Liz Taylor died Wednesday. She had health battles her whole life, and many recently, so I can’t exactly say I was surprised to hear of her passing, but it still feels as if one of not only the old guard, but the guardians of what made Hollywood special, is now gone.
She was beautiful, a fierce and faithful friend, a woman who believed in romance, even after eight or so marriages (I lost count). She was larger than life. She was a damn good actress, with an extremely impressive resume, although her beauty probably clouded that fact for some. But all you have to do is watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf if you have any doubts. Yes, Cleopatra was silly and campy at times, but it’s also one of the few spectacles still worth giving a look. I love the early scenes with Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. And it gave Liz Richard Burton and vice-versa.
She is one of the few actors who had a consistently successful career from childhood. From child roles in Lassie Come Home and National Velvet to teen roles in Little Women and Father of the Bride to her adult career, Taylor was always fascinating to watch. We may have lost Liz, but thanks to cable and on-demand programming there are still plenty of opportunities to catch some her most iconic moments on film.
I grew up watching Elizabeth Taylor on television — one of my earliest memories of her is from a Here’s Lucy episode where Lucy tries on the famous and ostentatious diamond ring, the Taylor-Burton diamond, and then can’t get it off her finger. Co-star Gale Gordon urges her to cut it off. Lucy is horrified at first that he means to damage the ring, but he corrects her — he meant her finger, “There’s only one ring like this, and you will still have nine fingers!”
TV is also where I first saw Taylor’s movies, although later I was lucky to see some of her greatest films in revival houses in New York. I especially remember the epic Giant, which I saw sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s in huge Cinemascope. I was there to see James Dean, but walked out loving his relationship with Taylor in the movie. She really had an amazing empathy as an actress, and also seemed to be drawn to the lost puppies in life — I think she could really relate to Dean, like she also connected to Montgomery Clift and later, Michael Jackson.
I love her in The Mirror Crack’d, so vulnerable with co-star Rock Hudson and bitchy as all get out with rival Kim Novak. She and Montgomery Clift are both so amazingly beautiful in A Place in the Sun it’s hard to keep in mind while you’re watching the film that it is supposed to be a tragedy. You want to see them in love, on the screen together as long as possible. Suddenly, Last Summer, although completely over-the-top in its psycho-sexual subject matter, is still fun to watch, as much for the overwrought performances by Taylor and Katharine Hepburn as for watching the troubled Montgomery Clift post-accident to see if glimmers of his brilliance can still shine through. Taylor helped the almost unemployable Clift get the role. She was a true-blue friend.
Taylor will always be remembered as a beautiful, much-married actress with violet eyes, but her true legacy may be her charity work. She was the first to have the guts and the brains to realize that we needed to fight AIDS, not just sit back and watch friends and family die. She helped found the American Foundation for AIDS Research after the death of her dear friend, Rock Hudson. She also founded her own foundation, the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation.
She was quite a dame, literally. And she knew how to make an entrance.