Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, DBE (February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011) was a British-American actress, businesswoman and humanitarian. Beginning as a child star with MGM in the 1940s, she became a screen actress during Hollywood's Golden Age. She appeared in more than 50 films, playing mostly dramatic roles, and won two Academy Awards for Best Actress.
Taylor's screen debut was in the film National Velvet (1944) at the age of 12. Her career grew and she would later go on to star in such films as Father of the Bride (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) for which she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama . She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for BUtterfield 8 (1960), played the title role in Cleopatra (1963), and famously married her co-star Richard Burton after leaving her husband of five years, Eddie Fisher. She and Burton appeared together in 11 films, including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), for which Taylor won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress and her second Academy Award for Best Actress. From the mid-1970s, she appeared less frequently in film, and made occasional appearances in television and theatre.
Her much-publicized personal life consisted of eight marriages, seven husbands (she married Burton twice) and several life-threatening illnesses throughout her extraordinary career. From the mid-1980s, Taylor championed HIV and AIDS programs; she co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1985, and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991. She received the Presidential Citizens Medal, the Legion of Honour, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, who named her seventh on their list of the greatest female stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema. Taylor died from congestive heart failure in March 2011 at the age of 79, having suffered many years of ill health.
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born on February 27, 1932 at Heathwood, her family's home on 8 Wildwood Road in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. She received dual citizenship at birth, as her parents, art dealer Francis Lenn Taylor (1897–1968) and retired stage actress Sara Sothern (née Sara Viola Warmbrodt, 1895–1994), were United States citizens, both originally from Arkansas City, Kansas. They moved to London in 1929 and opened a gallery on Bond Street; their first child, a son named Howard, was born the same year.
The Taylors' upper-class life in London was little affected by the Great Depression. Taylor was enrolled in Byron House, a Montessori school in Highgate. The family's friends included artists such as Augustus John and Laura Knight, and MP Colonel Victor Cazalet. Cazalet was Taylor's unofficial godfather and an important influence in her early life. He was also a lay preacher of Christian Science, a religious movement, which teachings Sara Taylor adhered to and according to which she raised her children.
Although the Taylors had wished to make England their permanent home, they decided to return to the United States in the spring of 1939, after Cazalet warned them about the coming war against Germany. Sara Taylor and the children traveled first on board the S.S. Manhattan in April 1939; Francis stayed behind in London to take care of the shipping of the gallery's art works. After arriving in the U.S., Sara and the children temporarily moved in with Taylor's maternal grandfather in Pasadena, California. Francis arrived in California in December, and opened an art gallery in Los Angeles in early 1940, first at the Château Élysée Hotel, and some months later moving it to the The Beverly Hills Hotel. After briefly living in Pacific Palisades, the family settled in Beverly Hills, where Taylor and her brother were enrolled in Hawthorne School.
Career beginnings (1941–1943)
In Los Angeles, Taylor's mother was frequently told that her "beautiful" daughter should audition for film roles. One of Taylor's features which had drawn attention since her early childhood was her eyes; they were deep blue to the extent of appearing violet, and were rimmed by dark double eyelashes, caused by a genetic mutation. Sara initially disliked the idea of Taylor appearing in films, but after the war made it clear that the family would not be returning to England, she changed her mind and began viewing the film industry as a way of assimilating to American society. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, a friend of the Cazalets, attended the Beverly Hills gallery opening in 1940, and subsequently wrote about it in her column, also mentioning Taylor. Hopper's endorsement brought the gallery clients from the film industry; one of them, Andrea Berens, was the fiancée of Universal Pictures' head executive John Cheever Cowdin, and arranged an audition with the studio in early 1941. Around the same time, Taylor also received an audition with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer through one of her school friends, whose father was a studio producer.
Both studios offered Taylor a contract. While she preferred MGM, her mother decided to accept Universal's offer, and the studio signed Taylor for a seven-year contract in April 1941. She appeared in a small role in There's One Born Every Minute (1942), but was not cast in other films and her contract was terminated in March 1942. While the exact reason for the termination is unknown, the studio's casting director allegedly disliked her, stating that "the kid has nothing... her eyes are too old, she doesn't have the face of a child". Biographer Alexander Walker agrees that Taylor appeared older than her age, and looked very different from popular child stars of the era, such as Shirley Temple and Judy Garland. Taylor herself stated that she was often called an "old soul" when she was a child, and that "apparently I used to frighten grown ups, because I was totally direct."
Taylor received another opportunity in October 1942, when her father's acquaintance, MGM producer Samuel Marx, arranged an audition for a minor role in Lassie Come Home (1943). The part required an actress with a British accent; while Taylor had quickly learned an American accent following the move to the U.S., she could still easily switch back when necessary. The audition was successful and she was given a three-month "test option" contract, which was upgraded to a standard seven-year contract in January 1943. After Lassie, she appeared in minor uncredited roles in two other films set in Britain, Jane Eyre (1943) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944).
