Elizabeth Taylor [1932-2011], widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women ever to have lived, spent most of her life in the public eye. Her career survived the collapse of the studio system, personal scandals, tragedies and addiction. Her personal life found its way into her roles, as the vampy, homewrecking seductress she was thought to be in real life also became who she was onscreen.

Taylor was a woman who was aware of her beauty, and she wore it comfortably. It’s the kind of beauty that takes well to furs and jewels, although she would be just as jaw-dropping in denim overalls. It’s partly that beauty that helped her make the notoriously difficult leap from child to adult star. She was first signed to Universal Pictures when she was 9 years old and cast in a small role in There’s One Born Every Minute [1942]. However, story has it the casting director complained that her eyes were too mature-looking, and Universal dropped her. MGM then swooped her and she spent the next 18 years under contract with them. Like many MGM stars, Taylor resented the control that the studio exerted. She famously told Louis B. Mayer that he and his studio could “go to hell” after he spoke rudely to her mother. She stormed out of the room, and refused to go back and apologize. 

It is interesting to watch her development across her multi-decade career. In her early films, her voice has a childish, Snow White-like breathiness to it. Her beauty is striking, but her presence isn’t. Then, in her films from the mid-to-late 50s, her voice takes on a harsher edge, a distinct vibration. Her presence is more powerful. This may be due to the roles she was getting---compare her role in A Place in the Sun [1951] with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1958], for example. But it’s also possible that she was aware of her increasing power in Hollywood. That, in turn, made her a better actress. 

And as much as I don’t think a woman should be defined by the men in her life, it’s worth mentioning her collection of husbands. She was married 8 times to 7 different men. She earned the title of homewrecker by, as the public saw it, breaking up the marriage of Eddie Fisher and America’s Sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. While she was still married to Fisher [who was her fourth husband], she began a blatant affair with her married co-star, Richard Burton. After divorcing Burton, then giving it another short-lived go with Burton, they divorced again and she married twice more, getting her final divorce in 1996.

Elizabeth Taylor won two academy awards, and was the first actress to be paid $1 million for a film. She did not fade when her film career did; instead, she became an entrepreneur and activist. Her beauty, talent, scandals, and perseverance will likely continue to fascinate audiences for many years to come.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [1966]

I had watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a handful of times, was aware of the year of release, and familiar with Elizabeth Taylor’s other work before I realized that she was only 34 years old when she appeared in the film. She could easily be mistaken for 15 or 20 years older than that as Martha, the brash, drunken, destructive wife of a seemingly mild-mannered professor. Director Mike Nichols suggested she lose weight for the film, but she protested that she looked younger when she dropped weight and instead gained 20 pounds [or 30, depending on the source]. It’s difficult to talk about Taylor’s performance as Martha without talking about her physicality, because it’s so much a part of the role. She can’t really be said to be ugly [c’mon, she’s Elizabeth Taylor], but she isn’t beautiful in this movie, physically or emotionally. She’s unpleasant, loud, and crude. And just when you really start to dislike her, the rottenness melts away just a little bit to reveal enough vulnerability, enough self-awareness, to keep her interesting and almost relatable. She acts alongside her real-life husband at the time, Richard Burton, and their love/hate chemistry is incredible. It’s widely considered her best performance, and she won a well-deserved Academy Award.

A Place in the Sun [1951]

Honestly, Taylor is not terribly interesting in this movie. She was 19 when it was released, and you notice her because she’s jarringly beautiful. She plays Angela Vickers, a spoiled-yet-innocent girl in love with a man of modest background who is hoping to marry her and move up in the world via her family’s business. When he sort-of-but-not-really kills his pregnant girlfriend so he can be with Angela, she declares her continued love for him even as he’s fated for the electric chair. She often said she was bored with many of her early roles, and it shows here. Her performance isn’t bad, but there isn’t much to it, either. What is interesting is the chemistry between her and costar Montgomery Clift. Director George Stevens adjusted some of their scenes together to reflect the real-life mothering relationship Taylor had with Clift. The two remained very close friends until Clift’s death in 1966. Taylor allegedly put her fingers down his throat to retrieve his teeth which he was choking on after a horrific accident that famously left his face mangled during the filming of the doomed Raintree County [1957].

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1958]

This was the first film I’d ever seen Taylor in, and I really only watched it because I have a big crush on Paul Newman. But it’s pretty much impossible to watch this movie and not come away with a crush on Elizabeth Taylor. The intensity that she brings to the role really makes the movie, and I’m not sure it would be worth watching without it [unless you like to look at Paul Newman without a shirt on, which I do]. Tragically, Taylor’s third husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash 3 weeks into filming. A devastated Taylor took a few weeks off from filming, subsisting mostly on vodka to see her through her grief. It’s been reported that she threw so much energy into her role of Maggie the Cat as an outlet for her anger and grief, and it shows. Her tension and loneliness are palpable; she steals the show in a cast of veteran Hollywood stars.

Butterfield 8 [1960]

This is an interesting film, because it blends, probably intentionally, her professional and personal lives. After Todd’s death in 1958, Taylor began having an affair with Eddie Fisher. Eventually he divorced Debbie Reynolds to marry Taylor, and the public took the side of the jilted ex-wife. Taylor was vilified in the press as a homewrecker and a slut; that’s exactly the role she plays in BUtterfield 8, and that’s exactly what she is called throughout the entire film. This was Taylor’s last film with MGM, and some have theorized that this role was MGM’s way of shaming her for her private life and public behavior. She is said to have hated the movie, and while she does do very well most people aren’t sure that she really deserved the Academy Award she earned for it. This could have been a pity award, because 5 months after the film’s release, she had to have an emergency, life-saving tracheotomy. The ordeal put her back in the public’s good graces, and the academy possibly wanted to make their forgiveness official by giving her the award. Maybe that’s true, and maybe it’s not, but she is interesting to watch in this [sometimes painfully moralistic] film, regardless.

Cleopatra [1963]

It seems like Taylor is really in her wheelhouse with a movie like this. And by “her wheelhouse,” I mean outrageously lavish and expensive. She’s powerful, beautiful, manipulative, and falls hopelessly in love with two also powerful men in her life. The movie is surprisingly sexy, which shows that Hollywood was shifting and the Hay's Production Code that set the moral standard of Hollywood films was weakening. This is the film on which she and two-time husband Richard Burton met, so their chemistry is crackling and a whole lot of fun to watch. Taylor manages to play a strong leader of one of the most powerful nations in history, who believably softens into someone desperately in love. For Taylor, the way she wears her costumes is just as much acting as the way she says her lines, and this is especially true for Cleopatra. However, her performance here is not nearly as strong as it is in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?