“I fell off my pink cloud with a thud.”
Known for her eclectic taste in exquisite diamonds and sheer gowns, Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, popularly known as Elizabeth Taylor, remains one the most stylish and fascinating actresses of the classical Hollywood era. With three Academy Awards to her name besides various other awards and accolades, Taylor’s unparalleled contribution to cinema helped define the larger than a life film star. Although her well-crafted and elevated public image was maintained by MGM for quite some time, with the advent of the paparazzi, her private life became a media sensation. A pioneering figure who helped redefine fame, Taylor was busy enacting the best version of herself, captivating and sultry yet with incomparable dignity that commanded respect.
Born on February 27, 1932, to a culturally enriched family, Taylor had dual citizenship. Her mother was a retired stage actress, and her father, an art dealer. After moving to London, they opened an art gallery which soon assimilated them into influential social circles which included well-known artists and politicians. With the Second World War around the corner, the Taylors shifted to the United States; this move changed Taylor’s life forever.
From a very young age, Taylor had garnered awe and attention for her ethereal looks, especially her eyes that were of a brilliant bluish-violet hue lined by double eyelashes that were a result of genetic mutation. Her mother was often urged to let Taylor audition for films, but, after being initially reluctant, Sara soon came around and hoping to be a part of the elite, she made her daughter audition for Universal Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, of which Taylor decided to go for Universal.
At the nascent age of 10, Elizabeth Taylor starred in her first minor role in Universal’s There’s One Born Every Minute. Unfortunately, her unique eyes became the problem, and she was rudely cast aside for not having the face of a child. Taylor later spoke of how they were frightened by her sheer boldness. Taylor was soon roped in by MGM, and after playing a few minor roles, she received her firsts tarring role at age 12. She was supposed to star in National Velvet as the only female jockey in the Grand National and, having had the required skills, she underwent rigorous training to be fit for her role in “the most exciting” film of her career.
With the film being a box office success and Taylor receiving high praise for her beautiful and enigmatic presence, which somehow overshadowed her performance, the innocence of her childhood was killed by the ruthless corporation. MGM took over her life completely, controlling her every move and keeping her under a strict regime of acting, filming, dancing and singing lessons that were monitored by close surveillance. Her life was soon commercialised with books documenting her writings for her pet chipmunk Nibbles being published to colouring books and dolls modelled after her. A closer look into Elizabeth Taylor’s life is a stark and doleful example of how studios incinerate the lives of young actors and actresses for their personal gain.
Taylor, at the age of 15, was set up on dates and made to behave like an ordinary teenager. The studio even got her engaged to various people for publicity stints. Taylor, young and naive, thinking marriage was the only escape route for her from the pernicious clutches of MGM as well as her mercenary parents, felt stifled in her existence. Compared to accomplished actresses such as Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, she became a favourite among them all; her powerful performances in films such as Cynthia, Live with Father, A Date with Judy, Julia Misbehaves and more garnered public attention.
Her first mature role, which she bagged at the age of 16 in a thriller about a Soviet spy husband and his wife Conspirator, was released when she was 18. It was a highly eventful year for Taylor as her highly publicised marriage ceremony to hotelier Conrad Hilton Jr. was organised by MGM, which was also used for promoting her next film where she starred as a bride preparing for her wedding. She divorced Hilton shortly after suffering in a tumultuous marriage ridden with abuse and alcoholism. MGM, reportedly dissatisfied with this decision, had with no regard for her suffering and punished her by subsequently casting her in a B-grade film.
Taylor’s outstanding performance in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun was an essential landmark in her career as her roles paradigmatically shifted from the earlier ones, she had to act as a fancy and spoiled socialite who would be a dreamlike presence in the film; her on-screen delicateness and tender romance earned high acclaim.
In truth, Taylor hated MGM and wanted to break off their contract. However, pregnant with her first child with actor Michael Wilding, Taylor’s financial needs compelled her to stay put and appease all their relentless demands. In return for her loyalty and contract, she was granted extra salary, a house and a contract for Wildling himself. MGM seized this opportunity and started controlling her like a marionnettiste. Compelled to enact in historical films well against her will, the vicious studio executives made her renew her contract once again after she was pregnant to make up for the lost time.
However, she would not have to wait long for her release with the advent of the mid-50s, the focus shifted from quantity to quality, and she found the opportunity to portray more challenging and layered characters who commanded her attention and respect. After bagging a role alongside Rock Hudson and James Dean in George Stevens’ giant, Taylor soon suffered a huge blow when Dean shortly died in a tragic car accident.