Adolescent star (1944–1949)
Taylor had her first starring role aged twelve, when she was cast in National Velvet (1944) as a girl who wants to compete in the Grand National despite its ban on female jockeys. She later called it "the most exciting film" of her career. MGM had been looking for a suitable actress with a British accent and the ability to ride horses since 1937. Taylor was cast at the recommendation of director Clarence Brown, who had previously worked with her in White Cliffs and knew she had the required skills. As she was deemed too short, filming was pushed back several months to allow her to grow. During this time, Taylor practiced riding daily. She fractured her spine in a fall, but the injury went unnoticed for several years. In developing Taylor into a leading actress, MGM made some changes to her looks. She had to wear braces to correct her teeth, and had two of her baby teeth pulled out. The studio also wanted to dye her hair and change the shape of her eyebrows, and proposed that she use the screen name "Virginia", but Taylor and her parents refused. According to Walker, the experience marked the beginning of Taylor's years as MGM's "chattel".
National Velvet became a box office success upon its release on Christmas 1944.Bosley Crowther of The New York Times stated that "her whole manner in this picture is one of refreshing grace", while James Agee of The Nation wrote that she "is rapturously beautiful ... I hardly know or care whether she can act or not."
In January 1946, Taylor signed a new seven-year contract with MGM, with a weekly salary of $750. Following the success of National Velvet, the studio decided that her public image should be constructed around her adoration of animals, and next cast her in a minor role in the third film of the Lassie series, Courage of Lassie (1946). The studio also published a book of Taylor's writings about her pet chipmunk, Nibbles and Me (1946), and had paper dolls and coloring books made after her.
During her teenage years, the studio controlled every aspect of Taylor's life; according to Walker, she had "no freedom outside the studio gates; or even inside them." Taylor followed a strict daily schedule. During the day, she attended school and filmed scenes on the MGM lot, and her evenings were spent in dancing and singing classes and in practising the following day's scenes. Taylor later described MGM as a "big extended factory" that "promoted [her] for their pockets". She also stated that she was happier before she began her film career, and that she "had no real childhood" after becoming a star.
MGM began to construct a more mature image for Taylor after she turned fifteen in 1947. The studio organized public appearances, interviews and photo shoots which portrayed her at parties and on dates.Life called her "Hollywood's most accomplished junior actress" for her two film appearances in 1947. The first was the drama Cynthia, which starred her as a frail girl who defies her overprotective parents to go to prom. The second was Michael Curtiz's critically and commercially successful period film Life with Father, in which she appeared opposite William Powell and Irene Dunne. She was loaned to Warner Bros. for the film; the studio paid her $3,500 per week, several times her regular MGM salary.
As Taylor developed into a young woman, film magazines and gossip columnists began comparing her to older actresses such as Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. MGM next cast her in A Date with Judy (1948) as a teenage "man-stealer" who seduces her peer's date to a high school dance. Her other film role that year was as a bride in Julia Misbehaves (1948), which starred Greer Garson and became a commercial success upon its release in August, grossing over $4 million. Taylor's last adolescent role was as Amy March in Mervyn LeRoy's Little Women (1949). While it did not match the popularity of the previous 1933 film adaptation of Louisa M. Alcott's novel, it was a box office success.
Transition to adult roles (1950–1951)
Taylor's transition to adult roles was relatively easy. Already in 1949, Time had featured her on its cover, and in the accompanying article called her "a jewel of great price, a true sapphire", and the leader among Hollywood's next generation of stars. Her first mature role was in the thriller Conspirator (1950), in which she played a young wife, who begins to suspect that her husband, played by Robert Taylor, is a Soviet spy. It was filmed in England when Taylor was still only sixteen, but its release was delayed until March 1950, as MGM did not like it, and also feared it could cause diplomatic problems. Taylor's second film release of 1950 was the comedy The Big Hangover (1950), co-starring Van Johnson. It was released in May, and the same month, Taylor married hotel-chain heir Conrad Hilton, Jr. in a highly-publicized ceremony. The event was organized by MGM, and used as part of the publicity campaign for Taylor's next film, Vincente Minelli's comedy Father of the Bride (1950), in which she appeared opposite Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett as a bride preparing for her wedding. The film became a commercial success upon its release in June, grossing $6 million worldwide, and was followed by a successful sequel Father's Little Dividend (1951) ten months later.
Taylor's next film release, George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951), marked a departure from her earlier work. It was the first time since National Velvet that she received widespread critical praise for her performance, and according to her, was the first film in which she had even been asked to do any real acting. Based on Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy (1925), it featured Taylor as a spoiled socialite who comes between a poor factory worker (Montgomery Clift) and his girlfriend (Shelley Winters). Stevens explained that he chose Taylor as the role required someone who was "not so much a real girl as the girl on the candy-box cover, the beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy sometime or other thinks he can marry" and that Taylor was "the only one I was aware of who could create this illusion".
