Top Ten Elizabeth Taylor Films
Elizabeth Taylor is, in many ways, the epitome of a Hollywood star. A glamorous two time Oscar-winner with a famous love for extravagant jewelry, Elizabeth lived nearly her entire life in the spotlight. She was a child star who transitioned seamlessly into adult roles and was often considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Indeed, Elizabeth possessed a near supernatural level of beauty, with raven black hair, violet-blue eyes and (believe it or not) a naturally occurring extra set of eyelashes.
To put it simply, Elizabeth Taylor was everything one could want a star to be. She was glamorous, talented, fascinating, and generous. She co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research when few major stars championed the cause. She lived through extraordinary illnesses, highly-publicized love affairs, and eight marriages. And she did it all without ever relinquishing her status as one of the greatest stars that ever lived. If you aren't familiar with the work of Elizabeth Taylor yet, it is time to remedy that.
FYI: I chose the order of my Elizabeth Taylor top ten by considering each film's importance in Elizabeth’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like, IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Elizabeth Taylor film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. “CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF” (1958) –
This American classic features Elizabeth in one of her most iconic roles. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams, the film revolves around the deeply dysfunctional Pollitt family, who have gathered together to celebrate the 65th birthday of their patriarch, Big Daddy (Burl Ives). But, the real reason for the gathering is Big Daddy’s precarious health and solidifying which son will inherit the family’s massive estate. Oldest son Gooper is the most intent on earning his father’s favor, but Big Daddy only seems to show affection towards his daughter-in-law, Maggie (Elizabeth), who's married to his youngest son, Brick (Paul Newman), an alcoholic former football star. Brick and Maggie’s marital troubles are no secret and Maggie fears that Brick’s indifference will cost him his inheritance. Brick's contempt for Maggie and general depression all seem to revolve around the death of his best friend, Skipper, a subject he refuses to discuss with anyone. But, eventually, the truth will have to come out. Magnificently well written, fans of the play will notice major differences between this film adaptation and the play, but the movie truly works on its own merits. Elizabeth's definitive performance as Maggie the Cat is joined by equally iconic turns by both Paul Newman and Burl Ives (who originated the role of Big Daddy on Broadway). Elizabeth’s performance is made all the more impressive considering the unthinkable tragedy she experienced behind the scenes. Her beloved third husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash two weeks after filming began. Elizabeth was inconsolable, but managed to return to work and finish the film. She would later say that playing Maggie the Cat, actually, saved her life.
2. "WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF” (1966) –
This adaptation of Edward Albee’s critically acclaimed play is widely considered to be the best of the films Elizabeth made with her 5th husband, Richard Burton. The movie revolves around the twisted and volatile relationship of Martha (Elizabeth) and George (Burton). George is an associate college professor and Martha is his not-so-loving wife (who, also, happens to be the daughter of the university president). The two are prone to spectacular fights, seeming to love and hate each other in equal measure. So when Martha, unexpectedly, invites a young professor and his wife to join her and George for cocktails, it’s clearly a recipe for disaster. In an effort to remain faithful to Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf retains most of the play’s explicit language. This controversial decision has led to the film being credited as helping to establish the MPAA rating system used today (minors were not allowed into the film without a parent, unofficially making it the first R rated movie). Both Elizabeth and Burton give incredible performances in the film, but it’s Elizabeth, in particular, who deserves the most attention. At the age of 34 and at the height of her legendary beauty, she completely disappears into the role of the slovenly, 50-year-old Martha. Her performance earned Elizabeth her 2nd Academy Award and remained one of her personal favorites. This intricate and character-driven movie is not for everybody, but it’s worth it if only to see one of most beautiful women in the world transform into one of the most common and vulgar characters ever created.
