Elizabeth Taylor was the ultimate movie star.
From her beginnings as an angelic child actress through her eight marriages, including two to Richard Burton, Taylor was the embodiment of both Hollywood glamour and Hollywood camp.
She was a maiden who transformed herself over the years into a rowdy diva. She could hold her own with, or at least equal the lung power of, her celebrated co-stars, including Burton, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman.
Taylor died today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to a statement from her publicist. She was hospitalized six weeks ago for congestive heart failure.
At the top of my Liz list is “Cleopatra,” the big and lumbering 1963 film. For those of us who were inching into pubescence at the time, Taylor’s Cleopatra -- or Lizpatra, as critic Dwight Macdonald called her -- was THE hot ticket.
“Hers was a camp performance as faultlessly off-key as that of Steve Reeves in ‘Hercules’ or ‘Hercules Unchained,’” Macdonald wrote.
In “National Velvet” (1944), Taylor’s determined 12-year- old was every bit as poetic and graceful as the steed she champions.
“A Place in the Sun,” George Stevens’s 1951 adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” featured Taylor in one of her first substantial adult roles. She found her soul mate in co-star Montgomery Clift.
In “Giant” (1956), again with Stevens, the wide-open Texas spaces were a good backdrop for Liz’s wide-open performance, featuring plenty of tantrums.
Maggie the Cat
As Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958), Taylor sweats in boudoir wear while Newman’s Brick pays her no mind. I realize Brick has sexual identity issues, but really!
In “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966), Taylor won her second best-actress Oscar for her role as the ravaged, blowzy Martha, who trades verbal blows with husband George (Richard Burton) in this iconic Mike Nichols film version of the Edward Albee play. (Her first Oscar came six years earlier for the much inferior “Butterfield 8.”)
Taylor could be as demure as the next star, but her savage shouting matches with Burton in this film ushered in a new career as one of Hollywood’s leading harridans.
“X, Y and Zee” (1972), also known under its original title “Zee and Co.,” is an undeservedly neglected screamfest scripted by Edna O’Brien. Taylor’s husband, played by Michael Caine, is having an affair with shrinking violet Susannah York, so his vengeful wife does the sensible thing and takes his mistress for her own.
Who’s Afraid of Liz Taylor? In this movie, practically everybody.
‘Sweet Bird of Youth’
Taylor’s last memorable performance was in the TV adaptation of “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1989), where she revisited the hothouse universe of Tennessee Williams. In a role made famous by Geraldine Page, Taylor played an aging movie star captivated by a stud masseur (Mark Harmon).
Apart from occasional guest appearances on TV shows like “Murphy Brown” and the camp classic “These Old Broads,” where she played opposite Joan Collins, Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds, Taylor turned her attention to AIDS awareness, her lines of perfume and jewelry and defending her friend Michael Jackson.
The committee that made her a Kennedy Center honoree in 2002 probably didn’t have in mind Taylor’s work as Pearl Slaghoople in “The Flintstones” (1994).
In her luminescent prime, Taylor was the incarnation of the movie star. She remained so throughout the raucous ups and downs of a life which, for sheer drama, rivaled any movie she ever made.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).
To contact the writer responsible for this story: Peter Rainer at Fi1L2E@aol.com.