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The Triumphs and Tragedies of Elizabeth Taylor
The Hollywood Queen
There are actors and actresses whose star shines so strong it dazzles the eyes of the beholder. They arrive onto the movie screen fully formed; exuding such radiance that it makes us weak at the knees.
For an actress this radiance could be from the beauty, the charm, the sheer seductive presence, their chemistry with their lead actors, their choice of films or the brilliance of their acting talent.
She could tick all those boxes, and then some. She was beautiful. Talented. Tempestuous. Rich. Scandalous. Generous. Forgiving. Fierce. Admirable. Addicted. Ambitious. Popular. Revered. Ridiculed. Regal. Rich. Rewarded.
Not only did her on screen career trajectory resemble the blazing trail of a shooting star, her off screen life was equally colourful and full of drama. With exuberance, decadence, high benevolence, low scandal and a never a dull moment lifestyle she kept her millions of fans intrigued and fascinated. She gave enough fodder to the media, keeping the tabloids and broadsheets eating out of her hands.
A Tribute and filmography
While many stars have blazed a trail and faded away, Dame Elizabeth Taylor had endured much and yet shone consistently reminding us of the glory days of Hollywood. The words icon and legend are used all too easily these days, but no one would disagree that if there was a name worthy of these accolades, Dame Elizabeth Taylor was definitely one.
In this hub, I would like to pay a filmographic tribute to this Hollywood legend, concentrating more on the films she should be remembered for rather than the prurience of her seven marriages. However no tribute would be complete without a brief biography of her fascinating life and we cannot but erase the memorable highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies that beset this wonderful person.
The Triumphs and Tragedies of Elizabeth Taylor
Never away from the limelight, Elizabeth Taylor’s life seems to be blessed and cursed at the same time. For every wonderful high there are heartbreaking lows. Hers was a truly a life where there was a never a dull moment. One wonders how this remarkable woman kept up the courage and determination that saw her though.
Birth and Childhood
Elizabeth Rosamond Taylor was born in London on February 27 1932 as a second child to Francis Taylor , an American art dealer and Sara Warmbrodt, an actress. Her parents had a son, Howard Taylor who was born in 1929. Her parents were from Arkansas city in Kansas but were working in London during her birth. By her birth Dame Taylor held a dual citizenship as a British national and US citizen.
Soon after the beginning of World war II her parents returned to the US away from the hostilities of Europe and Elizabeth s already taking ballet lessons and soon after relocating to Los Angeles ( her mother’s parents lived there) she was brought to the attention of Universal studio executives. She had a radiant beauty with her dark skin, luxuriant black hair and her vivid blue eyes enhanced by a double row of eyelashes ( a genetic mutation called Distichiaisis- the very mutation that caused heart failure in later life!) she was extremely photogenic.
Through family connections she was introduced one of the studio executives at Universal Pictures and he was instantly taken by this beautiful child and wanted her to be in films. Her mother immediately accepted.
Her introduction to Hollywood
Her first role at the age of 9 was in ‘ There is one born every minute (1942)’ her only film with Universal Pictures. Her patronage by Universal Executive Cheever Cowden who knew her grandparents socially, was challenged by the studio’s production chief Edward Muhl. He allegedly chose to cancel her contract with the words, ‘she can’t dance, she can’t sing, she can’t perform. What more her mother must be one of the most unbearable women I’ve ever met!’
Universal’s loss was MGM’s gain who signed her up on a contract of 100 dollars a week in 1942. Her first role for them was as a Priscilla in the UK set film Lassie come- home which was a huge hit commercially and critically.
Courage of Lassie
Lassie Come Home (1943)
This film was based on a 1940 Novel by Eric Knight. And first in a series of highly successful ‘Lassie’ films for MGM .Set in Depression Era Yorkshire , England it is the story of a boy and his dog. Tormented by poverty, young Joe Carracloguhs ( Roddy McDowall) parents sell their collie to the duke of Riding.
The dog and the boy pine for each other and the dog tries to escape to come back to the boy. The Duke takes the dog miles away to Scotland to his family home. There his granddaughter Priscilla ( Elizabeth Taylor) senses the dog’s feelings and helps its escape back to the boy. After several adventures helped and hindered by people along the way, Lassie finds its way back to young Joe.
