‘What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?‘ Paul Newman’s character Brick asks Maggie, the Cat, who replies ’Just Staying on it, I guess…long as she can.’ Elizabeth Taylor, made movie history with those lines and stayed on the Hollywood tin roof longer than most.
Taylor started as a child star working in the studio systems of movie moguls and pristine grooming on and off screen. Taylor remained Hollywood royalty even through a virtual garbage heap of bad films she made, her tumultuously personal life as dramatic and riveting as any part she was playing.
In typical Taylor fashion, when she accepted the American Film Institute lifetime achievement award she joked with the Hollywood a-list audience “I wasn’t that bad, was I?” Before her late career film excesses, that included campy gay cult films such as ‘Boom!’ (One of John Waters favorite films), ‘Reflections of a Golden Eye’ (with a crazed Marlon Brando and ‘X, Y and Zee’ that traded off her toxic mouth image. Among the 60 films she appear in, Taylor filmed a dozen movies that made displayed her obvious gifts as an actress and an iconic movie star.
Taylor became a child star in the 40s, in such films as ‘Lassie, Come Home’ and ‘National Velvet.’ In the early 50s, Taylor was ’kitten’ to onscreen father Spencer Tracy, and adoring audiences, in ’Father of the Bride.’ As socialite Angela Vickers opposite Montgomery Clift in ‘A Place in the Sun‘ Taylor emerged as a screen goddess. In ‘Giant’ with Rock Hudson and James Dean, perhaps her most dimensional role as a Texas oil baron‘s wife, she became an actress to reckon with.
Taylor was haunting in the literary melodrama ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ and she was the only actor who didn’t come off as completely crazy surrounded by heavyweights Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, as the mental patient in the hysterical homopanic film ’Suddenly, Last Summer.’
During the filming of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ Taylor’s husband, Richard Todd died in a plane crash, yet she finished the film. It remains her finest performance on screen. Playwright Tennessee Williams declared she was the best of all his Maggies. As Martha in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?‘’ Edward Albee’s bawdy, intellectual drama, she made herself look bloated and sloppy, but delivered a sexually charged performance.
She never took acting lessons, was one of the last great studio stars, learned her craft in production, but commanded the screen for 3 decades. She was nominated for five Oscars and winning two. The first for a role that she hated, a John O’Hara Manhattan potboiler ‘Butterfield 8’ in which she played a Park Ave. call girl, a part Taylor didn’t want to play. Taylor picked up her second statue playing the boozy, foul-mouthed libertine Martha opposite her then husband Richard Burton. Taylor and Burton were married to other people when they carried on a very public affair during the filming of the disastrously overblown big studio production of ‘Cleopatra.’ Taylor was the first actress to receive a million dollar fee for a movie. Her serial marriages, including two times with Burton, were so full of tabloid drama that they eclipsed her onscreen achievements.
Semi-retired and the butt of many jokes about her acting and weight gain, in the 80s Taylor became a fierce AIDS activist, educating the public about HIV/AIDS, raising millions for AmFar and a championing other causes.
Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese praised Taylor’s work combating AIDS. “We are deeply saddened by the death of Elizabeth Taylor…a true ally to the LGBT community. She was one of the first public voices to speak up about the AIDS crisis while many others stayed silent in the 1980s and she helped raise millions of dollars to fight the disease.”
Whitman-Walker named its main facility after Taylor in 1993 to honor her work combating AIDS. GLAAD honored Taylor in 2000 with its Vanguard Award and the Also that year, the British born Taylor, became Dame Elizabeth by order of the realm of the other Queen Elizabeth.
In declining health for many years, Taylor kept connected to her fans through Twitter. During her last brush with death a couple of years ago, appearing on Larry King Live, to personally dispel tabloid rumors that she was dying and had Alzheimer’s disease. “Does it look like I’m dying” a dilapidated, but no less vibrant Taylor, said, violet eyes as luminous as ever.