published Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor’s legacy: six decades of glamour and drama

By Elaine Woo/Los Angeles Times
Flowers and a portrait adorn Elizabeth Taylor's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles Wednesday, March 23, 2011. Taylor died early Wednesday of congestive heart failure at the age of 79. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Flowers and a portrait adorn Elizabeth Taylor's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles Wednesday, March 23, 2011. Taylor died early Wednesday of congestive heart failure at the age of 79. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
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    This 1961 file photo shows actress Elizabeth Taylor in the film "Butterfield 8" in 1961. Publicist Sally Morrison says the actress died Wednesday, March 23, 2011 in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure at age 79. (AP Photo/File)

LOS ANGELES — Elizabeth Taylor, the glamorous queen of American movie stardom, whose achievements as an actress were often overshadowed by her rapturous looks and real-life dramas, died early Wednesday of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said publicist Sally Morrison. She was 79.

During a career that spanned six decades, the legendary beauty with lavender eyes won two Oscars and made more than 50 films, performing alongside such fabled leading men as Spencer Tracy, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Richard Burton, whom she married twice. She took her cues from a Who’s Who of directors, including George Cukor, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, George Stevens, Vincente Minnelli and Mike Nichols.

Long after she faded from the screen, she remained a mesmerizing figure, blessed and cursed by the extraordinary celebrity that molded her life through its many phases: She was a child star who bloomed gracefully into an ingenue; a femme fatale on the screen and in life; a canny peddler of high-priced perfume; a pioneering activist in the fight against AIDS.

Some actresses, such as Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman, won more awards and critical plaudits, but none matched Taylor’s hold on the collective imagination. In the public’s mind, she was the dark goddess for whom playing Cleopatra, as she did with such notoriety, required no great leap from reality.

Her passions were legend. She loved to eat, which led to well-publicized battles with weight over the years. She loved men, dating many of the world’s richest and most famous, including Frank Sinatra, Henry Kissinger and Malcolm Forbes, and married eight times, including the two visits to the altar with Burton.

But Taylor attracted misfortune too. According to one chronicler, she suffered more than 70 illnesses, injuries and accidents requiring hospitalization, including an appendectomy, an emergency tracheotomy, a punctured esophagus, a hysterectomy, dysentery, an ulcerated eye, smashed spinal discs, phlebitis, skin cancer and hip replacements. In 1997, she had a benign brain tumor removed. By her own count, she nearly died four times.

In 2004 she disclosed that she had congestive heart failure and crippling spinal problems that left her in constant pain. For much of her life she struggled with alcohol and prescription painkillers.

On the evening of Oct. 6, 1991, two dozen helicopters carrying paparazzi and reporters whirred in the skies above singer Michael Jackson’s ranch in Santa Barbara County, Calif. Despite an armada of hot-air balloons launched as a shield against prying eyes, a parachutist wearing a camera on his helmet managed to land mere yards from the 59-year-old bride and her 39-year-old groom.

Thus were Taylor and construction worker Larry Fortensky wed — amid Hollywood hoopla and conjecture about whether the movie star’s eighth walk down the aisle would be her last.

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    In a Sept. 22, 1951 file photo, Elizabeth Taylor is shown at the premiere of "The Lady with the Lamp" at the Warner Theater in London. Publicist Sally Morrison says the actress died Wednesday, March 23, 2011 in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure at age 79. (AP Photo/File)

She was 17 when Husband No. 1 laid eyes on her. That was Conrad Nicholas Hilton Jr., the handsome scion of the Hilton hotel clan. Their 1950 marriage, burdened by Taylor’s celebrity and Hilton’s gambling, drinking and abusive behavior, lasted eight months.

No. 2 was Michael Wilding, a British actor 20 years her senior, whose gentleness offered Taylor a safe haven. They had two children: Michael Howard, born in 1953, and Christopher Edward, born in 1955. They were divorced in 1957 after five years.

No. 3 was Mike Todd, a flamboyant producer (”Around the World in 80 Days”) who would be one of the two great loves of her life. After he delivered an hour-long monologue about why they should marry and a 30-carat diamond to seal the deal, they exchanged vows in 1957. They had been married slightly more than a year when, on March 22, 1958, Todd was killed in a plane crash in New Mexico, leaving Taylor a widow at 26.

In the days following Todd’s death, Eddie Fisher — the singing idol who was Todd’s best friend and actress Debbie Reynolds’ husband — spent long hours by Taylor’s side, crying with her as they read through thousands of sympathy letters and telegrams. When mutual consolation turned into romance, Fisher broke up with Reynolds and married Taylor in 1959.

After the wedding, Taylor’s career reached new peaks, but Fisher’s flagged, creating an opening for the second great love of Taylor’s life.

