Elizabeth Taylor, Oscar-Winning Hollywood Icon, AIDS Activist Dies at 79
In a world of instant, ephemeral fame, Elizabeth Taylor is an enduring celebrity. The Oscar winning, Hollywood icon died early Wednesday morning after a long illness. She was 79. Her star, though, will continue to shine. A glamorous presence Taylor, first appeared on screen at age 9, and unlike so many child stars, made a remarkably seamless transition from the vulnerable child in “National Velvet” to a full fledged screen queen in “A Place in The Sun.”
So many fans were captivated by her alluring beauty, punctuated by her unique violet eyes. But her talent, her depth, constantly grew in a career that lasted 70 years and filled over 50 films. Taylor won two Academy Awards as best actress, for her performances as a call girl in 1960′s “Butterfield 8” ( a film she often slammed) and as the acid-tongued Martha in Mike Nichols searing 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s acerbic masterpiece, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Even with a pair of Hollywood’s most coveted prizes and a ceaseless popularity, critics, perhaps as penalty for her astonishing beauty, were not always so effusive. But there is no denying Taylor’s talents, her accomplishments. Her range of roles and emotion were impressive, even surprising, considering her limited professional training. She played predatory vixens and wounded victims. Her Cleopatra was formidable; she infused Tennessee Williams’s Maggie the cat with sexy desperation, shaded terror with vulnerability in “Suddenly Last Summer.”
Joseph Mankiewicz, who directed Taylor in “Suddenly Last Summer” 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.”
Although she could alter her look for a part —gaining weight for Martha in “Virginia Woolf” or wearing elaborate period costumes — she was not a chameleon, assuming the character’s skin. 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.”
And the lines between her screen life, and celebrated Hollywood life, often blurred. As Mankiewicz also said for Taylor, “living life was a kind of acting,” that she lived her life “in screen time.”
In an era when most movie stars remained aloof, keeping a distance between their actual lives and their fans, Taylor seemed to exist in the public domain, where her indiscretions were often splayed across early tabloid pages. She was pursued by paparazzi and denounced by the Pope. But behind her seemingly scandalous behavior was a woman with a strong moral compass: she always 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 certainly establish a second career as a serial wife ( ironically she married neither Larry King nor Mickey Rooney, famed marrying men of her era). Mike Todd, who died tragically in a plane crash, was reputedly her true love, but it was with fellow actor Richard Burton, whom she married twice, that she shared her most publicly stormy relationship. Asked why she married so often, Taylor said, in an affected 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, Elizabeth Taylor was a survivor. “I’ve been lucky all my life,” she said in a 1992 interview, 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.”
Taylor was famously friendly with the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, openly supporting him during his molestation trial. She was once married to former Senator John Warner, a Republican, who said Wednesday, “even after we separated, she monitored my votes, making sure I was on board.”
On board with AIDS activism, that is. After her friend Rock Hudson died, Elizabeth Taylor became the first big star to wave the torch for AIDS research and activism. She persuaded Ronald Reagan to finally utter the disease’s existence in public, publicly chastised President Bush and Congress to fund programs and became AMFAR’s most ardent spokesperson, traveling the globe on behalf of the organization in the forefront of AIDS research and treatment. Just last month, she was feted at AMFAR’s 25 Anniversary bash in New York. To weak to attend, her friend Elton John accepted on her behalf.
“We have just lost a Hollywood giant, but more importantly we have lost an incredible human being,” Elton said in a statement. “Elizabeth Taylor earned her fame with her extraordinary talent as a young actress, making her first movie at the tender age of nine. She earned our adoration for her stunning beauty and for being the very essence of glamorous movie stardom. And she earned our enduring love and respect for her compassion and her courage in standing up and speaking out about AIDS when others preferred to bury their heads in the sand.”
Elizabeth Taylor’ star will continue to shine: in the memorable movies she made and the courageous and tireless humanitarian work she embraced. “Always give, ” she once said. “Giving is what makes you grow.”
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