Quintessential star Elizabeth Taylor dies at 79

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To many, her defining role, one that lasted 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 carried on until she no longer required explanation. She was the industry’s great survivor, and among the first to reach that special category of celebrity _ famous for being famous, for whom her work was inseparable from the gossip around it.

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.

She was also forgiven. Reynolds would acknowledge voting for Taylor when she was nominated for “BUtterfield 8” and decades later co-starred with her old rival in “These Old Broads,” co-written by Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.

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. Taylor was treated for alcohol and drug abuse problems at the Betty Ford Center 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 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.

Critic James Agee wrote of her: “Ever since I first saw the child … I have been choked with the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were in the same grade of primary school.”

“National Velvet,” her fifth film, also marked the beginning of Taylor’s long string of health issues. During production, she fell off a horse. The resulting back injury continued to haunt her.

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 Clift as the ambitious young man who drowns his working-class girlfriend to be with the socialite 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. That Taylor lasted, and Monroe died young, was a matter of luck and strength; 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,” 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. Taylor never cared much for the film, but her performance at the Oscars wowed the world.

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