Film goddess Liz Taylor is dead at 79

Posted: March 23, 2011

Dame Elizabeth Taylor, the Oscar-winning Hollywood actress whose personal life had tumult and drama to equal her 62 films, died today of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

She was 79 and had been hospitalized for about six weeks.

"All her children were with her," her publicist Sally Morrison told the Associated Press.

The voluptuous goddess, one of the first celebrities to live her private life before the public eye, was one of two Elizabeths who ruled the 20th century. One was queen of England; the other, queen of screen and scandal who, in her third act, remade herself into the ultimate Samaritan.

Miss Taylor, whose long history of health problems accelerated as she aged, enjoyed a six-decade career in Hollywood. Over the years, the number of headlines devoted to her maladies - not to mention her men and her movies - made Miss Taylor perhaps the most celebrated of 20th-century celebrities.

Blessed with sable hair, alabaster skin, a ruby pout, and sapphire eyes that flashed violet, she was a human inventory of precious materials. The fabled collector of animals and minerals liked her dogs small, her men larger than life, and her diamonds at least 30 carats.

While Miss Taylor's acquisitiveness was a national joke, her tireless philanthropy on behalf of AIDS research set a national standard. Likewise her acting.

"She has a breadth and scope beyond what she has ever been credited with," said the late Richard Brooks, her director in The Last Time I Saw Paris and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She "was the only actor I ever worked with who never flubbed a line," praised Michael Caine, her co-star in X, Y and Zee.

Sadly, Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky was better known for her many marriages and medical miseries than for her acting or philanthropic gifts.

Those under 40 who know Miss Taylor primarily as a peddler of perfume and tabloid gargoyle are too young to remember that she was a working actress and national icon from the time she was a preteen, one of the handful of child stars to make the graceful transition to adult roles. And even those old enough to know better are more likely to remember Miss Taylor for her bronchitis, bijoux, beauty and brio than for her 62 movies and telefilms, nine grandchildren, four children, two Oscars, and countless awards.

In her films, the London-born actress personified every age and stage of female. She evolved from animal-crazy child in Lassie Come Home to teenage bombshell in A Date With Judy, from luscious ingenue in Elephant Walk to the teen beset by womanly passion in A Place in the Sun, from beloved daughter in Father of the Bride to temptress in Suddenly, Last Summer, from bitch-goddess in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf to meddling mother-in-law in The Flintstones.

What made Miss Taylor the ultimate celebrity, though, was the uncanny way in which her private life played out in her movies. And vice versa. It could be said that she lived her roles and acted her life.

"When other girls were reading romantic stories and imagining themselves as the heroine," observed Miss Taylor's mother, the late Sara Sothern, "Elizabeth was living her dream world, by acting the role of the heroine." And using the scripts as inspiration for her personal scenarios. Born to American emigres in London in 1932, Miss Taylor came to Los Angeles in 1940 to escape war-torn England. Her precocious beauty excited casting agents.

When she was 12, the horse-loving Elizabeth captured hearts as the horse-loving equestrian in National Velvet (1944).

At 17, she filmed A Place in the Sun (released in 1951), in which she played the blindingly lovely Angela Vickers, her first memorable mature role. In the movie about star-crossed lovers, her character becomes besotted with Montgomery Clift's George Eastman, but loses him. In life, she became intensely involved with Clift, who was gay, and enjoyed a friendship that would endure longer than any of her marriages.

At 18, no sooner did she announce her engagement to hotel scion Nicky Hilton than she was seen on screen as the daughter in Father of the Bride (1950). The wedding dress she wore to her nuptials was virtually identical to the gown she wore in the movie. Likewise, the reception was designed by the MGM art department to duplicate that in the film.

Disillusioned by her abusive and neglectful husband, the voluptuous beauty divorced him within a year. And soon she would play the disillusioned wife in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954).

Miss Taylor's second marriage, to British actor Michael Wilding, produced two sons, Michael Jr. and Christopher. Shortly after the birth of her second child, she essayed the role of matron in George Stevens' multigenerational saga Giant (1956), and commenced another intense friendship with her costar Rock Hudson, who, like Clift, was homosexual.

On screen, as in life, Miss Taylor was the outspoken wife of a reserved husband. She played a variation on that theme in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), but by that time she had divorced Wilding to marry flamboyant entrepreneur Mike Todd. She converted to his faith, Judaism.

Todd died in a plane crash 14 months after their storybook marriage in Mexico, leaving his widow a baby girl, Liza. (Tuesday was the 53rd anniversary of his death.)

Miss Taylor plunged into Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) as the voluptuary whose beloved cousin dies tragically and triggers her mental breakdown. It remains the actress' most haunting performance.

"She was the reverse of most stars," Summer director Joseph Mankiewicz noted. "For her, living life was a kind of acting."

Her off-screen performance of the period was equally memorable. After Todd's death, Miss Taylor became involved with singer Eddie Fisher, then married to actress Debbie Reynolds. The scandal rocked a nation when divorce was rare and open cohabitation even rarer. Fisher left his wife to live with Miss Taylor. They wed in a Jewish ceremony. She was an ardent supporter of the state of Israel until her death.

She and Fisher then costarred in the potboiler Butterfield 8 (1961). She joked that the Oscar she won for that film was for the near-fatal pneumonia and tracheotomy she had in real life, rather than for her performance. In 1961, she and Fisher adopted a baby girl, Maria.

