Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, DBE (February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011) was a British-American actress, businesswoman and humanitarian. She began as a child actress in the early 1940s, and was one of the most popular stars of classical Hollywood cinema in the 1950s. She continued her career successfully into the 1960s, and remained a well-known public figure for the rest of her life. The American Film Institute named her the seventh greatest female screen legend in 1999.
Born in London to American parents, Taylor and her family moved from England to Los Angeles in 1939. She was noted for her beauty already as a child, and was given a film contract by Universal Pictures in 1941. Her screen debut was in a minor role in There’s One Born Every Minute (1942), but Universal terminated her contract after a year. Taylor was then signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and had her breakthrough role in National Velvet (1944), becoming one of the studio’s most popular teenage stars. She made the transition to adult roles in the early 1950s, when she starred in the comedy Father of the Bride (1950) and received critical acclaim for her performance in the tragic drama A Place in the Sun (1951).
Despite being one of MGM’s most bankable stars, Taylor wished to end her career in the early 1950s, as she resented the studio’s control and disliked many of the films she was assigned to. She began receiving better roles in the mid-1950s, beginning with the epic drama Giant (1956), and starred in several critically and commercially successful films in the following years. These included two film adaptations of plays by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959); Taylor won a Golden Globe for Best Actress for the latter. Although she disliked her role in BUtterfield 8 (1960), her last film for MGM, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Taylor was next paid a record-breaking $1 million to play the title role in the historical epic Cleopatra (1963), which was the most expensive film made up to that point. During the filming, Taylor began an extramarital affair with co-star Richard Burton, which caused a scandal. Despite public disapproval, she and Burton continued their relationship and were married in 1964. Dubbed “Liz and Dick” by the media, they starred in eleven films together, including The V.I.P.s (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Taylor received the best reviews of her career for Woolf, winning her second Academy Award and several other awards for her performance.
Taylor’s acting career began to decline in the late 1960s, although she continued starring in films until the mid-1970s, after which she focused on supporting the career of her sixth husband, Senator John Warner. In the 1980s, she acted in her first substantial stage roles and in several television films and series, and became the first celebrity to launch a perfume brand. Taylor was also one of the first celebrities to take part in HIV/AIDS activism. She co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) in 1985 and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991. From the early 1990s until her death, she dedicated her time to philanthropy. She received several accolades for it, including the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Taylor’s personal life was subject to constant media attention throughout her life. She was married eight times to seven men, endured serious illnesses, and led a jet set lifestyle, including collecting one of the most expensive private collections of jewelry. After many years of ill health, Taylor died from congestive heart failure at the age of 79 in 2011.
“More than anyone else I can think of, Elizabeth Taylor represents the complete movie phenomenon — what movies are as an art and an industry, and what they have meant to those of us who have grown up watching them in the dark … Like movies themselves, she’s grown up with us, as we have with her. She’s someone whose entire life has been played in a series of settings forever denied the fourth wall. Elizabeth Taylor is the most important character she’s ever played.”
Taylor was both one of the last stars of classical Hollywood cinema, and one of the first modern celebrities. During the era of the studio system, she exemplified the classic film star; portrayed as different from “ordinary” people, and with a public image carefully constructed and controlled by MGM. When the era of classical Hollywood ended in the 1960s and paparazzi photography became a normal feature in media culture, Taylor came to define a new type of celebrity, whose real private life was the focus of public interest. According to Adam Bernstein of The Washington Post, “more than for any film role, she became famous for being famous, setting a media template for later generations of entertainers, models and all variety of semi-somebodies.”
Regardless of the acting awards she won during her career, Taylor’s film performances were often overlooked by contemporary critics; according to film historian Jeanine Basinger, “No actress ever had a more difficult job in getting critics to accept her onscreen as someone other than Elizabeth Taylor … Her persona ate her alive.” Her film roles often mirrored her personal life, and many critics continue to regard her as always playing herself rather than acting In contrast, Mel Gussow of The New York Times stated that “the range of [Taylor’s] acting was surprisingly wide”, despite the fact that she never received any professional training. Film critic Peter Bradshaw called her “an actress of such sexiness it was an incitement to riot – sultry and queenly at the same time” and “a shrewd, intelligent, intuitive acting presence in her later years”. David Thomson stated that “she had the range, nerve and instinct that only Bette Davis had had before — and like Davis, Taylor was monster and empress, sweetheart and scold, idiot and wise woman.” Three films in which she starred, National Velvet, Giant and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have been preserved in the National Film Registry, and the American Film Institute has named her the seventh greatest female screen legend of classical Hollywood cinema.
Taylor has also been discussed by journalists and scholars interested in the role of women in Western society. Camille Paglia writes that Taylor was a “pre-feminist woman” who “wields the sexual power that feminism cannot explain and has tried to destroy. Through stars like Taylor, we sense the world-disordering impact of legendary women like Delilah, Salome, and Helen of Troy.” In contrast, cultural critic M.G. Lord calls Taylor an “accidental feminist”, stating that while she did not identify as a feminist, many of her films had feminist themes and “introduced a broad audience to feminist ideas”. Similarly, Ben W. Heineman Jr. and Cristine Russell write in The Atlantic that her role in Giant “dismantled stereotypes about women and minorities”.
Taylor is considered a gay icon and received widespread recognition for her HIV/AIDS activism.After her death, GLAAD issued a statement saying that she “was an icon not only in Hollywood, but in the LGBT community where she worked to ensure that everyone was treated with the respect and dignity we all deserve”, and Sir Nick Partridge of the Terrence Higgins Trust called her “the first major star to publicly fight fear and prejudice towards AIDS”. According to Paul Flynn of The Guardian, she was “a new type of gay icon, one whose position is based not on tragedy but on her work for the LGBTQ community”. Speaking of her charity work, former President Bill Clinton said at her death, “Elizabeth’s legacy will live on in many people around the world whose lives will be longer and better because of her work and the ongoing efforts of those she inspired.”