With her raven hair, ruby lips and trademark violet eyes, Dame Elizabeth Taylor was true Hollywood royalty, the last major star to come out of the golden age studios. Ranked #7 in the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 “Greatest American Screen Legends,” Liz Taylor captured hearts as a child actress and continued to enthrall audiences throughout her more than 50-year career. She appeared on over 1,000 magazine covers.
Taylor was born in London to American art dealers. She lived there until the age of seven, when the family relocated to Los Angeles in 1939. At a family friend’s urging the strikingly beautiful little girl took a screen test that impressed bigwigs at Universal Pictures enough to sign her. “There’s One Born Every Minute” was released in 1942 when she was 10. While the studio dropped her after one film, MGM soon picked her up.
Her first MGM production, “Lassie Come Home” (1943), was followed by “The White Cliffs of Dover” (1944) and “Jane Eyre” (1943). Then came her career-defining film: “National Velvet” (1944), in which she played Velvet Brown opposite Mickey Rooney. The box office smash made over $4 million, and more importantly, solidified her long-term relationship with MGM as its top child star. At 15, Taylor starred in 1947’s biggest box office hit, “Life with Father” with William Powell and Irene Dunne. She also co-starred in the hugely successful ensemble film “Little Women” in 1949.
The 1950s-1960s saw the beautiful star’s greatest, most lauded roles on the silver screen and her legendary scandal-ridden love life plastered in the tabloids. She co-starred in “A Place in the Sun” (1951) with friend Montgomery Clift, in box office hit “Ivanhoe (1952), and in this week’s MovieZoot Watchlist favorite “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (1954). In 1955, she appeared in the hit “Giant” with James Dean, who died that year without ever seeing the release of his greatest film. “Raintree County” (1957) with Montgomery Clift, who was seriously injured during the film with Taylor actually saving his life, brought her an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Southern belle Susanna Drake.
In 1958, she starred as Maggie Pollitt in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which amassed rave critical reviews and another Academy Award best actress nomination. In 1959, she appeared in another mega-hit and received yet another Oscar nomination for “Suddenly, Last Summer,” though she lost for the third time. Taylor finally won the golden statue in 1960 for her performance of call girl Gloria Wandrous in “BUtterfield 8.”
Taylor’s personal life at the time, including her many affairs, marriages and divorces, was constant fodder for the gossip columnists. She married first husband, hotelier Conrad “Nicky” Hilton, in 1950 at 18 in a traditional, white satin gown made by Helen Rose, who designed Grace Kelly’s dress for her wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco. The marriage, characterized by physical abuse, lasted only about eight months. In early 1952, Taylor married second husband, actor Michael Wilding, the father of her first two children, Michael and Christopher, in a civil ceremony in London. They divorced in 1957.
Taylor’s wedding to third husband, producer Mike Todd was held in Acapulco, Mexico in February 1957. Todd, who was considered the first great love of her life, died in a plane crash in March 1958. He presented her with a 29-carat diamond ring, the first to add to Taylor’s world-renowned jewelry collection. They had one daughter, Elizabeth Frances “Liza” Todd. Not one to remain single for long, Taylor married fourth husband singer Eddie Fisher less than a year after Todd’s death in a synagogue in Las Vegas. Fisher married her 3½ hours after divorcing her good friend and former Matron of Honor at her Todd wedding, Debbie Reynolds. What a tangled web!
Taylor had a scandalous extramarital affair with the second love of her life, Welsh actor Richard Burton, while making the most expensive film at that time. “Cleopatra” earned Taylor a formidable $1 million paycheck. Burton became her fifth husband in 1964 while on this epic film that took many years to complete due to her struggle with a life-threatening illness.
In 1966, she returned to the screen with Burton as the frumpy, sharp-tongued and hard-drinking Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” a performance that brought a second well-deserved Oscar win. The famous couple co-starred together again in “The Taming of the Shrew” in 1967. Nicknamed “Liz and Dick,” the jet-setting couple made 11 films together and shared a lavish lifestyle. Burton gave Taylor the famous 69-carat “Burton-Taylor” diamond. They divorced in 1974, but re-married in 1975. Their second marriage ended in 1976.
While her acting career began to wane, she continued to appear in films until the mid-1970s. By December 1976, Taylor had traded Hollywood for Washington, marrying sixth husband, John Warner, a Republican politician from Virginia. The semi-retired Taylor worked on his Senate campaign, but life as a politician’s wife in Washington, D.C. brought her little satisfaction and much boredom, loneliness and depression. Her weight bloomed and she became addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. The couple divorced in 1982.
In the 1980s, Taylor acted on the stage and in several television films and series. She became the first celebrity to launch a perfume brand and was an early activist of HIV/AIDS, after the death of good friend Rock Hudson.
After Warner, Taylor was engaged to Mexican lawyer Victor Luna and New York businessman Dennis Stein, though she never married either. She met seventh (and last) husband, construction worker Larry Fortensky, while they were both in rehab at the Betty Ford Center in 1988 and they married at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch on October 6, 1991. The wedding was a media circus with one photographer even parachuting into the ranch. Taylor garnered $1 million from People for the wedding pictures, which she used to launch the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Their marriage ended in divorce after five years.
Throughout her life, this legend was constantly hounded with media attention. Taylor married eight times (seven different men), endured more than 40 operations and 100 hospitalizations, and led an excessive lifestyle, including accumulating one of the most expensive private jewelry collections in the world. After years of ill health, she died of congestive heart failure at the age of 79 in 2011.
Check out the feminine wiles of Elizabeth Taylor (with co-stars Van Johnson and Roger Moore) this week with MovieZoot.com’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
Notice the surprising comparisons to Taylor’s real life and loves. Life can often imitate art.