Quintessential star Elizabeth Taylor dies at 79

Elizabeth Taylor, screen goddess, was born in 1951’s “A Place in the Sun,” when she cooed into Montgomery Clift’s ear, “You’ll be my pickup.”

Taylor had been a child and teenage star, but “A Place in the Sun” was the first head-on look at her mature, raven-haired, violet-eyed beauty. It would be captured again, if fleetingly, in the sultry “BUtterfield 8,” the sweltering “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the fitting “Cleopatra,” surely her historical counterpart.

Her searing screen presence astonished a moviegoing public. It was a ravishing, glamorous glow that no amount of blockbuster failures or tabloid escapades could dim _ and in her 79 years, there were plenty of both.

As news of her death Wednesday spread, it was clear how many were still entranced. Fellow stars, fans and heads of state were nearly as helpless as Clift’s George Eastman.

Her former husband, former Sen. John W. Warner recalled her “classic face and majestic eyes.” Joan Collins remembered Taylor as “the last of the true Hollywood icons.” Elton John said she embodied “the very essence of glamorous movie stardom.”

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

Film critic Vincent Canby once wrote that Taylor “represents the complete movie phenomenon _ what movies are as an art and an industry and what they have meant to us who have grown up watching them in the dark.”

She may have been the quintessential movie star, but Taylor’s life was far messier than her on-screen icon. As flawless as she was in celluloid, she was utterly human off-screen. Her stormy personal life _ she was married eight times, including twice to Richard Burton _ made her an early template for modern celebrity. Most, though, didn’t find her diva-like, but self-deprecating, generous and funny.

“I, along with the critics, have never taken myself very seriously,” she said, accepting a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1993.

Perhaps because of her looks, Taylor often wasn’t considered a great actress. But she was utterly suited to the medium: sensual, fiery, vulnerable and innocent. She won three Academy Awards, including a special one for her humanitarian work.

She was an ardent and early supporter of AIDS research, when HIV was new to the industry and beyond. The American Foundation for AIDS Research noted in a statement that she was “among the first to speak out on behalf of people living with HIV when others reacted with fear and often outright hostility.”

One of her Oscars came for her performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” She played an alcoholic shrew in an emotionally sadomasochistic marriage opposite Burton.

For all the ferocity of her screen roles and the turmoil of her life, Taylor was remembered by “Virginia Woolf” director Mike Nichols for her gentler, life-affirming side.

“The shock of Elizabeth was not only her beauty. It was her generosity. Her giant laugh. Her vitality, whether tackling a complex scene on film or where we would all have dinner until dawn,” Nichols said in a statement. “She is singular and indelible on film and in our hearts.”

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 Taylor and Burton, the “Brangelina” of their day.

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