No sooner, it seemed, had the tabloids branded Miss Taylor a homewrecker than she played the title role in Mankiewicz's Cleopatra (1963), in which her character lures Caesar (Rex Harrison) and then Antony (Richard Burton) from their marital beds. For playing the role, Miss Taylor became the first screen actor to be paid $1 million.

As the filming of the $40 million movie progressed, Miss Taylor and costar Burton embarked on the affair that launched a billion lips. Censured by the Vatican, "Liz and Dick," as the tabloids chummily referred to them, were celebrated by the media.

They divorced their respective spouses, married, and relentlessly indulged their appetites for drink and diamonds. Then they proceeded to play larger-than-life, bickering spouses in a series of films, such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the 1966 film for which Miss Taylor won her second Oscar) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967). Just another case of art imitating life imitating art.

Their marriage, observed biographers Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, expanded the cottage industry of gossip into an empire "Celebrity culture on an order never before seen."Although playing Shakespeare helped Miss Taylor legitimize her screen relationship with the greatest actor of his generation, the Burtons' careers fell into precipitous decline after Shrew. Perhaps the epic debauches on expensive yachts and private planes (the Burtons embodied the term jet set) made the films seem pale in comparison with their colorful lives.Before long, the doomed Welshman with the soul-stirring voice and Hollywood siren with the heart-stopping face resembled "two heavyweight champions who had fought each other to exhaustion but couldn't quit," observed Burton's biograper Melyvn Bragg.They divorced in 1974. They remarried in 1975. They divorced again, in 1976. They later parodied their pyrotechnics on Broadway in a 1983 production of the comedy Private Lives.

Shortly after her sequel divorce from Burton, Miss Taylor wed U.S. Sen. John Warner (R., Va.), whose farmland in Virginia horse country appealed to the brunette who played the equestrian Velvet. In her 1988 memoir, Elizabeth Takes Off, Miss Taylor described living on the Warner estate as "a kind of domestic Siberia."

She was the world's most glamorous grandmother in 1971, the year she turned 39. And by 1982, the year her six-year marriage to Warner ended and she reached 50, she was quite possibly the world's most debauched divorcee.

But though Miss Taylor's weight ballooned, making her the target of comic barbs, she reinvented herself once again.

The child star without a childhood, who sashayed - with the body of a woman and the mind of a girl - into marriage at the age of 18, found her inner child in 1983 when she sought rehabilitation for drug and alcohol dependency.

Concerned about Miss Taylor's self-destructive abuse of bourbon and barbiturates, lifelong friend Roddy McDowall and her children Michael, Christopher and Liza staged an intervention.

On Dec. 5, 1983, a year after divorcing Warner and shortly after critics likened Private Lives to an exhibit at Tussaud's waxworks, Miss Taylor entered the Betty Ford Center.

There she began to lift the veils of illusion that had swathed her life. "The role of an ordinary, needy patient among ordinary, needy people was one she never could have foreseen," said Donald Spoto, the best of her biographers. "In fact, it was not a role at all."

Sometime between her Betty Ford sojourn and the AIDS-related death of her longtime friend Hudson in 1985, Miss Taylor found her inner resources, and a mission.

She became the first American celebrity to speak out on behalf of AIDS research and compassion, hosting countless benefit dinners, testifying before congressional committees, and selling some of her fabled jewel collection to benefit the cause.

In 1987, Miss Taylor - whose personal wealth has been estimated at between $60 million and $80 million - launched the first in a line of fragrances that now includes Passion, White Diamonds and Rough Diamonds. By 1994, the scents had grossed a half-billion dollars. A percentage of the profits is earmarked for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. As of this year, she had raised $270 million for her foundation and for the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

In 1988 she took a world tour to promote her memoirs, Elizabeth Takes Off, only to crash-land into her old booze and barbiturate dependencies. She revisited Betty Ford, where she met construction worker Larry Fortensky, 37, a burly blond also undergoing treatmen. He wed Miss Taylor in a circuslike ceremony at California's Neverland Ranch, the estate of her close friend Michael Jackson, another former child star without a childhood.

Almost four years after the ceremony, the Fortensky-Taylor marriage ended in divorce.

On the eve of her 65th birthday, Miss Taylor was named godmother to the son of Michael Jackson, her kindred spirit, who paid Miss Taylor the eerie compliment of having his chin resculpted to resemble her trademark cleft. The woman whom husband Wilding described as "allergic to good health" and who, by one count, had 77 hospitalizations between 1947 and 1996, was scheduled for surgery to remove a benign brain tumor days later.

In February 1998, she fell in her Bel Air, Calif., home and was hospitalized for a bruised leg. And although possessed of only two hips, she had three hip replacements, was treated for an irregular heartbeat, and in August 2000 was hospitalized for pneumonia. In 2009, doctors repaired her "leaky heart valve." And in 2011, she was monitored for congestive heart failure.

The celebrity who was a national joke in 1983 must have enjoyed a hearty laugh when she surveyed her trophy room at the end of the century. She had amassed two Oscars, the film academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and statuettes from the American Film Institute, British Film Institute, and Lincoln Center. In early 2000, she became a dame of the British empire and later that year received the Marian Anderson Award in Philadelphia, given to exemplary artists who use their celebrity to benefit humanity.

In all of her careers, it can be said that Miss Taylor grew over the years. Not merely in years or in pounds, but in real emotional depth.

Asked what she would like inscribed on her tombstone, Miss Taylor pithily replied, "She lived."

And how.


Contact Inquirer movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

 

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