I wonder if Elizabeth Taylor would have become a legend, still remembered more than 40 years after the release of her last major box office hit, had it not been for her multiple marriages and divorces, the Eddie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds scandal, the Eddie Fisher-Richard Burton scandal, the many brushes with death, the runaway costs of Cleopatra (adjusting for inflation, quite possibly the most expensive movie ever made), her friendship with Michael Jackson, and her diamonds bigger than icebergs. After all, in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s there were better Hollywood actresses who most people today have never heard of and/or couldn’t care less about them.
It’s too bad that Elizabeth Taylor, who at age 79 died of complications from congestive heart failure early today in Los Angeles, is chiefly remembered for her participation in romantic triangles, her marriages and divorces, her weight problems, her tracheotomy, her jewels, and Michael Jackson. Even though most of Taylor’s films were quite poor – those range from The Big Hangover, Father’s Little Dividend and Elephant Walk to The Comedians, The Only Game in Town, and The Blue Bird – Taylor herself could be a remarkably effective screen presence.
In George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951), for instance, Elizabeth Taylor could have been merely decorative, much as she had been the previous year in Vincente Minnelli’s insufferably cutesy family comedy The Father of the Bride. But as Montgomery Clift’s love interest in Stevens’ heavy-duty social drama, Taylor rose above the limitations of the role to imbue her American princess with such tenderness, vulnerability, and emotional intensity that one could not only understand why Clift’s ambitious outsider might want to kill his wife (Shelley Winters), but also fully sympathize with him.
Elizabeth Taylor was hardly one of the better child/teen actresses of the 1940s, and in all honesty I’m not fond of much of her other 1950s work – e.g., Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer – which I usually find much too strident. Having said that, I thought she was surprisingly believable in another George Stevens social drama of that time, Giant (1956), in which she plays the East Coast wife of Texan rancher Rock Hudson. Taylor doesn’t quite steal the show in that sprawling family saga because Hudson is at his very best, but she does get close.
From the mid-1960s onwards, Taylor’s performances improved dramatically – both literally and figuratively. She won a deserved second Best Actress Academy Award for Mike Nichols’ film version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (right; though I wish there had been two other versions that year: one with Albee’s choice, Bette Davis; the other with my choice, Deborah Kerr); she was appropriately over-the-top as the wife of gay, impotent military officer Marlon Brando in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), an overbaked film based on a novel by Carson McCullers; and she was in top form as a member of a complex triangle that included husband Michael Caine and lover Susannah York in Joseph Losey’s bizarre X Y and Zee (1971).
Among her off-screen deeds, Elizabeth Taylor is well known for her work in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In fact, she is one of only five female recipients of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
They should also have a statue in her honor on Avenue of the Stars or Century Park East; after all, Los Angeles’ Century City district is a direct result of 20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra debacle, in which Elizabeth Taylor, by then a superstar, played a crucial role.