Elizabeth was the lead in the sequel 'Courage of Lassie' another canine tale of love and loyalty. Here the dog disappears and returns from the battlefields of Europe to the girl
After a few other films she campaigned successfully for the role of Velvet Brown in the film National Velvet and at the age of twelve she skyrocketed to superstardom with that lead role. The film starred Mickey Rooney and Angela Lansbury and earned millions at the box office. MGM understandably pleased increased her contract to 30,000 dollars a year.
The same film was attributed to many of her later problems due to the injuries sustained by falling off the horses several times.
National Velvet (1944)
Based on the 1944 book by Enid Bangold, this film tells the story of a 12 year old English girl Velvet Brown who saves a horse from its death and trains it against all odds to race in the Grand National steeplechase.
A beautifully written and directed film, this will appeal to adults and children alike and will have a special place for any fans riding and horse racing.
Aided by a drifter Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney) she fights all to get the horse a place in the race. When the jockey chosen to ride the horse fails to be convinced and refuses to ride it, she disguises herself as a male jockey to ride the horse to a dramatic victory.
Nominated for five Oscars and winning two, this film is hailed as a classic by the American film institute and has is one of the films preserved in the archives of National Film Registry.
Despite earning a better contract due to the huge success of this film, Elizabeth was given ‘fluffy’ roles in films such as the Lassie sequel ‘ Courage of Lassie’, and major but insignificant roles ‘ a date with Judy’ , ‘Cynthia’ and ‘; Julia misbehaves’ where it was her beauty that attracted the casting directors than her dramatic ability.
She fared better with the 1949 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s’ Little Women, where she played the character of Amy.
Although not in the plum role of Jo, as Amy, Elizabeth earned herself a lot of accolades for her ability to finish a scene in one take. Earning the accolade, ‘One Shot Liz’! The film was one of the top grossers of 1948.
She was hailed by variety magazine as the future of Hollywood despite only being 16. Much unremarkable roles followed. She transitioned easily from a child artiste to a sizzling screen siren when she was only 16 with a role in the Big Hangover, but this proved a critical and commercial failure despite her beautiful presence.
Her role as the doting daughter Kay Banks in the comedy Father of the Bride starring along with Spencer Tracy cemented her as the beautiful actress with her radiance and beauty.
Father of the Bride ( 1950)
Later re-made as a Steve Martin comedy, the original stars Spencer Tracy as a man struggling to cope with all things from the time his lovely daughter announces her engagement to the finale of the wedding.
Stanley Banks copes with the uncomfortable truth that his daughter Kay ( Elizabeth Taylor) is grown up and is in love and gets the gradual realisation that the wedding is going to cost him his money and his sanity. Blundering from one awkward set piece to another, Stan finally realises that the dream wedding of his daughter is a reality he has to contend with and gives his daughter away in an emotional finale.
Elizabeth Taylor is utterly luminous in her role as the doting daughter and the dazzling bride.She gives a very endearing performance and of course looks gorgeous in her bridal dress that made fathers and mothers ( and would be brides) go awww.
Recognised as one of the top 100 American Comedies by the AFI.
This was followed by the slightly unnecessary , but nevertheless lucrative sequel, Father’s Little dividend (1951)
A Place in the Sun (1951)
In the first of her roles starring alongside the handsome Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth plays the role of rich socialite Angela Vickers who seduces young George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) a young factory worker. George is already seeing fellow worker Alice ‘Al’ Tripp.
George is taken by the glamorous society that Angela represents and is soon torn between his love for Al and his newfound glamour. When he realises that Al is pregnant, George decides to get rid of her after Angela asks him to marry her. After several dramatic twists, poor George is charged with a murder he didn’t quite commit and loses everything he aspired for and more.
The film was nominated for 8 academy awards and won 5 including for the Director, Cinematography and Screenplay. It confirmed Montgomery Clift’s ascendancy as the handsome leading man and Elizabeth Taylor’s sensuality on the screen.
The Serial-Bride begins her journey...
The 1950s saw Elizabeth Taylor confirm her beauty as a sizzling presence but failed to rescue the inane storylines and insipid drama of films such as Hathaway went Thataway (1951), Love is better than ever (1952), Ivanhoe (1952) , The Girl who had everything (1953)
The 1950s also saw her first marriage to the original Hilton- Heir, Conrad Hilton. A liaison that ended as quickly as it began. She divorced him within 9 months, starting her long association with divorce lawyers.