A Place in the Sun was a box office success, grossing $3 million, and was lauded especially for its main actors' performances. Herb Golden of Variety stated that Taylor's "the histrionics are of a quality so far beyond anything she has done previously, that Stevens’ skilled hands on the reins must be credited with a minor miracle" and A.H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote that she gives "a shaded, tender performance and one in which her passionate and genuine romance avoids the bathos common to young love as it sometimes comes to the screen."
Taylor next starred in the romantic comedy Love Is Better Than Ever (1952). According to Walker, she was cast in the "B-picture" as a reprimand for causing a scandal when she divorced Hilton after only nine months of marriage. She was then sent to Britain to take part in the historical epic Ivanhoe (1952), one of the studio's most expensive projects in years. Taylor disliked the film; she thought it superficial and her role as Rebecca the Jewish girl too small. Regardless, Ivanhoe became one of MGM's biggest commercial successes, earning $11 million in worldwide rentals. Taylor's last film made under her old contract was The Girl Who Had Everything (1953), a remake of the pre-code drama A Free Soul (1931).
After several months of negotiations, Taylor signed a new seven-year contract with MGM in the summer of 1952. Although she wanted more interesting roles, the decisive factor in continuing with the studio was her financial need; she had recently married British actor Michael Wilding and was pregnant with her first child. In addition to granting her a weekly salary of $4,700, MGM agreed to give the couple a loan for a house and signed Wilding for a three-year contract. Due to her financial dependency, the studio now had even more control over her than previously.
Taylor's first two films made under her new contract were released ten days apart in spring 1954. The first was the romantic film Rhapsody, starring her as a woman caught in a love triangle with two musicians. The second was the drama Elephant Walk, in which she played a British woman struggling to adapt to life on her husband's tea plantation in Ceylon. She had been loaned to Paramount Pictures for the film after its original star, Vivien Leigh, became ill.
In the fall, Taylor starred in two more film releases. Beau Brummell was a Regency era period film, another project in which she was cast against her will. Taylor disliked historical films, as their elaborate costumes and make-up required her to wake up earlier than usual to prepare. She also thought her performance was one of the worst of her career. The second film was Richard Brooks' The Last Time I Saw Paris, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story. Although she had wanted to be cast in The Barefoot Contessa (1954) instead, Taylor liked the film, and later stated that it "convinced me I wanted to be an actress instead of yawning my way through parts". While it was not as profitable as many other MGM films, it garnered positive reviews. Taylor became pregnant again during the production, and had to agree to add another year to her contract.
Critical acclaim (1956–1960)
By the mid-1950s, film studios were beginning to lose revenue due to television. In order to bring audiences back to the cinemas, they began concentrating on making fewer films of better quality; the change benefited Taylor, who finally began to get roles she found interesting. After having her second child, she was loaned to Warner Bros. for George Stevens' Giant (1956), an epic about a Texas ranching dynasty, which co-starred Rock Hudson and James Dean. The project was one of the most demanding Taylor had participated in. Stevens wanted to break her will to make her easier to direct, and his provocations led to clashes between them. She was also often ill, which caused delays in the production. Then, days after completing his part of the filming, Dean died in a car crash.Giant earned praise from the critics and became a box office success.Variety stated that Taylor gave "a surprisingly clever performance" and The Guardian called her one of the film's strongest assets, lauding her performance as "an astonishing revelation of unsuspected gifts".
MGM next reunited Taylor with Montgomery Clift in Raintree County (1957), a Civil War drama it hoped would replicate the success of Gone with the Wind (1939). Taylor found her role as a mentally disturbed Southern belle fascinating, but overall disliked the film. Although the film failed to become the type of success MGM had planned, Taylor was nominated for the first time for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Taylor considered her next performance as Maggie the Cat in the Tennessee Williams adaptation Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) a career "high point", although it coincided with one of the most difficult periods in her personal life. She had divorced Wilding after completing Raintree County and married producer Mike Todd. In March 1957, she had completed two weeks of filming on Cat when Todd was killed in an airplane crash. Despite her loss, MGM pressurized Taylor to return to work only three weeks later. She later stated that she "in a way ... became Maggie" and that acting "was the only time I could function" during that time.
Taylor's personal life drew further public attention when it became known that she was having an affair with singer Eddie Fisher. Fisher decided to divorce his wife, actress Debbie Reynolds, and marry Taylor. MGM used the scandal to promote the film by featuring Taylor in a negligée on a bed in the film's posters. Although the Fisher affair made her subject to public hatred, it did not affect the film negatively: it grossed $10 million in American cinemas alone and made Taylor the year's second most profitable star. She received positive reviews for her performance, with Crowther of The New York Times calling her "terrific" and Variety praising her for "a well-accented, perceptive interpretation". Taylor also received nominations for an Academy Award and a BAFTA.
