Academy Award winner Elizabeth Taylor has died at the age of 79 in Los Angeles. The news has been confirmed by multiple sources, including NBC and IMDb.com. She had been admitted to an L.A. hospital with congestive heart failure in February. An official cause of death has not been announced.
Miss Taylor’s first screen appearance came at the age of nine, in a very small role in M-G-M’s “The Courage of Lassie.” She appeared in a couple of other movies, and then, at age 12, starred in “National Velvet,” which made her a star. She was able to make the notoriously difficult transition from juvenile to adult star, appearing in “Father of the Bride” and its sequel, “Father’s Little Dividend,” with Spencer Tracy. Her roles became increasingly adult, from “Ivanhoe,” where medieval gowns did little to hide a spectacular figure, to “Giant,” which paired her with James Dean and her lifelong friend, Rock Hudson. At that time she went through a series of films which co-starred some of the most interesting men of her day, including Montgomery Clift in “Raintree Couny” and Paul Newman in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Her role as “Maggie the Cat” became one of the most remembered of her career. She won an Academy Award for playing a prostitute in “BUtterfield 8” in 1960. Ironically, she reportedly hated the role and had to be convinced to take it.
After “BUtterfield 8” came “Cleopatra,” a project that deserves an entire book. You can argue all you want about what was the most expensive motion picture of all time. For my money, it’s “Cleopatra.” The movie cost between $42 and $44 million in 1963. If you adjust for inflation that would make “Avatar” look like it was direct-to-video. There are a lot of reasons why the movie cost so much, but the bottom line is that it went way over-schedule and so far over-budget that the idea that the production even had a budget had to be jettisoned. It’s box office receipts were actually impressive by the standards of the day but weren’t big enough to make the unwieldy, bloated epic profitable. The movie was nominated for a number of Academy Awards and won several, including cinematography, art direction and costume design.
“Cleopatra” follows the rise and fall of the Alexandrian-born Queen of Egypt through her relationships with Julius Casear (Rex Harrison) and following his assassination, Marc Antony (Richard Burton). The movie is entertaining throughout its first half, thanks in part to a fascinating performance by Rex Harrison. Most of its energy dies with Caesar. Burton, a magnificent actor, nonetheless fails to find the heroic aspects of Antony, who too often comes off as a self-pitying drunk. Despite the fact there is little onscreen chemistry between Burton and Taylor, the same was not true offscreen, where the two were carrying on a well-publicized extramarital affair. They eventually married, divorced, then married and divorced again.
The financial problems with “Cleopatra” resulted in a lawsuit, Twentieth Century Fox v. Burton and Taylor, a case which bedevils law students to this day. Miss Taylor was actually born in England, and the question of her citizenship became a major procedural sticking point in the litigation.
Taylor and Burton made a number of films together, the most memorable of which is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for which she won an Academy Award. Miss Taylor worked a great deal during the sixties, making four films in 1967 alone. She continued to work regularly through the seventies, now beginning to add some TV projects, such as “Divorce His, Divorce Hers” and “Victory at Entebbe” to the mix. She co-starred in the Agatha Christie adaptation “The Mirror Crack’d” in 1980,” which also marked the beginning of a marked slow-down in her output. During the eighties she worked almost exclusively in TV, including guest stints on the daytime soaps “General Hospital” and “All My Children.” She made her Broadway and West End stage debuts in 1982. Her last feature film was “The Flintstones” in 1994. She did a couple of TV performances in 2001.
She was beset by health problems during the last years of her life, some of them life-threatening. She also battled alcoholism. Nonetheless, she remained active in a number of public causes, most notably her efforts to raise money for AIDS research, which had become personally important to her following the death of longtime friend and co-star Rock Hudson. She was also a personal friend and public supporter of Michael Jackson, even during his trial for child molestation. She was married eight times to seven different men. Richard Burton wed her twice. She is survived by a number of children and grandchildren, and of course, the movies.