She then married Michael Wilding in 1952. He was 20 years his senior and this marriage lasted for 5 years and ended in 1957.
Elizabeth Taylor’s superstar trajectory started with her role in Giant along with Rock Hudson and James Dean. She had a lifelong friendship with the closet gay Rock Hudson and it was his death from Aids that started her campaign as an aids activist in later life.
Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, this film charts the fortunes of the Texas ranchers following the oil boom.
Rock Hudson stars as Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict, a member of a large Texas rancher family who meets and weds socialite Leslie Lynton (Elizabeth Taylor). Jett Rink ( James Dean in his last starring role before his untimely death in a car crash) is ranch hand working for Bick’s sister who is left a plot of land by her on her death. Instead of annexing his land to the Benedict clan,
Jett isolates the land, clams the watering hole and causes all sorts of problems and rivalry, burning with desire for his neighbours wife Leslie. The saga follows the discovery of oil, the calamitous clashes and the casualties of the oil boom.
Directed by George Stephens, the film showcases the raw talent of James Dean . George won the best director Oscars and film received nine other nominations including best actor nominations to Rock Hudson and James Dean. Elizabeth Taylor plays an assured role standing her own among the male co-stars.
James Dean Dies!
In a talented life cut short, dazzling star James Dean died in a car accident and Giant was to be his last film. Hie method acting, his dedication, his looks all promised a long and lasting career in Hollywood. This was not to be.
The Rise and Rise of Liz Taylor
This was when Elizabeth Taylor received plum roles that showcased her acting ability. He following years saw successive best actress nominations for Raintree country ( 1957), Cat on a Hot tin Roof (1958), Suddenly Last summer ( 1959) and finally won her first Oscar for Butterfield8 (1960)
Raintree County (1957)
Shot in gorgeous Technicolor, this movie was adapted from the eponymous novel by Ross Lockridge.
Elizabeth Taylor plays southern belle Susanna who falls in love with John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) and takes him away from his high school sweetheart Nell ( Eve Marie Saint). The sweeping saga then straddles the North South divide, civil war, family secrets and twists and turns.
Susanna has a history of mental illness and feigns a pregnancy to marry John. The pair get separated after they have a child for real and the war years make John enlist in order to travel to South to find his wife. And get back together.
The Film got Elizabeth Taylor a nomination for best actress and also received several other technical nominations for its wonderful widescreen photography.
Tragedy for Montgomery Clift
Handsome star Montgomery Clift suffered horrific injuries and facial paralysis in an automobile accident after leaving a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s house in Beverly hills. He returned to filming after a hiatus.
There are portions of the film shot attempting to cover his injuries. Rising star Clift, Hollywood’s most promising leading man, succumbed to depression and possibly addiction following this horrific accident and dies in 1966, his career trajectory taking a turn for the worse.
For her next film, Taylor starred with another handsome co-star, Paul Newman.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Adapted from the Tennessee Williams play (he was unhappy by Hollywood toning down the story’s homosexual references and disclaimed his association), this paired the luminous Paul Newman with Elizabeth Taylor creating a magnetic screen coupling.
The story of a dejected and alcoholic athlete Brick, who mourns the death of his friend is told in a series of events unfolding over a day Hand his gorgeous wife Maggie ‘the cat’ ( Liz Taylor) visit his parents house. Knowing that his father has a terminal illness, Maggie and Brick spar over their future, the future of the estate, their childlessness, their guilt and lack of passion. Bitter Brick unveils powerful emotions of guilt and redemption. Taylor once again sizzles on the screen while upping her dramatic credentials in a manipulative, sexually intense and emotive role.
The film received seven nominations including best picture, Director, Actor for Newman and actress for Taylor.
The Fatal Plane crash
Elizabeth Taylor had divorced Michael Wilding in January 1957 and weeks after married Hollywood producer Michael Todd. He was a rich and successful film maker who had collected the Oscar for best picture for 'Around the world in eighty Days'. Elizabeth had a daughter with Michael Todd ( Elizabeth Frances Todd) who was born in August of 1957.
Months later, in March 1958, Michael was travelling in his Private Jet to New York and She was to accompany him. She had a viral cold and Todd refused to take her and asked her to rest. His plane - called ' Lucky Liz' - crashed in New Mexico, killing all four aboard. Elizabeth was devastated.