Taylor's next film, Joseph L. Mankiewicz' Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), was also an adaptation from a Tennessee Williams play. The independent production earned her $500,000 for playing the role of a severely traumatized patient in a mental institution. Although the film was a serious-minded drama, it was again promoted with Taylor's sex appeal; both its trailer and poster featured her in a white swimsuit. The strategy worked, as Suddenly became a financial success. It also gained Taylor a Golden Globe for Best Actress and a third Academy Award nomination.
By 1959, Taylor owed one more film for MGM, which it decided should be BUtterfield 8 (1960), a controversial story about a high-class prostitute. The studio correctly calculated that Taylor's public image as a "homewrecker" would make it easy for audiences to associate her with the role. She hated the film for the same reason, but had no choice in the matter, although the studio agreed to her demands of filming in New York and casting Eddie Fisher in a sympathetic role. As predicted, BUtterfield 8 was a major commercial success, grossing $18 million in world rentals. Crowther wrote that Taylor "looks like a million dollars, in mink or in negligée", while Variety stated that she gives "a torrid, stinging portrayal with one or two brilliantly executed passages within". She won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Cleopatra and hiatus (1961–1964)
Taylor's first film after finishing her MGM contract was 20th Century-Fox's historical epic Cleopatra (1963), in which she played the titular role. In retrospect, she considered it a "low point" in her career; it received mixed to negative reviews and although it became the biggest commercial success of 1963, its production costs were greater than its profits. Nevertheless, its production made film history and dominated the headlines for nearly three years. Taylor became the first female star to be paid $1 million for a film role; Fox also granted her 10% of the film's profits and shot the film in Todd-AO, a widescreen format owned by Taylor, who had inherited its rights from Mike Todd.
Cleopatra also became famous for taking nearly two years to film, and for being the most expensive film made up to that point, nearly driving Fox to bankruptcy. Its filming began in England in 1960, but had to be halted several times due to bad weather and Taylor's ill health. In March 1961, she developed pneumonia, which proved nearly fatal and necessitated a tracheotomy to be performed. Once she had recovered, Fox decided to discard the already filmed material and move the production to Rome, also changing its director to Joseph Mankiewicz and the actor playing Mark Antony to Richard Burton. Taylor and Burton began an extramarital affair, which caused a scandal.
Although neither had yet divorced their spouses, Taylor and Burton then starred in Anthony Asquith's The V.I.P.s (1963), which story mirrored the headlines about them. Taylor played a famous model attempting to leave her husband for a lover, and Burton her estranged millionaire husband. Released soon after Cleopatra to profit from the scandal, it became a box office success. Taylor was also paid $500,000 to appear in a CBS television special, Elizabeth Taylor in London. After completing The V.I.P.s, Taylor took a two-year hiatus from films, during which she and Burton were married.
Success with Richard Burton (1965–1967)
Taylor and Burton continued starring together in films in the mid-1960s. Walker has compared these films to "illustrated gossip columns", as their film roles often mirrored their public personas. They received a combined $88 million for their films over the next decade and according to Burton, "they say we generate more business activity than one of the smaller African nations". Their first joint project following Taylor's hiatus was Vincente Minelli's romantic drama The Sandpiper (1965), about an illicit love affair in the bohemian Big Sur. Its reviews were largely negative, but it grossed a successful $14 million.
"I am just constantly surprised at how good Elizabeth and Richard are... Their flexibility and talent and cooperativeness and lovingness is overwhelming... I've had more trouble with little people you've never heard of –temper tantrums, upstaging, girls' sobbing– than with the so-called legendary Burtons. The Burtons are on time, they know their lines, and if I make suggestions, Elizabeth can keep in her mind fourteen dialogue changes, twelve floor marks, and ten pauses..."
Their next project, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), features the most acclaimed performance of Taylor's career. She and Burton starred as Martha and George, a middle-aged couple going through a marital crisis. In order to convincingly play 50-year-old Martha, Taylor gained weight, wore a wig, and used make-up to make herself look old and tired — a stark contrast to her glamorous public image. It was her idea to hire Mike Nichols to direct, even though he had never before made a film. The production differed from everything Taylor had done previously, as Nichols, whose previous experience was from the stage, wanted to first thoroughly rehearse before filming. The film was considered groundbreaking for its adult themes and uncensored language. It opened to "glorious" reviews, and became one of the biggest commercial successes of the year. Taylor received her second Academy Award, a BAFTA, a National Board of Review award and a New York City Film Critics Circle Award for her performance.
In 1966, Taylor and Burton also performed Doctor Faustus for a week in Oxford to benefit the Oxford University Dramatic Society; he starred and she appeared in her first stage role as Helen of Troy, a part which required no speaking. Although it received generally negative reviews, Burton then produced it into a film, Doctor Faustus (1967), with the same cast. It was also panned by critics and grossed only $600,000 in the box office. Their next project, Franco Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew (1967), which they also co-produced, was more successful. It posed another challenge for Taylor, as she was the only actor in the project with no previous experience of performing Shakespeare; Zeffirelli later stated that this made her performance interesting, as she "invented the part from scratch". Critics found the play to be fitting material for the couple, and it was a box office success by grossing $12 million.