Despite her admirable performance, she did not receive a nomination at the every-misogynistic Academy, unlike her co-stars. However, she soon won an Oscar nomination for her role in the critically acclaimed MGM film Raintree County which was a wannabe-Gone with the Wind. Following the release of this film, she divorced Wilding and married producer Mike Todd who died shortly after in a plane crash. However, Taylor could not even mourn the loss of her husband due to work commitments and financial constraints resulting from todd’s acquisition of large debts. It was during this time that Elizabeth Taylor starred as Maggie the Cat in Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
This film would also mark a radical shift in Taylor’s public image. Taylor had been involved in an illicit affair with singer Eddie Fisher whose dreamy marriage to Debbie Reynolds was considered to be a fairytale in Hollywood. She went from being a helpless grieving widow to a cunning homewrecker in the eyes of the chasing journalists. As expected, MGM used this negative publicity to their advantage and featured an image of her clad in scanty negligee posing on a bed that she received an Academy Award nomination as well as a BAFTA nomination yet again for her perceptive performance.
Following MGM’s stint, Taylor was rampantly sexualised. From portraying her on posters clad in swimsuits to gossip columns filling pages about the raw and raunchy sex appeal of the actress, the media hounded after her. She won her first Academy Award for her performance as a sex-worker belonging to the elite gentry in Butterfield 8. Her passionate and heartfelt portrayal resonated with her public image and garnered audience attention.
Soon began Taylor’s saga of professional and personal romance with the dashing Richard Burton. Though married, they were said to have been involved in an extra-marital affair which became the talk of the town, with gossip magazines flocking in to talk about this all day. Burton and Taylor soon started starring in countless films together, including The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and more. Taylor’s cynical, loathsome, lustful and delicate characterisation won rave reviews, winning her a second Academy Award. It was around this time that Taylor had started appearing in her first-time stage roles, which seemed to be a daunting challenge at first yet were dealt with effortless ease by dint of perseverance and talent.
However, like all actresses caught up in the vicious clutches of Hollywood’s megalomania, Taylor, too, was deemed too old and unattractive for the big-budget moguls who were constantly on the hunt for young actresses. She soon started being scrutinised for her appearance, which led to a dip in her career as well as confidence. After quite a few subsequent commercial and critical failures, she appeared with Burton in quite a few films, being a flawless spectacle in every scene. Her final film with Burton would be Divorce His, Divorce Hers, which ominously foreshadowed their failing marriage and subsequent divorce the following year. Taking a brief hiatus from the movies, Taylor soon turned to the stage as well as the television, where her immensely moving performances and rapturous delivery made her an instant favourite.
Not only was Taylor a sheer delight on-screen, but also an aware and socially conscious individual who wanted to put her burgeoning fame to good use, AIDS and HIV was highly neglected and hushed up in the media; Taylor became an advocate for this cause and wanted to put her success to good use by becoming an active voice for the campaign.
Elizabeth As an actor, she was known for her varied roles where she could effortlessly sway from playing a ruthless and spiteful minx to an empress or a sweet and demure woman. Her acting prowess knew no bounds, and complemented by her uncommon features, Taylor was a vision to behold. She had always been heavily invested in the role of a Western woman.
Often called an “accidental feminist”, Taylor gained the upper hand by wielding her sexuality and femininity with brilliance and confidence, which crippled the anxious misogynists in Hollywood. An advocate for AIDS awareness as well as an icon in the LGBTQ+ community, Taylor’s unparalleled humanitarian work set her apart from other actresses of her age.
Elizabeth Taylor suffered from failing health quite often. Addicted to alcohol and other prescription drugs, she struggled with substance abuse as well as weight issues. Taylor, the forever dramatic and charming personality, succumbed to her varying illnesses on March 23, 2011, at the age of 79, leaving a void in the heart of cinema; at her request, they began her ceremony a little late, keeping up with her standards. Elizabeth Taylor’s legacy lives on in the hearts of cinephiles and film critics who analyse her work over and over again to find uncanny similarities between her personal life as well as the characters she played. A sensation and a phenomenon, we pay tribute to the fighter who survived all odds and braved misogyny and blatant objectification, managing to leave an indelible imprint in our minds forever.
“I’m a survivor – a living example of what people can go through and survive.”