She returned to filming much frail and thin. Her next film once again gained the nod of the Oscar voters, it was the psychological melodrama, Suddenly last summer.
Suddenly, Last summer (1959)
Another of Tennessee Williams play dealing with the subject of psychology and homosexuality, this film centres on Catherine Holly, a candidate of a lunatic asylum. Catherine loses her mind after a horrific and mysterious death of her cousin Sebastian, while they were visiting Europe.
A brilliant neurosurgeon Dr John Curcowitz ( Montgomery Clift) visits her to evaluate her for a lobotomy ( it was set in 1930s) at the request of a rich aunt Violet Venables ( Katherine Hepburn) . The latter insists that Catherine is deranged by shock and may say horrific things about the incident .
The surgeon decides to investigate the truth for himself and several twists in the tale follow. Under his empathetic support Catherine slowly begins to remember the horrific incidents in Europe, much to Violets dismay and soon all is revealed, including the truth of how Sebastian died.
Both Taylor and Hepburn received nominations for best actress but neither won.The film was somewhat stagey as it was based on the one act play. Clift was reeling from effects of alcohol and prescription drugs while filming and the whole production was an unhappy affair.
Finally the Oscar but also public distaste!
The character of Gloria in her next film BUtterfield 8 is what won Elizabeth Taylor her first Oscar. She however, hated this film. This is the time when Eddie Fisher was drawn to her way from his wife Debbie Reynolds and the public branded Elizabeth a ‘home wrecker’- the film’s storyline was too close to home.
With the untimely death of her husband Michael Todd. She was consoled by Michael's close friend, actor/singer Eddie Fisher, who was then married to Debbie Reynolds. This relationship caused scandal as Eddie broke up his marriage to marry Elizabeth . Many feel that the public reaction to home wrecking cost Elizabeth Taylor the Oscars despite back to back nominations in previous years.
BUtterfield 8 ( 1960)
Elizabeth Plays the promiscuous Gloria who has an adulterous affair with an executive Weston Liggett ( Lawrence Harvey). Going through flirtatious relationships, her tempestuous on-off affair with Weston, she only has her close friend Steve (Eddie Fisher) to confide in.
Steve is getting pressured by his own girlfriend to stop seeing Gloria due to her promiscuity. There are various rivalries and domino effect from Gloria’s character. Weston’s wife condemns his adulterous affair and asks him to return home. Several turns of the story later the background of Glorias’ character and her tragic past is revealed but ultimately ends in a tragedy.
Elizabeth plays a feisty and promiscuous 'other' woman - a recurring theme in her film career- however, despite her dislike to this film, her acting is impeccable, taunting, sizzling and tormented, she excels in the role of a seductress.The Oscar was well deserved especially after a string of successive nominations.
The Queen of Hollywood
Elizabeth felt that conversely a bout of pneumonia and near death (and a tracheotomy) brought her a wave of sympathy and got her the Oscar finally for Butterfield8. In many ways an inferior role compared to her stellar performances in the other three films.
The next film crowned Elizabeth Taylor as the queen of Hollywood with the highest pay for an actress of that time. 20th century fox paid her a million dollars to star in the story of the great Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Originally budgeted at a modest 4 million the film ended up costing 44 million dollars ( equivalent of 320 million today- making it one of the most expensive films ever made) with bloated spends, multiple rewrites, studio interference and a 6 hour running time. Although it eventually recouped the money through home video market, it still remains a messy affair.
However this was more popular for providing tabloid fodder as Elizabeth Taylor began a public and passionate affair with co-star Richard Burton, who played Mark Anthony.
The story of the Queen of Egypt and her affair with the Roman senator Julius Casear and subsequently Mark Anthony forms the crux of this long film. However, the story actually centres around Caesar’s campaign against Egypt, his assassination and the emergence of Mark Antony and subsequently emperor Octavian.
It had big stars – Rex Harrison plays Cesar to Elizabeth Tailors Cleopatra. Mark Antony is played by Richard Burton. It also starred Roddie McDowall, Martin Landau, Francesca Annis and Richard O’ Sullivan.
Released and critically mauled, it did go on to win over some audiences by its lavish production values. It won Oscars for technical categories such as set design and costumes
The Golden Couple
Taylor’s career trajectory reached the pinnacle in the 60s. The press fascination with the golden couple of Burton and Taylor converted easily to box office gold. Their film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) got them much critical accolades and earned Taylor her seond best actress Oscar. Burton and Taylor married in 1964 and stayed together for ten years of enormous public following and scrutiny.
