Dame Elizabeth Taylor’s grip on the public imagination belies anything she achieved on screen. It has been 30 years since she made a half-decent movie. Yet her British fans will mourn her death as keenly as her friends in Beverly Hills. Because Taylor was born on February 27, 1932 at Heathwood, 8 Wildwood Road, in north-west London, and she grew up on screen in Second World War films set in Blighty.
Lassie Come Home (1943) and National Velvet (1944) are the coal-fire staples that turned the young ingénue into a star. And what a star. Taylor will forever be an icon. Yet one who was impossible to fathom, even though we’ve been privy to every expensive wrinkle of her life.
Liz loved London and she loved the razzmatazz her visits to the Savoy Hotel would stir. Here she would routinely alarm journalists with her latest medical bulletins, or divorce papers, while drumming up cash and headlines for a cause that consumed her public life for two decades: namely AmFAR, the leading Aids research foundation.
But to her eternal frustration, Dame E never hit it off with the nouvelle vague of “indie” filmmakers, either here or in America. Who can blame them? Her log of last-minute sudden illnesses on Day One of a major shoot made her impossible to insure. Her tantrums were legendary, and for large chunks of her life she was as unpopular in the pop press as Simon Cowell.
Taylor’s gift and curse was the pulling-power of her violet eyes. From the Fifties to the Seventies, every woman on the planet wanted to look like her and every taxi driver wanted to sleep with her. Her lifestyle epitomised the tabloid glamour of the Hollywood juggernaut at its most frothy and frightful. Square miles of newsprint painted a roundabout of preposterous excess: eight hysterical marriages, numerous addictions, and a blood-stained catalogue of ritzy diamonds.
A rigid, often cruel, studio system milked and manipulated Taylor’s sultry image as early as Jane Eyre (1944), when she was just 12 years old. The consequence of a career shaped by shouty movie moguls is that Taylor was remarkably undiscriminating about the parts that came her way, to the point where she was routinely cast for who she was rather than what she could act.
The most notorious example is Joseph L Mankiewicz’s fiasco, Cleopatra (1963), which took more than two years to make at a staggering cost of $40 million ($300 million today). It nearly destroyed 20th Century Fox. But while the film wasn’t box office gold, it did deliver one of the great soap operas of the 20th century, the love affair between Taylor and her explosive co-star, Richard Burton.
No husband or lover ever filled the shell hole left by Burton when he suffered a stroke and died in 1984. Taylor never reshuffled her marital order of merit. Richard always came top.
Taylor possessed two things Burton could never square: class and clout. She was spoon-fed her concrete confidence at a young age. It was the jobbing part and parcel of being a star.
That said, the unspoiled Elizabeth Taylor was simply amazing in the Fifties.She was barely 19 when George Stevens gifted her a part as a blisteringly sexy society girl in his spooky chiller, A Place in the Sun (1951), with Montgomery Clift. She was Oscar-nominated for Giant (another Stevens film, 1956) starring Rock Hudson and James Dean. But she ought to have won the ultimate gong as Paul Newman’s sizzling wife, Maggie, in the Tennessee Williams pot-boiler, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). It’s such a cool, and fearful performance. Unnerving when you discover that her then husband, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash just before the cameras started rolling. Now watch it again.
The anticlimax, of course, is that Taylor won an Oscar for Butterfield 8 (1960), a talent-free comedy in which she plays a daffy, nymphomaniac call-girl. She hated the film, dubbing it cheap and sleazy.
Taylor’s second Oscar, for her portrayal as Burton’s drunk, crazy wife in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), was beyond the call of duty. It is not just an unsophisticated masterclass in getting old but the scariest performance of marital meltdown you will ever see on screen.
The magic evaporated from Taylor’s acting from here on, for the simple reason that she was doomed to be be more famous than her parts. There isn’t a star in living memory who has been blessed or cursed like Elizabeth Taylor. To be honest, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.