Elizabeth Taylor: Reflections in a Violet Eye

Elizabeth Taylor costarred in LassieA violet-eyed beauty who matured from child stardom into one of cinema’s most glamorous screen presences, the caliber of Elizabeth Taylor‘s body of work has tended to be obscured by the tumult from what has to be the most public private life ever. Born in London on February 27, 1932 to a prosperous art dealer and former stage actress who were in fact natives of Kansas, Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor’s family moved to Los Angeles when she was seven. Coached by her mother, she made her screen debut at 10 in the 1942 Universal comedy There’s One Born Every Minute.

A subsequent MGM contract brought her a co-starring role in Lassie Come Home, paying $100 a week for her efforts in 1943. The friendship Taylor forged with co-star Roddy McDowell was to last throughout their lives. Her next billed film appearance, alongside Mickey Rooney in the 1944 family favorite National Velvet, made her a star. Earlier that year, she appeared in Jane Eyre at Fox as young Jane’s sickly friend.

A Lassie sequel was inevitable, and in 1946 Elizabeth joined fellow MGM studio player Frank Morgan in Courage of Lassie, which updated the story to World War II. Years later, discussing her career, she remarked, “Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses!”

Taylor’s adolescence was charted on the big screen through such enduring pictures as 1947’s Life with Father, with William Powell as the title papa of four boys (one of whom catches the eye of visiting Elizabeth), and Cynthia, showcasing her character’s coming of age, falling in love, and coping with the struggles of life living in a small town. A Date with Judy followed in 1948, in which she met and made another lifelong friend, Jane Powell (They would eventually be maid of honor at each other’s weddings). Her role as Amy in the 1949 screen version of Little Women, alongside June Allyson, Janet Leigh and Margaret O’Brien, remained a fan favorite for years to come. Liz’s first adult role came in in the romantic suspense thriller Conspirator (1949), where she learns her husband–British military officer Robert Taylor–is really a Soviet spy with orders to kill her.

In 1950, she was the perfect bride-to-be in Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride, as harried parents Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett planned the wedding. Never a studio to never miss a step, MGM scheduled the film’s release for two days after Liz’s real-life wedding to hotel magnate Nicky Hilton, with the advance publicity helping its box office immensely. This union, her first of eight marriages, lasted only three months. A sequel was to follow in 1951 with the same cast, although Father’s Little Dividend did not do as well. Paramount came calling with an offer for A Place in the Sun, a film which brought her closer to another lifelong friend, Montgomery Clift. They met in 1949, when studio publicists asked Liz to accompany Clift to the premiere of his new movie, The Heiress. She described Clift as “The most gorgeous thing in the world and easily one of the best actors.”

Young adulthood found her remaining busy in largely middling fare, and shuttling through her first two marriages, the second to actor Michael Wilding. Back at Metro, she appeared with Larry Parks in the comedy Love Is Better Than Ever, but by its 1952 release Parks’ career was derailed by the HUAC “black list” even as Taylor’s star was rising. Reuniting with Robert Taylor in 1952, Liz couldn’t have been more gorgeous or alluring in the Technicolor medieval epic Ivanhoe as Rebecca, a moneylender’s daughter. The next year, she was The Girl Who Had Everything, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy criminal attorney who falls in love with one of his clients. It was a loose remake of a 1931 MGM drama, A Free Soul.

A quartet of films followed in 1954. Rhapsody featured Taylor with Italian actor Vittorio Gassman–and boasted a lush classical score featuring works from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff –in a tale of a woman torn between two musicians. Following Rhapsody were Elephant Walk with Dana Andrews and Beau Brummel with Stewart Granger. One of her most popular films is The Last Time I Saw Paris, in which she is an American ex-patriate living in Paris after World War II along with Walter Pigeon, Donna Reed, and Van Johnson as her troubled husband.

The mid-’50s found her beginning to consistently receive projects of heft. Liz ages gracefully as she and her husband’s lives unfold in George Stevens’ sprawling epic Giant (1956), co-starring with good friend Rock Hudson. Unfortunately, their co-star James Dean never saw the completed movie, as he was killed in a crash before it premiered. Her next film in ’56 brought her back together with Clift in Raintree County. Tragedy struck again during filming, when Monty was in a near-fatal car accident after leaving Liz’s home that made it difficult for him to finish the project. Cast and crew pulled through together, though, and she scored her first Academy Award nomination for the Civil War drama.

