Film legend Elizabeth Taylor dies

Oft-wed actress won 3 Academy Awards

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“I don’t entirely approve of some of the things I have done, or am, or have been. But I’m me. God knows, I’m me,” Miss Taylor said around the time she turned 50.

She had a remarkable and exhausting personal and professional life. Her marriage to Michael Todd ended tragically when the producer died in a plane crash in 1958. She took up with Fisher, married him, then left him for Burton. Meanwhile, she received several Academy Award nominations and two Oscars.

She was a box-office star cast in numerous “prestige” films, from “Raintree County” with Clift to “Giant,” an epic co-starring her friends Hudson and James Dean. Nominations came from a pair of movies adapted from work by Tennessee Williams: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Suddenly, Last Summer.” In “Butterfield 8,” released in 1960, she starred with Fisher as a doomed girl-about-town. Miss Taylor never cared much for the film, but her performance at the Oscars wowed the world.

Sympathy for Miss Taylor’s widowhood had turned to scorn when she took up with Fisher, who had supposedly been consoling her over the death of Todd. But before the 1961 ceremony, she was hospitalized from a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia and underwent a tracheotomy. The scar was bandaged when she appeared at the Oscars to accept her best actress trophy for “Butterfield 8.”

To a standing ovation, she hobbled to the stage. “I don’t really know how to express my great gratitude,” she said in an emotional speech. “I guess I will just have to thank you with all my heart.” It was one of the most dramatic moments in Academy Awards history.

Greater drama awaited: “Cleopatra.” Miss Taylor met Burton while playing the title role in the 1963 epic, in which the brooding, womanizing Welsh actor co-starred as Mark Antony. Their chemistry was not immediate. Miss Taylor found him boorish; Burton mocked her physique. But the love scenes on film continued away from the set, and a scandal for the ages was born. Headlines shouted and screamed. Paparazzi snapped and swooned. Their romance created such a sensation that the Vatican denounced the happenings as the “caprices of adult children.”

The film so exceeded its budget that the producers lost money even though “Cleopatra” was a box-office hit and won four Academy Awards. (With its $44 million budget adjusted for inflation, “Cleopatra” remains the most expensive movie ever made.) Miss Taylor’s salary per film topped $1 million. “Liz and Dick” became a couple on a first-name basis with millions who had never met them.

Art most effectively imitated life in the adaptation of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), in which Miss Taylor and Burton played mates who fought viciously and drank heavily. She took the best actress Oscar for her performance as the venomous Martha in “Virginia Woolf” and again stole the awards show, this time by not showing up at the ceremony. She refused to thank the academy upon learning of her victory and chastised voters for not honoring Burton.

Miss Taylor and Burton divorced in 1974, married again in 1975 and divorced again in 1976. They remained close at the time of Burton’s death, in 1984.

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London on Feb. 27, 1932, the daughter of Francis Taylor, an art dealer, and the former Sara Sothern, an American stage actress. At the onset of World War II, the Taylors came to the United States. Francis Taylor opened a gallery in Beverly Hills and, in 1942, his daughter made her screen debut with a bit part in the comedy “There’s One Born Every Minute.”

Her big break came soon thereafter. While serving as an air-raid warden with MGM producer Sam Marx, Miss Taylor’s father learned that the studio was struggling to find an English girl to play opposite Roddy McDowell in “Lassie, Come Home.” Miss Taylor’s screen test for the film won her both the part and a long-term contract. She grew up quickly after that.

Still in school at 16, she would dash from the classroom to the movie set. “I have the emotions of a child in the body of a woman,” she once said. “I was rushed into womanhood for the movies. It caused me long moments of unhappiness and doubt.”

Soon after her screen presence was established, she began a series of very public romances. Early loves included socialite Bill Pawley, baseball home-run slugger Ralph Kiner and football star Glenn Davis.

Then, a roll call of husbands:

— She married Conrad Hilton Jr., son of the hotel magnate, in May 1950 at age 18. The marriage ended in divorce that December.

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