Elizabeth Taylor, the actress who dazzled generations of moviegoers with her stunning beauty and whose name was synonymous with Hollywood glamour, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 79.
The cause was congestive heart failure, her publicist, Sally Morrison, told The Associated Press.
In a world of flickering images, Taylor was a constant star. First appearing onscreen at age 9, she grew up there, never passing through an awkward age. It was one quick leap from National Velvet to A Place in the Sun and from there to Cleopatra as she was indelibly transformed from a vulnerable child actress into a voluptuous film queen.
In a career of more than 70 years and more than 50 films, she won two Academy Awards as best actress, for her performances as a call girl in Butterfield 8 (in 1960) and as the acid-tongued Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (in 1966). Mike Nichols, who directed her in Virginia Woolf, said he considered her “one of the greatest cinema actresses”.
Marilyn Monroe was the sex goddess, Grace Kelly the ice queen, Audrey Hepburn the eternal gamine. Taylor was beauty incarnate. As director George Stevens said when he chose her for A Place in the Sun, the role called for the “beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy, some time or other, thinks he can marry”.
In a life of many surprises, one of the oddest facts is that as an infant she was considered to be an ugly duckling. Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London on 27 February 1932, the second child of American parents with roots in Kansas. Her father, Francis Lenn Taylor, was an art dealer who had been transferred to London from New York; her mother, former Sara Viola Warmbrodt, had acted in the theatre in New York, under the name Sara Sothern, before she was married. Her brother, Howard, was born in 1929. At birth, her mother said, her daughter’s “tiny face was so tightly closed it looked as if it would never unfold”.
Elizabeth made her movie debut in 1942 as Gloria Twine in a forgettable film called There’s One Born Every Minute, with Alfred Switzer. The casting director at Universal offered this capsule criticism: “The kid has nothing.”
Given her lack of professional training, the range of her acting was surprisingly wide. She played predatory vixens and wounded victims. She was Cleopatra of the burnished barge; Tennessee Williams’s Maggie the cat; Catherine Holly, who confronted terror suddenly last summer, and Shakespeare’s Kate. Her melodramatic heroines would have been at home on soap operas.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in Suddenly Last Summer and Cleopatra, remembered seeing her for the first time, in Cannes, when she was 18. “She was the most incredible vision of loveliness I have ever seen in my life,” he said. “And she was sheer innocence.”
Mankiewicz admired her professionalism. “Whatever the script called for, she played it,” he said. “The thread that goes through the whole is that of a woman who is an honest performer. Therein lies her identity.”
One prominent and perhaps surprising dissenter about her looks was Richard Burton, who was twice her husband. The notion of his wife as “the most beautiful woman in the world is absolute nonsense,” he said.
There was more than a touch of Taylor herself in the roles she played. She acted with the magnet of her personality. Although she could alter her look for a part—putting on weight for Martha in Virginia Woolf or wearing elaborate period costumes—she was not a chameleon, assuming the colouration of a character. Instead she would bring the character closer to herself. For her, acting was “purely intuitive”. As she said, “What I try to do is to give the maximum emotional effect with the minimum of visual movement.”
During a lifetime of emotional and physical setbacks, life-threatening illnesses and accidents, and several near-death experiences, Taylor was a survivor. “I’ve been lucky all my life,” she said in 1992, just before turning 60. “Everything was handed to me. Looks, fame, wealth, honours, love. I rarely had to fight for anything. But I’ve paid for that luck with disasters.” At 65, she said on the ABC News programme 20-20: “I’m like a living example of what people can go through and survive. I’m not like anyone. I’m me.”
She is survived by her brother Howard; four children, Michael Wilding Jr., who owns a cafe in Albuquerque; Christopher Wilding, a film editor in Los Angeles; Liza Todd Tivey, a sculptor; and Maria Burton Carson, whom she and Burton adopted in 1961; and by nine grandchildren.
Married or single, sick or healthy, on screen or off, Taylor never lost her appetite for experience. Late in life, when she had one of many offers to write her memoirs, she refused, saying with characteristic panache, “Hell no, I’m still living my memoirs.”
Mel Gussow, the principal writer of this article, died in 2005. Peter Keepnews contributed updated reporting.
©2011/THE NEW YORK TIMES