Hollywood’s Gem – Elizabeth Taylor (1932 – 2011)

When Elizabeth Taylor died on March 23, 2011 from congestive heart failure, the pulse of the world quivered as the last living touchstone of the golden age of Hollywood passed from contemporary history. None of the actors who remain from that era have the glitz and glitter she had, first as a child star who made the successful transition to a consummate adult screen actress and goddess, but also as a savvy business woman who used her fame to draw attention to many humanitarian causes when it was politically inconvenient.

Critics were rarely kind when reviewing her performances; they were often influenced by the tabloid fascination with her failed marriages, public scandals and health scares. But through all the turbulence, Taylor always retained public sympathy and remained a magnet for attention. She was ranked as seventh on the AFI’s list of the 50 top screen legends of all time. Only three of the twenty five women on the list remain: Shirley Temple, Lauren Bacall and Sophia Loren.

Some of her best work, on film,  included Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) with Paul Newman, and a strong performance opposite Katherine Hepburn in Suddenly Last Summer (1959). Both were film adaptations of plays written by Tennessee Williams. But, it wasn’t until 1961 and after her fourth nomination did she win her first Best Actress Oscar for BUtterfield 8 (1960), a film she openly detested because she played an out of control nymphomaniac call girl with the line, “Mama, face it, I was the slut of all time.” She always felt the Academy voted her the Oscar out of sympathy for almost dying of pneumonia a few weeks earlier. Another reason was that her co star was Eddie Fisher, who she considered her biggest mistake.

Her second Oscar was in 1966 for Who Is Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, which remains the best of the nine films she made with her fifth husband, Richard Burton who she married and divorced twice. The film, directed by Mike Nichols, seemed to be art imitating life as her vitriolic Martha reflected her marriage to Burton, a volcanic relationship characterized by public spats and alcohol abuse. She received the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1992 for her groundbreaking work for creating and raising money for AIDS foundations

My personal favorite of all the fifty films she made is a little known gem called Elephant Walk (1954). It starred Peter Finch and Dana Andrews and was based on the novel by Digby George Gerahty and directed by William Dieterle from a screenplay by John Lee Mahin. It’s an epic story about a colonial plantation owner who cultivates Tea in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. On a trip to England, Finch meets and marries Ruth played by Taylor who becomes the mistress of the large manor in what would turn out to be a precursor for her roles in Giant, and then as Cleopatra. The lavish luxury and wealth also served as a reminder of Taylor’s lifelong love affair with diamonds.

A major plot element of the film is that the plantation’s large house was intentionally built in the middle of the migrating path of Indian Elephants. A tense drama, a love triangle and the exciting climax as an epic elephant stampede threatens to stomp Taylor in a heart pumping scene as she tries to escape up a long staircase to avoid being trampled by the large herd of angry elephants with a grudge. Elephant Walk was originally set to star Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh who had to back out of the project due to bi polar disease. Taylor and Finch were last minute replacements.

Dame Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilder Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky was born on February 27, 1932 in Great Britain to American parents. She became a major star for MGM, popular not only for her films but for her glamorous lifestyle, beauty, public scandals and those violet eyes. Her first real screen success was in 1944 when she made National Velvet as a child star and then matured as Spencer Tracy’s daughter in Father Of The Bride in 1950. In 1963, her much publicised scandal on the set of Cleopatra with Richard Burton sealed her fate as “the other woman.”  Her life has often been compared to a soap opera and Giant (1956) which starred Rock Hudson and James Dean may have been the basis for Dallas, the prime time  soap that dominated television for years.

Taylor, who remained popular throughout her life was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2000. She leaves four children, ten grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Although her glimmer as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars will remain bright, her most important footnote will be the way she used her fame to draw attention to the humanitarian causes that motivated the final chapter of her life. Elizabeth Taylor was seventy nine.