March 23, 2011

USA: Elizabeth Taylor, Lifelong Screen Star, Dies at 79

NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / Movies / March 23, 2011


Elizabeth Taylor, the actress who dazzled generations of moviegoers with her stunning beauty and whose name was synonymous with Hollywood glamour, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 79.

Elizabeth Taylor in 1957. 
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The cause was congestive heart failure, her publicist, Sally Morrison, told The Associated Press.

In a world of flickering images, Ms. Taylor was a constant star. First appearing onscreen at age 9, she grew up there, never passing through an awkward age. It was one quick leap from “National Velvet” to “A Place in the Sun” and from there to “Cleopatra” as she was indelibly transformed from a vulnerable child actress into a voluptuous film queen.

In a career of more than 70 years and more than 50 films, she won two Academy Awards as best actress, for her performances as a call girl in “Butterfield 8” (in 1960) and as the acid-tongued Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (in 1966). Mike Nichols, who directed her in “Virginia Woolf,” said he considered her “one of the greatest cinema actresses.”

When Ms. Taylor was honored in 1986 by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, “More than anyone else I can think of, Elizabeth Taylor represents the complete movie phenomenon — what movies are as an art and an industry and what they have meant to those of us who have grown up watching them in the dark.”

Ms. Taylor’s popularity endured throughout her life, but critics were sometimes reserved in their praise of her acting. In that sense she may have been upstaged by her own striking beauty. Could anyone as lovely as Elizabeth Taylor also be talented? The answer, of course, was yes.

Given her lack of professional training, the range of her acting was surprisingly wide. She played predatory vixens and wounded victims. She was Cleopatra of the burnished barge; Tennessee Williams’s Maggie the cat; Catherine Holly, who confronted terror suddenly last summer, and Shakespeare’s Kate. Her melodramatic heroines would have been at home on soap operas.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in “Suddenly Last Summer” and “Cleopatra,” remembered seeing her for the first time, in Cannes, when she was 18. “She was the most incredible vision of loveliness I have ever seen in my life,” he said. “And she was sheer innocence.”

Mr. Mankiewicz admired her professionalism. “Whatever the script called for, she played it,” he said. “The thread that goes through the whole is that of a woman who is an honest performer. Therein lies her identity.”

It was also Mr. Mankiewicz who said that for Ms. Taylor, “living life was a kind of acting,” that she lived her life “in screen time.”

Marilyn Monroe was the sex goddess, Grace Kelly the ice queen, Audrey Hepburn the eternal gamine. Ms. Taylor was beauty incarnate. As the director George Stevens said when he chose her for “A Place in the Sun,” the role called for the “beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy, some time or other, thinks he can marry.”

There was more than a touch of Ms. Taylor herself in the roles she played. She acted with the magnet of her personality. Although she could alter her look for a part — putting on weight for Martha in “Virginia Woolf” or wearing elaborate period costumes — she was not a chameleon, assuming the coloration of a character. Instead she would bring the character closer to herself. For her, acting was “purely intuitive.” As she said, “What I try to do is to give the maximum emotional effect with the minimum of visual movement.”

Sometimes her film roles seemed to be a mirror image of her own life. More than most movie stars, she seemed to exist in the public domain, where her indiscretions were bared under a spotlight. She was pursued by paparazzi and denounced by the Vatican. But behind the seemingly scandalous behavior was a woman with a clear sense of morality: she habitually married her lovers. People watched and counted, with vicarious pleasure, as she became Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky — enough marriages to certify her career as a serial wife. Asked why she married so often, she said, in an assumed drawl: “I don’t know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me.”

During a lifetime of emotional and physical setbacks, life-threatening illnesses and accidents, and several near-death experiences, Ms. Taylor was a survivor. “I’ve been lucky all my life,” she said in 1992, just before turning 60. “Everything was handed to me. Looks, fame, wealth, honors, love. I rarely had to fight for anything. But I’ve paid for that luck with disasters.” At 65, she said on the ABC News program “20-20”: “I’m like a living example of what people can go through and survive. I’m not like anyone. I’m me.”

Her life was played out in print: miles of newspaper and magazine articles, a galaxy of photographs and a shelf of biographies, each one painting a different portrait. “Planes, trains, everything stops for Elizabeth Taylor, but the public has no conception of who she is,” said Roddy McDowall, who was her earliest co-star and a friend for life. “People who damn her wish to hell they could do what they think she does.”

There was one point of general agreement: her beauty. As cameramen noted, her face was flawlessly symmetrical; she had no bad angle, and her eyes were of the deepest violet.

One prominent and perhaps surprising dissenter about her looks was Richard Burton, who was twice her husband. The notion of his wife as “the most beautiful woman in the world is absolute nonsense,” he said.

“She has wonderful eyes,” he added, “but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she’s rather short in the leg.”

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Mel Gussow, the principal writer of this article, died in 2005. Peter Keepnews contributed updated reporting.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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