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Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Elizabeth Taylor

@Russellisation

“I’ve always admitted that I’m ruled by my passions.” – Elizabeth Taylor

Once the Hollywood golden age had drawn to a close at the end of the 1940s, British-American actor Elizabeth Taylor stepped up to help transition the industry into brand new territory. Whilst she rose to prominence as a child star in the ‘40s, her real fame would spark in the following decade when she became one of the most popular stars of the era alongside Dean Martin, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe. 

Becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, Taylor was an icon like none other in the industry, becoming one of the first modern celebrities who attracted a cult of personality. Portrayed as a different kind of star, elevated above ‘ordinary’ celebrities by MGM, Taylor’s image was carefully crafted, attracting unprecedented media access and paparazzi photography. 

Setting a template for later stars of film and television, the legacy of Elizabeth Taylor is seen as paving the way for contemporary Hollywood in which icons and personalities still lead the industry. Working with the likes of Richard Brooks, Daniel Mann, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Mike Nichols across the course of her celebrated 60-year career, let’s take a look back at Elizabeth Taylor’s six most definitive films. 

Elizabeth Taylor’s six definitive films:

National Velvet (Clarence Brown, 1944)

Carrying the potential to be a Hollywood movie star from a young age, Elizabeth Taylor was cast in her very first starring role at the age of 12 when she was chosen to play a girl who wants to compete as a jockey in the 1944 film National Velvet.

Calling it “the most exciting film” of her career, Taylor appeared alongside the likes of Mickey Rooney and Angela Lansbury in one of her very first feature roles. Becoming a box-office success in Christmas 1944, the commercial acclaim of the film would lead MGM to give Taylor a seven-year contract at the company, putting her on a wage of $750 per week, sparking the career of an industry icon.

Giant (George Stevens, 1956)

Once Taylor had secured her first professional contract, she worked her way up through the industry, transitioning to adult roles in the 1950s where she would feature in such films as A Place in the Sun, Love Is Better Than Ever and The Girl Who Had Everything

Despite managing to secure more adult roles, Taylor found little critical success throughout the ‘50s until she landed the lead part in Giant in 1956, an epic drama directed by George Stevens, starring Rock Hudson and James Dean. Though she often clashed with the director and was struck with tragedy upon the sudden death of Dean whilst filming, the film became a commercial success and Taylor was widely praised by critics.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958)

Raintree County in 1957 followed up Taylor’s success, with the mentally disturbing role leading the actor to claim her first nomination for Best Leading Actress despite the film’s commercial failure. 

At this point, Taylor was becoming quite the icon, known for reeling in steady box-office numbers and consistent critical acclaim, with her role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof merely improving this fame. Despite this, the film coincided with even more personal tragedy for the actor who experienced the death of her husband Mike Todd, with the couple only getting married two weeks before the horrific accident. In the midst of such tragedy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of Taylor’s most memorable roles, emerged.

Butterfield 8 (Daniel Mann, 1960)

A bankable film star and industry icon by the 1960s, Taylor fueled her continued success by appearing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer in 1959, a film that proved to be a commercial hit, leading to the actor’s third Oscar nomination. 

Coming so close to claiming her first Academy Award, it was Daniel Mann’s 1960 film Butterfield 8 that would finally allow Taylor to take home her first golden statuette. A major critical and commercial success, Taylor played a high-class sex worker in Mann’s adaptation of John O’Hara’s 1935 novel of the same name, with the movie further establishing the actor as a major Hollywood sex symbol.

Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)

If Taylor wasn’t sufficiently famous enough by 1960, as the decade gathered steam, she would gain even more popularity, with her starring role in the historical epic Cleopatra elevating her status to incredible new heights.

Though Taylor didn’t particularly like starring in the film, she certainly enjoyed the fame that came with depicting the iconic Egyptian queen. Known for its elaborate set design and costumes, the film also became a key focus in the public eye due to Taylor’s scandalous affair with Richard Burton that would go on to exemplify the obsession with the private lives of celebrities that burgeoned in the late 20th century.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)

Having enjoyed her height in the industry limelight, Taylor’s career would begin to decline toward the end of the 1960s as she looked toward smaller roles and TV into the 1970s and 1980s. 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the last of her projects that remained a commercial and critical success, with the adaptation of the play of the same name by Edward Albee featuring what may well be Taylor’s most iconic performance. Starring alongside Richard Burton, Taylor donned heavy makeup and a wig to age herself for the role, acting in sharp contrast to her previous career as she purposefully aimed for industry acclaim over box-office numbers.

Winning an Oscar for her leading performance, Taylor’s role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? demonstrated that whilst she was indeed one of the industry’s most fabulous sex icons, she was, even more so, a compelling actor capable of staggering dramatic weight.