Taylor's third film released in 1967, John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye, was her first without Burton since Cleopatra. It was a drama about a repressed homosexual and his unfaithful wife, and was originally slated to co-star Taylor's old friend Montgomery Clift, whose career had been in decline for several years due to his addictions. Before the filming began, Clift died from a heart attack and was replaced by Marlon Brando. It was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release. Taylor and Burton's last film of the year was the Graham Greene adaptation The Comedians; it received mixed reviews and was a box office failure.
Career decline (1968–1979)
By the late 1960s, Taylor's career was in decline. She had gained weight and was nearing middle age, and did not fit in with the new generation of more androgynous actresses, such as Jane Fonda and Julie Christie. After several years of nearly constant media attention, the public was also tiring of her and Burton, and criticized their jet set lifestyle.
In 1968, Taylor starred in two films directed by Joseph Losey, Boom! and Secret Ceremony. The former was based on a Tennessee Williams play, and featured her as an aging, serial-marrying millionaire and Burton as a younger man who turns up on the island on which she has retired. It was panned by the critics, and failed in the box office.Secret Ceremony, a psychological drama in which Taylor starred opposite Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum, had a similar fate. 20th Century-Fox's The Only Game in Town (1970), in which Taylor played a Las Vegas showgirl who has an affair with a compulsive gambler, played by Warren Beatty, was another failure.
Taylor appeared in three films in 1972. Zee and Co. (1972), which portrayed her and Michael Caine as a troubled married couple, won her the David di Donatello for Best Foreign Actress. She then appeared with Burton in Under Milk Wood (1972); although her role was small, its producers decided to give her top-billing to profit from her fame. Her third film role that year was playing a blonde diner waitress in Peter Ustinov's Faust parody Hammersmith Is Out (1972), her tenth collaboration with Burton. Although it was overall not successful, Taylor received some good reviews, with Vincent Canby of The New York Times writing that she has "a certain vulgar, ratty charm", and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times stating that "the spectacle of Elizabeth Taylor growing older and more beautiful continues to amaze the population". Her performance won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival.
Taylor and Burton's last film together was the Harlech Television film Divorce His, Divorce Hers (1973), fittingly named as they divorced the following year. Her other films released in 1973 were the British thriller Night Watch (1973), and the American drama Ash Wednesday (1973). For the latter, in which she starred as a woman who undergoes multiple plastic surgeries in an attempt to save her marriage, she received a Golden Globe nomination. Her only film released in 1974, the Italian Muriel Spark adaptation The Driver's Seat (1974) was another failure.
Taylor took fewer roles after the mid-1970s and focused on supporting the career of her sixth husband, Republican politician John Warner. In 1976, she participated in the Soviet-American fantasy film The Blue Bird (1976) and had a small role in the television film Victory at Entebbe (1976), and in 1977 sang in the critically panned film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music (1977).
Stage and television roles; retirement (1980–2007)
Taylor had her first substantial role in several years in the mystery film The Mirror Crack'd (1980), based on an Agatha Christie novel and featuring an ensemble cast of famous actors from the studio era, such as Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, and Tony Curtis. Wanting to challenge herself, Taylor then acted in her first substantial stage role, appearing as Regina Giddens in a Broadway production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, which premiered in May 1981. Instead of portraying Giddens in negative light as had often been the case in previous productions, Taylor's idea was to show her as a victim of circumstance, stating "She's a killer, but she's saying 'Sorry fellas, you put me in this position'".
The production had a sold-out six-month run, but received mixed reviews. Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote that Taylor's performance as "Regina Giddens, that malignant Southern bitch-goddess ... begins gingerly, soon gathers steam and then explodes into a black and thunderous storm that may just knock you out of your seat", while Dan Sullivan of the Los Angeles Times stated that "Taylor presents a possible Regina Giddens, as seen through the persona of Elizabeth Taylor. There's some acting in it, as well as some personal display." In November 1981, Taylor also appeared as evil socialite Helena Cassadine in the daytime soap opera General Hospital, one of her favorite television shows. The following spring, she continued performing The Little Foxes in London's West End, received largely negative reviews from the British press.
Encouraged by the success of The Little Foxes, Taylor and producer founded the Elizabeth Taylor Repertory Company. Its first and only project was a revival of Noël Coward's comedy Private Lives, starring Taylor and Richard Burton. It premiered in Boston in spring 1983, and although commercially successful, received generally negative reviews, with critics noting that both were in noticeably poor health — Taylor entered a drug rehabilitation centre after the play's run ended and Burton died the following year. After the failure of Private Lives, Taylor dissolved her theater company. Her only other project that year was the HBO television film Between Friends.
Following her stage projects, Taylor took on several television roles. In 1984, she was a guest star in Hotel and in the following year played gossip columnist Louella Parsons in the television film Malice in Wonderland and a brothel keeper in the historical miniseries North and South. She was awarded the honorary Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1985, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Chaplin Award in 1986. Taylor played the titular role in the Western Poker Alice (1987), appeared in Franco Zeffirelli's biopic Young Toscanini (1988) and in a television version of Sweet Bird of Youth (1989), her fourth Tennessee Williams adaptation.