The duo continued make films such as The V.I.Ps (1963) , The Sandpiper (1965) and Taming of the shrew(1967). In public they were most photographed around the Globe, living it large sailing, partying, appearing in many glamorous locations, keeping the public’s inexhaustible appetite whetted.
Who’s afraid of Virgina woolf (1966)
This marvellous adaptation of Edward Albee’s play of the same name starred the megawattage of Burton and Taylor.
Burton plays George, the Associate professor of history and Taylor his alcoholic wife Martha, the daughter of the college president.Set in one long night when Martha invites the newly appointed, handsome new instructor Nick ( George Segal) and his meek wife Honey ( Sandy Dennis) to join them for drinks. The bitter and twisted tale of marital rivalry and faield dreams unfolds unflinchingly in the eyes of the young couple as they watch George and Martha spar first verbally and then physicall. Stripping down the sexual politics, family tragedies and the ache of unfulfilled dreams the film is a brilliant character study and acted superbly by all.
There were many Oscar nominations, but Taylor triumphed where Burton failed ( he never won an Oscar) and got her second golden statuette.
Fail to re-ignite
It is ironic that their peak of performance should mirror so close to home as Burton and Taylor did court alcohol in their personal lives often drinking very heavily, relying on each others for support. Explains why Taylor divorced him after ten years of marriage in 1974 only to go back and marry him again a few months later, separating again within months bitterly.
The later films of 60s filed to spark any interest and her career nosedived after that. But Taylor had a personal fortune worth several millions, a high flying lifestyle and went on to launch her white diamonds line of perfumes that amassed another fortune as one of the best selling celebrity perfumes of all times. She had homes in London, Hawaii and Palm Springs.
More Husbands and Charity work
She married husband number seven , a United States Senator Jack Warner in 1976 a marriage that lasted 6 years. Soon bored of her life in Washington she divorced him and returned d to California. Her health had deteriorated with multiple illnesses and increased addiction to alcohol and she checked into Betty Ford clinic after her divorce from senator Warner.
While in the clinic she met a fellow addict and ‘Truck Driver’ Larry Fortensky and married him soon afterwards again creating much public furore. This was her eight marriage.
Despite starring in insipid films over the seventies, Taylors fame remained undiminished. She was one of first major celebrities to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic, stand for its cause and raise money in the first major AIDS fundraiser in 1984. She co-founded the American foundation for Aids research and continued to support this cause.
She received the Jean Hersholt memorial humanitarian award in 1992 for her work for AIDS.
In the eighties she had cameo appearances in the Mirror Crack’d and in the Flintstones and made several TV films and even appeared in The Simpsons twice.
She possessed jewellery that was truly iconic like her- the Mary the First’s La Peregrina Pearl curiously shaped like a tear, the 33 Karat Krupp diamond and the insane 69 carat diamond that was named after the golden couple- the Taylor-Burton diamond. A lot of her possession were auctioned by Christie’s auction house and raised millions.
Death of an Icon.
The very mutation that gave her those double row of eyelashes also contributed to congestive heart failure and lymphoedema. She continued to receive medical support throughout the nineties and noughties. She had to resort to a wheelchair due to osteoporosis.
Her friendship with Michael Jackson further fuelled tabloid interest and she stood by him through the infamous allegations also.
She dies in Cedar-Sinai hospital on March 23 2011, following complications of the Congestive heart failure that had plagued her for years, surrounded by her four loving children.
Elizabeth Taylor is a true Hollywood Icon. Her life is one of extreme fame and insane tragedy. It seems like the same hand that blessed her with gorgeous looks, blistering talent, instant fame and fortune also followed around dispensing tragedies. Death , disease and infamy.
Every triumph was soon shrouded in a tragedy only to be followed by another greater triumph, in a roller-coaster ride of her life.
But despite all, she delighted legions of fans, amassed a fortune worthy of Cleopatra herself and blazed a trail across the starry skies so intense, one has to shade their eyes to look at her.
And one thing is certain. Like a rare mountain flower that only blooms once every few years, people like her don't come very often.
May her soul rest in peace.
© 2011 Mohan Kumar