3. “A PLACE IN THE SUN” (1951) –
The movie that solidified Elizabeth’s status as a mature actress at the young age of 17, A Place in the Sun is based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Masterfully directed by George Stevens, the film stars Montgomery Clift as George Eastman, the poor nephew of a wealthy industrialist. George takes a low-paying job at his uncle’s factory and soon begins dating Alice (Shelley Winters) who works on the line with him, despite the fact that it's strictly against company policy for co-workers to date. Although his relationship with Alice is going well, George secretly holds a torch for the beautiful and carefree Angela Vickers (Elizabeth), a young society girl within his uncle’s more rarefied circle. Although he’s had his eyes on Angela for quite some time, George has always assumed that he would never be accepted within his uncle’s upper-class world, making the girl of his dreams far out of reach. But, George is proven wrong when he is, unexpectedly, invited to one of his uncle’s society parties and finds himself face-to-face with Angela. The two hit it off and their relationship becomes serious almost immediately. However, his relationship with Alice is progressing as well. Now roped into living a double life, George must now decide how much he’s willing to sacrifice to live the life he wants. A Place in the Sun marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Elizabeth and Clift and their affection for each other is obvious onscreen. Their scenes together are pure magic, filled with an intense chemistry that elevates every moment. Elizabeth often credited Clift with teaching her how to approach the craft of acting seriously for the first time. His tutelage, obviously, paid off as both actors give iconic performances in this unforgettable romantic drama.
4. “GIANT” (1956) –
A generational saga worthy of a mini-series, Giant may be the ultimate ode to Texas life. Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, it tells the sweeping saga of one family living through changing times in the Lone Star State. Rock Hudson plays Jordan “Bick” Benedict, a wealthy Texas cattle rancher who travels East to buy a horse and returns home with both the horse and a wife. His new bride, Leslie (Elizabeth), is an intelligent and strong-willed Easterner who won’t hesitate to share her opinion, regardless of whether it falls in line with her husband’s. Leslie’s presence changes Bick’s life quickly and dramatically, altering many of his ranch’s long established routines. Giant follows the couple’s journey through parenthood and beyond, touching on such themes as family dynamics and racial prejudice. All the while, a rivalry stews between Bick and his cowhand, Jett Rink (James Dean), who covets his employer's land, wealth, and power. Still remembered fondly by many Texas natives, this epic family drama was shot on location in the small Texas town of Marfa. Director George Stevens, actually, encouraged the locals to drop by and many ended up being used as extras, dialect coaches, stagehands, and bit players. Charming and fiery, Elizabeth gives a pitch perfect performance as Leslie, moving from young bride to grandmother almost effortlessly. Offscreen, Elizabeth became very good friends with both Hudson and Dean. When James Dean was killed in a car crash shortly after shooting his last scenes, Elizabeth was so devastated she took time off from filming to grieve. Be aware that Giant is an extremely long film, however, it is beautifully made. The popular TV show Dallas likely took some of its inspiration from Giant and fans of that series will likely enjoy this unforgettable epic.
5. “SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER” (1959) –
Based on the celebrated Tennessee Williams one-act stage play of the same name, Suddenly, Last Summer reunites Elizabeth with her Place in the Sun co-star Montgomery Clift. Elizabeth plays the part of Catherine Holly, a young woman who has been institutionalized ever since experiencing a mental breakdown after the mysterious death of her cousin, Sebastian. Cathy, apparently, witnessed Sebastian’s death while the two were vacationing in Europe, but no one seems to be sure of the exact circumstances. Sebastian’s mother, Violet (Katharine Hepburn), seems to blame Cathy for her son’s death, positive that the girl was the cause either directly or indirectly. In an effort to cure Cathy of her psychosis, Violet contacts Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift), a celebrated psychiatric doctor who specializes in the experimental procedure of lobotomy. Violet insists that he perform a lobotomy on Cathy, but Dr. Cukrowicz is not so sure that would be in the girl’s best interests. So, instead, he tries to piece together the puzzle of Catherine’s memory to find the truth, for only when the truth is revealed can Cathy ever find peace. Suddenly, Last Summer proved to be Elizabeth’s last movie opposite Montgomery Clift. Behind the scenes, Clift was struggling with drug and alcohol addictions; and, indeed, had only been cast at Elizabeth’s insistence. However, their chemistry in the film remains as potent as ever. For her part, Elizabeth gives everything she has in her performance as Cathy, implementing Method techniques she had picked up from Clift. During one particularly emotional scene, she, actually, became inconsolable and had to leave the set to compose herself before filming could continue.