Taylor had few acting roles in the 1990s, instead focusing her time on HIV/AIDS activism. She made cameos in the television series Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1992), The Nanny (1993) and The Simpsons (1992, 1993). Her last theatrically released film was The Flintstones (1994), in which she played Pearl Slaghoople, earning a Golden Raspberry nomination for her performance. She was awarded American Film Institute's AFI Life Achievement Award in 1993, and a Screen Actors Guild honorary award in 1997. She also received British honors: she received a BAFTA Fellowship in 1999, and was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000. Her final acting roles were in the television film These Old Broads and in the animated sitcom God, the Devil and Bob, both in 2001. Taylor announced in 2003 that she was retiring from acting to focus on philanthropy. She gave one last public performance in 2007, when she and James Earl Jones performed the play Love Letters at an AIDS benefit at the Paramount Studios.
"I decided that with my name I could open certain doors, that I was a commodity in myself—and I’m not talking as an actress. I could take the fame I’d resented and tried to get away from for so many years—but you can never get away from it—and use it to do some good. I wanted to retire, but the tabloids wouldn’t let me. So I thought, If you’re going to screw me over, I’ll use you."
From the mid-1980s until her death, Taylor devoted much of her time to HIV/AIDS activism and fundraising, becoming one of the first celebrities to do so at a time when few acknowledged the disease, and helping to raise more than $270 million for the cause. Taylor had first become aware of the epidemic in the early 1980s, when many of her friends were afflicted by it. She began working for the cause in 1984 by helping to organize and by hosting the first AIDS fundraiser to benefit the AIDS Project Los Angeles.
In July 1985, Taylor's longtime friend and former co-star Rock Hudson announced that he was dying of AIDS. Taylor and Hudson's doctor, Dr. Michael Gottlieb, founded the National AIDS Research Foundation in California the following month. In September 1985, the organization merged with Dr. Mathilde Krim's New York-based AIDS foundation to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR); Hudson became its first donor, giving $250,000 for the cause before dying in October. As amfAR focuses on funding research, Taylor founded The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) in 1991 to raise awareness and to provide support services for people with HIV/AIDS. She paid for its overhead costs herself; her trust has continued to do so after her death. She also arranged for 25% of her image royalties to go to ETAF. In addition to her work for people affected by HIV/AIDS in the United States, Taylor was instrumental in expanding amfAR's operations to other countries; ETAF also operates internationally.
Taylor testified before the Senate and Congress for the Ryan White Care Act in 1986, 1990 and 1992. She also persuaded President Ronald Reagan to acknowledge the disease for the first time in a speech in 1987, and publicly criticized presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton for what she perceived as their lack of interest in combatting the disease. In addition, Taylor's efforts included founding the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center to offer free HIV/AIDS testing and care at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., and The Elizabeth Taylor Endowment Fund for the UCLA Clinical AIDS Research and Education Center in Los Angeles. When New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina, Taylor commissioned a 37-foot (11 m) "Care Van" equipped with examination tables and xray equipment to provide treatment, and donated $500,000 to the NO/AIDS Task Force, a non-profit organization serving the community of those affected by HIV/AIDS in and around the city.
Taylor was honored with several awards for her philanthropic work. She was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honour in 1987 and received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993, the Screen Actors' Guild Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanitarian service in 1997, the GLAAD Vanguard Award in 2000 and the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001. Speaking of her work, former President Bill Clinton said at her death, "Elizabeth's legacy will live on in many people around the world whose lives will be longer and better because of her work and the ongoing efforts of those she inspired."
Perfume and jewelry brands
Taylor was the first celebrity to create her own line of perfumes. In collaboration with Elizabeth Arden, Inc., she launched her first fragrance, Passion, in 1987, followed by White Diamonds in 1991; both became bestsellers. Taylor personally supervised the creation and production of each of the eleven fragrances produced in her name. According to Taylor's biographers Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, she earned more money through the fragrance collection than during her entire acting career; upon her death, the British newspaper The Guardian estimated that majority of her estimated $600 million–$1 billion estate consisted of revenue from fragrances. In 2005, Taylor also founded a jewelry company, the House of Taylor, in collaboration with Kathy Ireland and Jack and Monty Abramov.
Marriages, romances, and children
Taylor was married eight times to seven husbands. When asked why she married so often, she replied, "I don't know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me," but also said that, "I was taught by my parents that if you fall in love, if you want to have a love affair, you get married. I guess I'm very old-fashioned." Taylor's husbands were:
- Conrad "Nicky" Hilton (May 6, 1950 – January 29, 1951): Taylor believed that she was in love with the young hotel heir, but also wanted to escape from her mother. Hilton's "gambling, drinking, and abusive behavior", however, horrified her and her parents, caused a miscarriage, and ended the marriage in divorce after nine months.
