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Film legend Elizabeth Taylor dies

Oft-wed actress won 3 Academy Awards

- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

LOS ANGELES | Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed film goddess whose sultry screen persona, stormy personal life, and enduring fame and glamour made her one of the last of the old-fashioned movie stars and a template for the modern celebrity, died Wednesday at age 79.

She was surrounded by her four children when she died of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she had been hospitalized for about six weeks, said publicist Sally Morrison.

"My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor and love," her son, Michael Wilding, said in a statement.

Miss Taylor was the most blessed and cursed of actresses, the toughest and the most vulnerable. She had extraordinary grace, wealth and voluptuous beauty, and won three Academy Awards, including a special award for her humanitarian work. She was the most loyal of friends and a defender of gays in Hollywood when AIDS was still a stigma in the industry and beyond. But she was afflicted by ill health, failed romances (eight marriages, seven husbands) and personal tragedy.

"I think I'm becoming fatalistic," she said in 1989. "Too much has happened in my life for me not to be fatalistic."

Her more than 50 movies included unforgettable portraits of innocence and of decadence, from the children's classic "National Velvet" and the sentimental family comedy "Father of the Bride" to Oscar-winning transgressions in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Butterfield 8." The historical epic "Cleopatra" is among Hollywood's greatest on-screen fiascos and a landmark of off-screen monkey business, the meeting ground of Miss Taylor and Richard Burton, the "Brangelina" of their day.

Her defining role, one that lasted long past her moviemaking days, was "Elizabeth Taylor," ever marrying and divorcing, in and out of hospitals, gaining and losing weight, standing by Michael Jackson, Rock Hudson and other troubled friends, acquiring a jewelry collection that seemed to rival Tiffany's.

She was a child star who grew up and aged before an adoring, appalled and fascinated public. She arrived in Hollywood when the studio system tightly controlled an actor's life and image, had more marriages than any publicist could explain away and lasted long enough to no longer require explanation. She was the industry's great survivor, and among the first to reach that special category of celebrity  famous for being famous.

The London-born actress was a star at age 12, a bride and a divorcee at 18, a superstar at 19 and a widow at 26. She was a screen sweetheart and martyr later reviled for stealing Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds, then for dumping Fisher to bed Burton, a relationship of epic passion and turbulence, lasting through two marriages and countless attempted reconciliations.

Miss Taylor's ailments wore down the grudges. She underwent at least 20 major operations, and she nearly died from a bout with pneumonia in 1990. In 1994 and 1995, she had both hip joints replaced, and in February 1997, she underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. In 1983, she acknowledged a 35-year addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers. Miss Taylor was treated for alcohol- and drug-abuse problems at the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Her troubles bonded her to her peers and the public, and deepened her compassion. Her advocacy for AIDS research and for other causes earned her a special Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in 1993.

As she accepted it, to a long ovation, she declared, "I call upon you to draw from the depths of your being to prove that we are a human race, to prove that our love outweighs our need to hate, that our compassion is more compelling than our need to blame."

The dark-haired Miss Taylor made an unforgettable impression in Hollywood with "National Velvet," the 1945 film in which the 12-year-old belle rode a steeplechase horse to victory in the Grand National. The film, her fifth, also marked the beginning of Miss Taylor's long string of health issues. During production, she fell off a horse. The resulting back injury continued to haunt her.

Miss Taylor matured into a ravishing beauty in "Father of the Bride," in 1950, and into a respected performer and femme fatale the following year in "A Place in the Sun," based on the Theodore Dreiser novel "An American Tragedy." The movie co-starred her close friend Montgomery Clift as the ambitious young man who drowns his working-class girlfriend to be with the socialite Miss Taylor. In real life, too, men all but committed murder in pursuit of her.

Through the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, she and Marilyn Monroe were Hollywood's great sex symbols, both striving for appreciation beyond their physical beauty, both caught up in personal dramas filmmakers could only wish they had imagined. Miss Taylor lived as she pleased and allowed no one to define her but herself.

"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.

— When she married British actor Michael Wilding in February 1952, he was 39 to her 19. They had two sons, Michael Jr. and Christopher Edward. That marriage lasted 4 years.

— She married cigar-chomping movie producer Michael Todd, also 20 years her senior, in 1957. They had a daughter, Elizabeth Francis. Todd was killed in a plane crash in 1958.

— The best man at the Taylor-Todd wedding was Fisher. He left wife Debbie Reynolds to marry Miss Taylor in 1959. She converted to Judaism before the wedding.

— Miss Taylor and Fisher moved to London, where she was making "Cleopatra." She met Burton, who also was married. That union produced her fourth child, Maria.

— After her second marriage to Burton ended, she married John W. Warner, a former secretary of the Navy, in December 1976. Mr. Warner was elected a U.S. senator from Virginia in 1978. They divorced in 1982.

— In October 1991, she married Larry Fortensky, a truck driver and construction worker she met while both were undergoing treatment at the Betty Ford Center in 1988. He was 20 years her junior. In August 1995, she and Fortensky announced a trial separation; she filed for divorce six months later, and the split became final in 1997.

"I was taught by my parents that if you fall in love, if you want to have a love affair, you get married," she once remarked. "I guess I'm very old-fashioned."

Her philanthropic interests included assistance for the Israeli War Victims Fund, the Variety Clubs International and the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

She received the Legion of Honor, France's most prestigious award, in 1987, for her efforts to support AIDS research. In May 2000, Queen Elizabeth II made Miss Taylor a dame  the female equivalent of a knight  for her services to the entertainment industry and to charity.

In 1993, she won a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute; in 1999, an institute survey of screen legends ranked her No. 7 among actresses.

Survivors include her daughters Maria Burton-Carson and Liza Todd-Tivey, sons Christopher and Michael Wilding, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A private family funeral is planned later this week.

Associated Press writer Bob Thomas contributed to this report.

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