6. “NATIONAL VELVET” (1944) –
This beloved family classic is the movie that instantly turned Elizabeth Taylor into a star at the age of 12. Based on the novel by Enid Bagnold, National Velvet tells the story of Velvet Brown (Elizabeth), an English country girl who adores horses more than anything else. So when Velvet meets a spirited young gelding called The Pirate (“The Pie” for short), she falls in love instantly. With some help from her family and a young drifter named Mi (Mickey Rooney), she manages to win her beloved Pie in a raffle. But, Velvet has bigger dreams for The Pie. Confident in the horse’s abilities, she decides to enter him in the Grand National steeplechase. Mi (a former jockey) thinks Velvet is crazy to even think such a thing, but Velvet’s mother encourages her daughter to follow her dreams, regardless of how impossible they may seem. Both on and off screen, Elizabeth simply was Velvet Brown. A lover of the novel from an early age, she fought desperately for the role. At first, she was considered too young to play Velvet, but a fortuitous growth spurt ended up securing her the role. An experienced rider, Elizabeth performed many of her own stunts. However, one particular fall resulted in severe back problems that would continue to haunt Elizabeth all her life. One major change that was made in adapting National Velvet for the screen was the color and name of The Pie. In the book, The Pie is a piebald horse with his full name appropriately being “The Piebald”. However, the studio couldn't secure a horse of that distinctive color in time, so the name was changed and a chestnut horse was used instead. After filming, Elizabeth was given the horse as a gift and she always maintained that it was due to the fact that no one else could tame the spirited horse but her.
7. “FATHER OF THE BRIDE” (1950) –
Directed by Vincente Minnelli and adapted from the novel by Edward Streeter, Father of the Bride revolves around the simple and universal plight of Stanley Banks (played by Spencer Tracy). Stanley’s only daughter, Kay (Elizabeth), has unexpectedly announced her engagement. Soon Stanley is completely overwhelmed by the three-ring circus that ensues as the wedding preparations begin and the costs skyrocket. Father of the Bride features a radiant 16-year-old Elizabeth, who happened to be planning her very own wedding to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr. at the time of filming. She’s perfect in the role of Kay, bright and cheery with just enough immaturity to justify Stanley’s concerns. But, naturally, Tracy is the one who carries this movie as the concerned father way out of his depth. During filming, Elizabeth became great friends with Tracy and afterwards she could always count on receiving congratulatory notes from him after important events (always signed “Love, Pops”). A year later, Elizabeth and Tracy, also, appeared in Father of the Bride’s lesser-known sequel, Father’s Little Dividend, which revolved around Kay having her first child. Both movies were famously (and quite nicely) remade years later with Steve Martin playing the titular role and Kimberly Williams-Paisley as the daughter.
8. “THE TAMING OF THE SHREW” (1967) –
Based on the play by William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew acts as a perfect vehicle for Elizabeth and 5th husband, Richard Burton, well known for their own hot-tempered relationship. Elizabeth stars as Katharina, a woman so willful and overbearing that any possible suitors she may have otherwise attracted are too terrified to come anywhere near her. This poses a problem for Katharina’s younger sister, Bianca, since their father has forbidden his youngest daughter from marrying until his eldest is spoken for. So when one of Bianca’s suitors meets Petruchio (Burton), a newcomer looking to land a rich wife, he immediately convinces him to pursue Katharina. As Petruchio begins wooing the fiery Kate, she quickly discovers that he’s not as easily scared off as everyone else. In fact, she may have finally met someone just as stubborn and hotheaded as she is. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli and filmed on location in Italy, The Taming of the Shrew was, actually, co-produced by Elizabeth and Burton. The couple put a million dollars of their own money into the production and withheld their usually large salaries in order to get the film made. Thank goodness they did, for Elizabeth is perfectly cast as Katharina. Unlike her classically trained husband, Elizabeth had never performed Shakespeare before appearing in this film. She was so nervous on the first day, that after the shoot was over she insisted on filming the first day’s footage over again. The footage was indeed reshot and any indication of her initial butterflies are now nowhere to be found in the finished film. In fact, Elizabeth attacks the Shakespearean dialogue naturally and with great confidence. Although Shakespearean purists will surely notice a fair amount of dialogue missing (mostly involving the play's subplots), this movie still gives a solid interpretation of the famous play and remains the definitive film version.