- Michael Wilding (February 21, 1952 – January 26, 1957): The "gentle" Wilding, 20 years older than Taylor, comforted her after she left Hilton. After their divorce, Taylor admitted that "I gave him rather a rough time, sort of henpecked him, and probably wasn't mature enough for him." Wilding and Taylor had two sons, Michael and Christopher.
- Mike Todd (February 2, 1957 – March 22, 1958): Taylor's next husband was even older than the previous one: born in 1909, Todd was 23 years older than Taylor and had a son who was older than her. Although this marriage lasted only a little over one year, it was the only one of Taylor's marriages to end without divorce; Todd died in a plane crash while married to Taylor. Todd and Taylor had a daughter, Elizabeth ("Liza"), born only six months after their wedding. Although their relationship was tumultuous, Taylor later called him one of the three loves of her life, along with Burton and jewelry. Todd was Jewish, and about a year after his death, Taylor (who by then was married to another Jewish husband) converted to Judaism herself.
- Eddie Fisher (May 12, 1959 – March 6, 1964): Fisher, who was also Jewish, and who had been Todd's best friend, consoled Taylor after Todd's death. They began an affair while Fisher was still married to Debbie Reynolds, causing a scandal;:226 Reynolds eventually forgave Taylor; she even voted for her when Taylor was nominated for an Oscar for BUtterfield 8, and starred with her in These Old Broads.
- Richard Burton (March 15, 1964 – June 26, 1974; again from October 10, 1975 – July 29, 1976): The Vatican condemned Burton and Taylor's affair, which began when both were married to others, as "erotic vagrancy". The press closely followed their relationship before, during, and after their ten years of marriage, and there was great public interest in "the most famous film star in the world and the man many believed to be the finest classical actor of his generation." Taylor wanted to focus on her marriage rather than her career. She even gained weight on purpose, in an unsuccessful attempt to not receive film roles. Burton once said, "You can't keep clapping a couple of sticks [of dynamite] together without expecting them to blow up". Sixteen months after being divorced, they remarried in a private ceremony in Kasane, Botswana. They separated again and had their second and final divorce in 1976.
- John Warner (December 4, 1976 – November 7, 1982): As with Burton, Taylor sought to be known as the wife of her husband, a RepublicanUnited States Senator from Virginia. Unhappy with her life in Washington, however, Taylor became depressed and entered the Betty Ford Center.
- Larry Fortensky (October 6, 1991 – October 31, 1996): Taylor and Fortensky met during another stay at the Betty Ford Center and were married at the Neverland Ranch of her longtime friend, Michael Jackson
Taylor had many romances outside her marriages. Before marrying Hilton, she was engaged to Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis—who did not know until the relationship ended that Taylor's mother had encouraged it to build publicity for her daughter—and also to the son of William D. Pawley, the United States Ambassador to Brazil. Industrialist and producer Howard Hughes promised Taylor's parents that if they would encourage her to marry him, he would finance a movie studio for her; Sara Taylor agreed, but Taylor refused.
Taylor had two sons, Michael Howard (born January 6, 1953) and Christopher Edward (born February 27, 1955; her own 23rd birthday), with Michael Wilding. She had a daughter, Elizabeth Frances "Liza" (born August 6, 1957), with Michael Todd. During her marriage to Eddie Fisher, Taylor started proceedings to adopt a two-year-old girl from Germany, Maria (born August 1, 1961); the adoption process was finalized in 1964, by which time Taylor and Fisher were already divorced. Richard Burton later adopted Taylor's daughters Liza and Maria.
Taylor became a grandmother at the age of 39. At the time of her death, she was survived by her four children, ten grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Conversion to Judaism and support for Israeli causes
Taylor was raised as a Christian Scientist, but converted to Judaism in 1959, taking the Hebrew name Elisheba Rachel. Although her conversion took place a year after the death of Mike Todd, who was Jewish, and just before her marriage to Jewish Eddie Fisher, Taylor stated that she did not convert because of her husbands, but had wanted to do so "for a long time".
After her conversion, Taylor became a supporter of Jewish and Zionist causes. In 1959, she purchased $100,000 worth of Israeli Bonds; her films were subsequently banned by the United Arab Republic. She was also barred from entering Egypt to film Cleopatra in 1962, but the ban was lifted two years later after the Egyptian officials deemed that the film brought positive publicity for the country. Taylor helped to raise money for organizations such as the Jewish National Fund, advocated for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, canceled a visit to the USSR because of its condemnation of Israel due to the Six-Day War, and signed a letter protesting the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 of 1975. In 1976, she offered herself as a replacement hostage after more than 100 Israeli civilians were taken hostage in the Entebbe skyjacking. She had a small role in the television film made about the incident, Victory at Entebbe (1976), and narrated Genocide (1981), a documentary about the Holocaust.