Her happy third union with showbiz impressario Mike Todd ended tragically with the producer’s death in a 1958 plane crash. The actress proved her resilience and channeled her focus into her best work, including Oscar-nominated turns in the Tennessee Williams tales Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, opposite Paul Newman, in 1958 and Suddenly, Last Summer, with Clift and Katharine Hepburn, in ’59. It would be her next film, the 1960 drama Butterfield 8,  which finally won her the Academy’s Best Actress prize. And for trivia fans, it marked the first and only time Oscars were given in the same year to women playing prostitutes (the other statue went to Shirley Jones for Best Supporting Actress in Elmer Gantry).

It was during this period that her scandalous liaison with the married Eddie Fisher went public; within a few years, however, she’d be throwing him over for Richard Burton, her co-star in the infamous 1963 costume saga Cleopatra. Considered Hollywood’s most expensive film at the time (Taylor was the first actress to reach a million-dollar salary when she agreed to play the title role), the Taylor/Burton publicity almost  overwhelmed the project. “Liz and Dick” would be regarded as Hollywood’s golden couple for the rest of the decade, with a string of collaborations (The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper and The Comedians, among others) highlighted by the groundbreaking 1966 classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which brought Elizabeth her second Best Actress Oscar. Their tongue-in-cheek performances in 1967’s The Taming of the Shrew made it seem like Shakespeare was thinking of them when he wrote it. And later that year in Doctor Faustus, Liz was Helen of Troy, whose legendary beauty helped compel Burton’s Faustus to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for her love. Away from the camera, the mid-’70s would find the duo divorcing, remarrying, and divorcing again within the space of two years.

Liz shared her thoughts about meeting her twice-wed co-star. “Richard came on the set and sort of sidled over to me and said: ‘Has anybody ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?’ I thought, Oy gevalt, the great lover, the great wit, the great Welsh intellectual, and he comes out with a corny line like that! But then I noticed his hands were shaking as if he had Saturday night palsy. He had the worst hangover I’d ever seen. And he was obviously terrified of me. I just took pity on him. I realized he really was human. That was the beginning of our affair.”

In 1967, she joined friend Marlon Brando in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and starred opposite Warren Beatty in 1970’s The Only Game in Town. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Liz largely picked her spots for appearing before the camera, but remained steadfastly in the press, usually due to various marital and wellness issues, but also for her consistent efforts on behalf of AIDS awareness. Notable entries from her latter-day resumé include a 1972 filming of Dylan Thomas’  Under Milk Wood, which was narrated by Burton; X, Y And Zee,  an erotic and controversial 1972 love triangle melodrama with Michael Caine and Susannah York;  and the suspense/drama The Driver’s Seat  in 1974. The final “Liz and Dick” collaboration was a two-part 1973 made-for-TV movie, Divorce His – Divorce Hers, that had people guessing if it wasn’t art imitating life (coming shortly before their first union ended). Taylor’s later films– the fantasy/musicals The Blue Bird (1976) and  A Little Night Music (1978) and the Agatha Christie whodunit, The Mirror Crack’d (1980), with old friend Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple–were minor successes. Meanwhile, appearances in the ’80s telefilms Between Friends, Malice in Wonderland and Sweet Bird of Youth kept her in the public eye…or ear, as when she voiced little Maggie Simpson’s first word (“Daddy!”) in an episode of The Simpsons.

In 1985, she began her friendship with music icon Michael Jackson. She was to say about Michael, “What is a genius? What is a living legend? What is a mega star? Michael Jackson – that’s all. And when you think you know him, he gives you more … I think he is one of the finest people to hit this planet, and, in my estimation, he is the true King of Pop, Rock and Soul.” And when her good friend died in 2009, she compassionately said, “I just don’t believe that Michael would want me to share my grief with millions of others. How I feel is between us. Not a public event.”

Her final big-screen appearance was as Wilma’s mother in the 1994 live-action version of  The Flintstones, and she made a fitting farewell to TV alongside Joan Collins, Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds in 2001’s  These Old Broads, co-scripted by Reynolds’ daughter, Carrie Fisher.

Elizabeth Taylor in Rhapsody: MGM’s Nod To The Classics