9. “REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE” (1967) –
Based on the novel by Carson McCullers, this off-kilter (and somewhat perverse) film has developed a bit of a cult following over the years. Directed by the legendary John Huston, Reflections in a Golden Eye tells the story of Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife, Leonora (Elizabeth), a seemingly ordinary couple living on a military base. But, things are not as they seem. The lusty and amoral Leonora has been giddily having an affair with their married next-door-neighbor, Lt. Colonel Morris Langton (Brian Keith), for some time. So far, the stoic Weldon has chosen to ignore this fact, but the tipping point comes with the appearance of a quietly deviant soldier named Pvt. Williams. Williams has been assigned to care for the horses at the base’s stables, including Leonora’s beloved horse, Firebird. After meeting Leonora, Williams, immediately, develops an intense infatuation with her. But when Weldon catches Williams riding horses naked through the woods, it brings out latent homosexual urges in the repressed major. And these new feelings may prove too intense for Weldon to ignore for very long. Originally, the role of Major Weldon was intended for Elizabeth’s friend Montgomery Clift, but Clift ended up dying of a heart attack before filming could begin. As it is, Brando gives a subtle and memorable performance as Weldon, making this a must see for any Brando fan. There are, actually, two distinct versions of this film to keep an eye out for: an ordinary colorized version and the original, in which the entire movie was shot in a unique gold tinge. Without a doubt, Reflections in a Golden Eye is not a movie for everyone. All of the characters are degenerates in some way or another and often not very likeable. But if you set out to watch this peculiar film, it is essential that you sit all the way through to the film’s shocking last scene.
10. “CLEOPATRA” (1963) –
Cleopatra is an epic on the grandest of scales. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, it tells the story of legendary Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Elizabeth) and her iconic love affairs with Roman leaders Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony (Richard Burton). The film has the unusual distinction of being one of the most iconic films of Elizabeth’s career, as well as, her biggest flop. However, its standing as a flop, actually, has very little to do with the film’s popularity or even the quality of the film itself. In fact, Cleopatra was a number one box office hit, won 4 Academy Awards, and heavily influenced both women’s fashion and makeup. The film’s "flop" status, actually, pertains to the production’s extravagant spending that resulted in it’s overall cost skyrocketing to the point that it was impossible for the studio to recoup their losses. In fact, Cleopatra remains the only film ever to be the highest grossing movie of the year and still not turn a profit. Still, the film’s extravagance resulted in beautifully detailed and sumptuous visuals and Elizabeth is absolutely stunning as the intelligent and ambitious Cleopatra. In fact, her performance as Cleopatra continues to be the definitive portrayal of the Eqyptian queen on film. Originally, the intention was for Cleopatra to be made in London. But early into shooting, Elizabeth became deathly ill and was rushed to the hospital where an emergency tracheotomy barely managed to save her life. Due to her precarious health and London’s cold weather, the entire production was then moved to Rome. Famously, Elizabeth and co-star Richard Burton began a heavily publicized love affair during production (despite the fact that both were still married to other people). Eventually, the couple would marry each other (twice!) and appear in 10 more films together, making them one of Hollywood's most famous couples of the 60s.
HONORABLE MENTION: “BUTTERFIELD 8” (1960)
I couldn't possibly complete a Elizabeth Taylor top ten without mentioning this movie for BUtterfield 8 is the film that finally won Elizabeth her first Oscar. Loosely based on the novel by John O’Hara, the movie follows the exploits of Manhattan party girl, Gloria Wandrous (Elizabeth). Gloria works as a dress model, paid to show off new designs at high-priced clubs and bistros. Famously promiscuous, Gloria’s made a habit out of having flings with the wealthy businessmen who frequent her “workplace”. (The movie’s title refers to the telephone switching station that she uses as her answering service). But when Gloria’s most recent one-night-stand, Weston Liggett (Lawrence Harvey), implies that she might take money for her dalliances, she’s quick to show her disgust. But, hate quickly turns into something more and Gloria, actually, considers changing her destructive habits in honor of her newfound love. But, there is still one big obstacle standing in the way of Gloria's happiness: Weston is already married. Elizabeth, famously, didn’t want to do this film (she found the part of Gloria unseemly) and only agreed under the condition that her then-husband, Eddie Fisher, be cast in the role of Gloria’s best friend, Steve. That proviso makes BUtterfield 8 the only time Elizabeth and her 4th husband appeared onscreen together. Elizabeth always maintained that she won her Oscar merely due to the sympathy garnered from her life-threatening brush with pneumonia. However, from the moment she appears onscreen in the film’s dialogue-free opening sequence, it’s easy to see that Elizabeth rightly earned that Oscar. She commands the screen from beginning to end and I defy you to take your eyes off of her for a minute.
If you would like to learn more about the life and films of the legendary Elizabeth Taylor, I highly recommend the books, Elizabeth Taylor: A Shining Legacy on Film, as well as, Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair With Jewelry written by Elizabeth, herself.
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© 2013 Luna B.
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