Elizabeth Taylor dies at 79

Legendary actress enraptured audiences with staggering images of innocence, uninhibited adulthood

March 23, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Elizabeth Taylor, who died early Wednesday morning of congestive heart failure at age 79, did something no other actor ever did. At every stage of her career she became a superstar all over again. As a magical little girl, a pristine ingénue and a voluptuous woman, she created characters and images that enraptured or fascinated international audiences.

In the second half of the 20th century, no other Hollywood-bred celebrity was as frequently photographed, celebrated or vilified. Her eight marriages — including a couple to Richard Burton — landed her in headlines and altered her persona. So did her frequent illnesses, showy lifestyle and refreshing frankness about her own allure and appetites and weaknesses and causes. She went from playing pastoral children and impossibly desirable love objects to spewing out profanities as a series of coarse and combative voluptuaries.

The breadth of her performing life was staggering.

Generations of men and women who came of age watching her movies can bring back their own lives' passages by closing their eyes and recalling Taylor as she grew from childhood and adolescence to adulthood.

"I always was a fan of hers," John Waters said yesterday. "She was a real movie star and she did great stuff for AIDS. She was amazing. Right up to the end she had a great sense of humor." She was the idol of Waters' muse and star, Divine. "Look at some of the movies we made," Waters said, "like 'Multiple Maniacs,' and you can see we were paying tribute to her. Divine wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor." The director of "Hairspray" added, "She really was a hair-hopper."

She was captivating as the 12-year-old jockey obsessed with winning the Grand National Steeplechase in "National Velvet" (1944), especially when she declared that she wanted her dreams to come true quickly, so God wouldn't get a chance to wonder whether he'd given her too much glory.

She was miraculously soulful as the debutante in "A Place in the Sun" (1951), feeling all the power and fragility of a "scary" and "wonderful" love for a melancholy man (Montgomery Clift), then brewing a protective aura strong enough to shield both of them — before realizing, with a premonition of disaster, "Every time you leave me for a minute, it's like goodbye."

She offered an indelible image of sensual readiness as the frustrated wife of a broken-down Southern ex-athlete (Paul Newman) in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958). She turned a white slip into the sexiest of all movie outfits. But she also got the emotion behind the statement, "Living with somebody you love can be lonelier than living entirely alone — if the one you love doesn't love you." As Maggie the Cat she learned that the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof is "Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can."

Taylor stayed on the hot tin roof of Hollywood stardom longer than any other star of her generation. Born in London on February 27, 1932, the daughter of American art dealers, she came to the U.S. when her parents brought her to Los Angeles right before the outbreak of the Second World War. She took a screen test at Universal and made a picture there. In MGM's "Lassie Come Home" (1943), as a Scottish aristocrat sympathetic to a commoner's love for his uncommon collie, she caught moviegoers' eyes. Even in a small, unbilled part in the 1944 "Jane Eyre" (a loan-out to Fox), she stood out from a gaggle of schoolgirls. An equally tiny role that year in "The White Cliffs of Dover" brought her under the guidance of Greta Garbo's best director, Clarence Brown.

When director Brown wasn't satisfied with a nation-wide search for an actor to play Velvet Brown, the heroine of "National Velvet," he asked, "Why not Elizabeth Taylor?" At the behest of MGM's producers and executives, she added pounds and put on muscle to play the athletic role.

"Frankly, I doubt I am qualified to arrive at any sensible assessment of Elizabeth Taylor," wrote poet-novelist-critic James Agee. "Ever since I first saw the child, two or three years ago, in I forget what minor role in what movie, I have been choked with the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school." Apparently, so were the MGM executives who seemed content to watch her develop a new physicality in forgettable roles in uninspired projects.

Reviewing "A Date With Judy" (1948), Otis L. Guernsey of the New York Herald Tribune noted, "The erstwhile child star of 'National Velvet' and other films has been touched by Metro's magic wand and turned into a real, 14-carat, 100-proof siren with a whole new career opening in front of her," and warned Hedy Lamarr to watch out for her.

But Taylor loathed studio chief Louis B. Mayer and the contract she said enslaved her to MGM. She did some good work there, more elsewhere.

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