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Film legend Elizabeth Taylor dies at 79 in LA
Question of the Day
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. Taylor never cared much for the film, but her performance at the Oscars wowed the world.
Sympathy for 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 Taylor 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.
“Hell, I even voted for her,” Reynolds later said.
Greater drama awaited: “Cleopatra.” 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. 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, then an emerging breed, 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.) Taylor’s salary per film topped $1 million. “Liz and Dick” became the ultimate jet set couple, on a first name basis with millions who had never met them.
They were a prolific acting team, even if most of the movies aged no better than their marriages: “The VIPs” (1963), “The Sandpiper” (1965), “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967), “The Comedians” (1967), “Dr. Faustus” (1967), “Boom!” (1968), “Under Milk Wood” (1971) and “Hammersmith Is Out” (1972).
Art most effectively imitated life in the adaptation of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” _ in which 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.
“We fight a great deal,” Burton once said, “and we watch the people around us who don’t quite know how to behave during these storms. We don’t fight when we are alone.”
In 1982, Taylor and Burton appeared in a touring production of the Noel Coward play “Private Lives,” in which they starred as a divorced couple who meet on their respective honeymoons. 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 age 3, with extensive ballet training already behind her, Taylor danced for British princesses Elizabeth (the future queen) and Margaret Rose at London’s Hippodrome. At age 4, she was given a wild field horse that she learned to ride expertly.
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, Taylor’s father learned that the studio was struggling to find an English girl to play opposite Roddy McDowall in “Lassie Come Home.” Taylor’s screen test for the film won her both the part and a long-term contract. She grew up quickly after that.
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