Robert Taylor's wife in Conspirator (1949). While filming the latter, she also had to deal with her co-star's very adult ardor for her.

Taylor's first grown-up roles were mainly built around her beauty. All she had to do was look good while Robert Taylor fought for her honor in Ivanhoe (1952) or Stewart Granger tried to make his fortune in Beau Brummell (1954). But the talents that had made National Velvet so successful were still there, waiting for the right vehicle. She found one such part when MGM loaned her to Paramount for A Place in the Sun (1951). She showed surprising passion and subtlety as the wealthy young woman who falls for social-climbing Montgomery Clift and even impressed her very serious co-star, who became another close friend. Taylor would credit the F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) as the first film in which she realized how much she wanted to be respected as an actress, but there are hints of a more mature approach to her work in Rhapsody (1954), in which she plays an heiress involved with the classical music world, and Elephant Walk (1954), as a plantation owner's wife torn between her husband and his plantation manager. In the latter, she replaced an ailing Vivien Leigh and had to match footage already shot with the other actress. The film made her more beautiful than ever, which may have blinded critics to the quality of her work.

MGM finally realized they had an actress on their hands when a loan to Warner Bros. for Giant (1956) earned her critical raves. The studio began developing projects to exploit both her beauty and her acting, helping her to her first Oscar® nomination with Raintree County (1957), a Civil War tale about a Southern belle who goes mad.

When Grace Kelly retired from films to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco, the studio projects she left unfilmed included Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Taylor's third husband, showman Mike Todd, convinced the studio to cast her in the role, and she scored another triumph. Making her accomplishment more amazing was the fact that she shot the film while mourning for Todd, who was killed in a plane crash during the making of Cat. By the time the film came out, Taylor was making headlines again, this time as the scarlet woman who had stolen Todd's friend, singer Eddie Fisher, from wife Debbie Reynolds. Although she was denounced by some, the publicity drove ticket sales for the adult drama, and the film brought her a second Oscar® nomination.

Taylor took another stab at a Tennessee Williams adaptation, co-starring with Clift and Katharine Hepburn in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Again, she turned in a surprisingly good performance, pulling off a lengthy final monologue about her cousin's tragic fate. The film brought her third Oscar® nomination. 20th Century-Fox had offered her the title role in their epic Cleopatra (1963), prompting her to jokingly demand $1 million, the highest fee ever paid an actor at that time. When they compromised on $750,000 and a percentage, she couldn't say, "No." But she still owed MGM one more film. With no time to turn anything down, they stuck her in Butterfield 8 (1960), a turgid adaptation of John O'Hara's novel about a high-priced call girl. Taylor hated the film. When the studio screened it for her, she threw a drink at the screen. Still, she gave a respectable performance and won her fourth Oscar® nomination in as many years.

By the time Butterfield 8 came out, she was already working on Cleopatra in England. The harsh English winter gave her a cold that turned into pneumonia. Suddenly headlines proclaimed that she was at death's door. She survived, and the publicity brought her first Oscar® win against some very strong competition. At last, the world seemed to have forgiven her "stealing" Fisher from Debbie Reynolds.

By the time she returned to work on Cleopatra, there had been some changes. Director Rouben Mamoulian had dropped out and been replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and leading men Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd had gone off to work on other films. To replace them, Fox hired Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. That's when the headlines started all over again. A few days after they filmed their first scenes as legendary lovers Cleopatra and Marc Antony, Taylor and Burton were engaged in a passionate affair. Before long, Fisher left the location in Rome, followed later by Burton's wife. By the time the film ended, both marriages were over, and Taylor was a pariah once again. The bloated production's box office failure didn't help, either, and Fox tried to sue her for slowing production and causing bad publicity.

As soon as Taylor and Burton had finished Cleopatra, however, they played an estranged couple in The V.I.P.s (1963), a Grand Hotel in an airport with an all-star cast including Orson Welles, Margaret Rutherford, Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith. Critics hated the film, but audiences bought tickets thinking they were getting an inside look at the infamous couple. The same attraction worked with The Sandpiper (1965), a turgid romance with bohemian artist Taylor falling for married priest Burton, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), their best film together. For her role as the slatternly wife of a college professor, Taylor gained weight, grayed her hair and had the makeup men add rather than hide wrinkles. Her searing performance brought her a second Oscar®, and this time she could feel that it was deserved.

After Virginia Woolf, however, their box office popularity started to decline. By now married, the pair continued to generate headlines with their expensive purchases and jet-set socializing, but their films grew steadily worse. For one thing, she and Burton priced themselves out of many interesting mid-budget films. For another, his drinking impaired his judgment. Scripts like Boom (1968) and Hammersmith Is Out (1972) had critics lamenting the betrayal of both stars' abilities and talent. Oddly, when they announced their separation in 1973, they each got some of their best reviews for their TV movie, Divorce His - Divorce Hers; Taylor also received plaudits for the plastic surgery drama Ash Wednesday (1973) but it wasn't enough to restore her waning career.

As film work dried up, Taylor explored other acting opportunities, guesting on the soap opera General Hospital and starring in an acclaimed revival of The Little Foxes on Broadway. She even reunited with Burton for a stage tour of Private Lives. But she soon found a more productive outlet for her talents. The death of her friend Rock Hudson from AIDS complications in 1985 put Taylor in the center of the controversy over the disease. She soon became a tireless worker for AIDS-related charities, eventually winning a third Oscar®, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, for her efforts.

Even in semi-retirement, Taylor has remained a star and will always be one even after more acclaimed actors are long forgotten. She died at the age of 79 at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Hospital on March 23, 2011.

by Frank Miller

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