On 23rd March this year, the world lost one of its greatest actresses and most influential style icons, with the death of Elizabeth Taylor at the age of 79. Her legacy is immense and her achievements, both on and off screen, will be difficult to forget. The versatility of her acting was particularly renowned; moving from a young equestrian to a seductress, and from a Little Woman to the Queen of Egypt – all with grace, presence and undeniable talent.

She barely left Hollywood during her sixty-nine years acting, but she was actually born near London, and always professed a sincere love for this country, despite leaving for Los Angeles at the age of seven. She completed her first film There’s One Born Every Minute when she was ten; achieved child star status after National Velvet at the age of twelve; and by the time she was twenty-five years old she had been credited in twenty-five films. Her most iconic roles undoubtedly include the glamorous Maggie Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), the prostitute Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8 (1960), the most infamous temptress of antiquity in Cleopatra (1963), and the nagging wife of her real-life husband Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

She won Academy Awards for her roles in Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as well as many other awards during her lifetime, including the ultimate accolade of a DBE in 2000, establishing her as Dame Elizabeth Taylor. She was also the first actress to be paid $1 million for a film, which was for Cleopatra in 1963. In her characteristic light-hearted manner, she said of the salary: “someone’s dumb enough to offer me a million dollars to make a picture, I’m certainly not dumb enough to turn it down.”

Her striking looks and infamous violet eyes secured her regular appearance on posters and magazine covers, which helped to affirm her as a style icon and one of the most famous faces of her generation. However this role was harder to sustain than those in the movies, and in some ways her film parts were less dramatic and tempestuous than her personal life. Alongside appearing in over fifty movies, she had seven husbands, including Conrad Hilton, Eddie Fisher, and most famously Richard Burton, whom she married twice. She was also renowned for bad health, and was hospitalised more than seventy times during her life and close to death on several occasions.

It was eventually congestive heart failure that was the cause of her death, a problem that she had been battling intermittently for several years. Despite her many setbacks, she always remained positive and regarded herself: “a example of what people can go through and survive”. Such experiences also fuelled her passion for charity work, and she is particularly applauded for her work with HIV/AIDS causes and projects, including the founding of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991.

Joan Collins, her co-star in These Old Broads (2001) called her “last of the True Hollywood Icons”, an apt recognition of her combination of charm, talent, beauty and universal likeability that is unparalleled in Hollywood today.

 

Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation: http://www.elizabethtayloraidsfoundation.org/

 

Joanna Rayner