Impressions of career and marriage
In 1964, at the age of 32, Taylor described herself as an actress: "The Elizabeth Taylor who's famous, the one on film, really has no depth or meaning to me. She's a totally superficial working thing, a commodity." She was also able to explain her acting skills as "minuscule—it's not technique. It's instinct and a certain ability to concentrate." Although most of her film roles during the previous decade portrayed her beauty and sexuality, Taylor claimed they merely exaggerated or contradicted who she was in real life, stating, "I am not a 'sex queen' or a 'sex symbol.' I don't think I want to be one ... If my husband thinks I'm sexy, that's good enough for me."
By then, Taylor was married for the fifth time, to Richard Burton. She expected their marriage to last due to Burton's strong relationship with their children, noting that he was the "absolute boss of the household and they respect him for that." Except for her third husband, Mike Todd, who died in a plane accident, she partly blamed her young romances and divorces on her "puritanical upbringing and beliefs." She said, "At first, I guess I didn't know what was love and what was not. I always chose to think I was in love and that love was synonymous with marriage. I couldn't just have a romance; it had to be a marriage ... When I was first divorced, I was 18 and I had only been married nine months. I was very naïve and really totally crushed. It was the first divorce in my family.
Jewelry collection and fashion
Taylor had a passion for jewelry. At her death, Taylor's jewelry collection was reportedly worth $150 million and has been documented in her book My Love Affair with Jewelry (2002). Among her well-known pieces were the 33.19-carat (6.638 g) Krupp Diamond, which she wore daily, and the 69.42-carat (13.884 g) pear-shaped Taylor-Burton Diamond; both were among many gifts from husband Richard Burton.
Taylor was a fashion icon during her years as an active film star. In addition to her own purchases, MGM costumers Edith Head and Helen Rose helped Taylor choose clothes that emphasized her face, chest, and waist. Taylor helped popularize Valentino and Halston's designs, and in the 1980s Schering-Plough developed violet contact lenses, citing Taylor's eyes as inspiration.
Illnesses and death
Taylor struggled with health problems much of her life. She broke her back at the age of twelve in a fall during the filming of National Velvet, which would continue to affect her in later years. Beginning in 1951, Taylor experienced serious medical issues whenever she faced problems in her personal life. She broke her back five times, had both her hips replaced, a hysterectomy, suffered from dysentery and phlebitis, punctured her esophagus, and survived a benign brain tumor operation in 1997.
At 5'4", Taylor constantly gained and lost significant amounts of weight (known as yo-yo dieting), reaching both 119 pounds and 180 pounds in the 1980s. She was a heavy smoker until forced to quit following a severe bout of pneumonia in 1990. Due to numerous back injuries, she was addicted to sleeping pills and painkillers for 35 years. She was treated for alcoholism and prescription drug addiction at the Betty Ford Center in 1983 and again in 1988.
She was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2004 and in February 2011, new symptoms related to heart failure led to her being admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for treatment. She remained there until her death at age 79 on March 23, 2011, surrounded by her four children.
Taylor's funeral took place the day after she died at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. It was a private Jewish ceremony presided over by Rabbi Jerome Cutler, and at Taylor's request began 15 minutes behind schedule, as according to her representative, "she even wanted to be late for her own funeral." She is entombed in the Great Mausoleum.
Taylor has been called the "greatest movie star of all.":2 A child-star at the age of 12, she was soon after launched into public awareness by MGM and a string of successful films, many of which are today considered "classics". Her resulting celebrity made her into a Hollywood icon, as she set the "gold standard" for Hollywood fame, and "created the model for stardom," adds Mann.:3 Other observers, such as social critic Camille Paglia, describes Taylor as "the greatest actress in film history," partly as a result of the "liquid realm of emotion" she expressed on screen.:4
Taylor had a major role in sparking the sexual revolution of the 1960s, as she pushed the envelope on sexuality: she was one of the first major stars to pose (mostly) nude in Playboy, and among the first to remove her clothes onscreen.:5 In A Place in the Sun, filmed when she was 17, her surprising maturity shocked Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, who wrote of her precocious sexuality. Film historian Andrew Sarris describes her love scenes in the film with Montgomery Clift as "unnerving—sybaritic—like gorging on chocolate sundaes.":6
In real life, she was considered "a star without airs," notes Mann. Writer Gloria Steinem likewise described her as a "movie queen with no ego ... expert at what she does, uncatty in her work relationships with other actresses".:7Mike Nichols, who directed her in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), said that of all the actors he had worked with, Taylor had the "most democratic soul." Mann adds that she treated electricians and studio crew the "same way she would a Rothschild at a charity gala.":6 Director George Cukor told Taylor that she possessed "that rarest of virtues—simple kindness.":7
Taylor's ex‑husband, actor Richard Burton, who co‑starred with her in eleven films, expressed great admiration for her talent as an actress. Burton said, "I think she's one of the most underrated screen actresses that ever lived, and I think she's one of the best ones who ever lived. At her finest she's incomparable."
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