The future No. 5 met Taylor at a Sunday afternoon swim party. “She was, I decided, the most astonishingly self-contained, pulchritudinous, remote, removed, inaccessible woman I had ever seen,” Burton wrote in a diary passage quoted in Melvyn Bragg’s 1988 biography of the Welsh actor. She was, Burton said, “beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography.”

He and Taylor began a tumultuous affair in Rome on the set of “Cleopatra,” the epic about the Egyptian queen who dies for love. Because both were huge stars married to other people, their adultery caused a worldwide scandal. A member of Congress introduced a motion to ban them from the U.S., and the Vatican condemned their “erotic vagrancy.”

Such bad press, Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons wrote, “ought to have killed them.” Others joked that it only encouraged the besotted stars. After a two-year separation, Taylor divorced Fisher in early 1964 and married Burton.

Theirs was a marriage on a grand scale. She gave him a Van Gogh, he lavished her with priceless gems, including the behemoth Krupp diamond and a 25-carat, heart-shaped pendant of diamonds, rubies and emeralds originally made for the bride of the man who built the Taj Mahal. Burton also outbid shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis for a $1.1-million, 69-carat diamond ring from Cartier in New York that became known as the Taylor-Burton diamond.

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    This April 2, 1974 file photo shows actress Elizabeth Taylor standing by a statue of the Academy Award Oscar in Los Angeles. Elizabeth Taylor had it all: the violet, almond-shaped eyes, the creamy skin, the pouty lips and raven hair. Of course, there were her Oscars, iconic roles and many husbands, too, but Taylor is indeed most renowned for her beauty. She died Wednesday at age 79 of congestive heart failure. (AP Photo/ FILE)

America’s most famous couple not only spent extravagantly, but also fought and drank to excess. When their union finally unraveled, Burton told the London Daily Mail: “You can’t keep clapping a couple of sticks (of dynamite) together without expecting them to blow up.” They were divorced by a Swiss court on June 26, 1974.

The next year they retied the knot before an African tribal chief in Botswana. Less than a year later, in 1976, they severed the tie in a Haitian divorce, but their love for each other continued.

Taylor said that if Burton had not had a fatal brain hemorrhage in Geneva in 1984 she probably would have wound up with him a third time. “I was still madly in love with him until the day he died,” she said. Long after his death, she kept a copy of his last letter — penned three days before his death — in her bedside drawer. She allowed many of the letters to be published in the book “Furious Love” by Sam Kushner and Nancy Schoenberger (2010).

Husband No. 6 appeared when the screen goddess needed an escort for a dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth and then-President Ford. The British Embassy paired her with John Warner, a ruggedly handsome former secretary of the Navy and gentleman farmer from Virginia. They were married in 1976, and in 1978 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Although Taylor had been a devoted campaigner, she found she was ill-suited for the role of political wife. While Warner spent long hours in Washington, she passed the time watching television and eating until her weight ballooned to 180 pounds on a 5-foot-4 frame. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so alone in my life as when I was Mrs. Senator,” she wrote in “Elizabeth Takes Off,” her 1988 diet book-cum-autobiography.

Seeking relief in acting, she starred in a Broadway production of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” and spent a year on the road. In 1982 she officially canceled her run as the senator’s wife and moved to a mansion in Bel-Air.

By the end of 1983, she was burned out, bloated and abusing alcohol and pills. Confronted by her family and close friend Roddy McDowall, she checked into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where she slept in a dormitory, went on clean-up detail and, as she later told writer Dominick Dunne, was “peeled down to the absolute core” in group therapy sessions. Her public announcement that she was being treated for substance abuse encouraged other celebrities, including Liza Minnelli, to disclose their own struggles.

A clean and sober Taylor held on to her newfound health for a few years, until pain from a crushed vertebra sent her back to pills and booze. According to an investigation some years later by the attorney general of California, her addictions were enabled by three of her personal doctors, who wrote more than 1,000 prescriptions over seven years for painkillers, tranquilizers, antidepressants and stimulants.

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    This Feb. 16, 1997 file photo shows Elizabeth Taylor arriving with Michael Jackson at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles for her birthday celebration. Publicist Sally Morrison says the actress died Wednesday, March 23, 2011 in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure at age 79. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)

During her second visit to the Betty Ford Center in 1988, she met Fortensky, a twice-married construction worker who was seeking treatment for a drinking problem. After leaving the clinic, Taylor invited him to Bel-Air for weekend barbecues and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with him. Later she would tell gossip columnist Liz Smith that she was attracted to Fortensky because “he wasn’t a wimp, and I’m not a wimp.”

After the wedding in 1991, Fortensky tried to resume his working man’s routine, rising before dawn to head to his construction job. At the end of the day, he would park his dirty boots outside the mansion door, shower and sit down to dinner with his wife by 6 p.m. The regimen seemed exotic to Taylor, who told Life magazine in 1992: “I used to go to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning. Now we’re in bed by 10 o’clock, and I have to admit I like it.”

But the charm wore off after Fortensky stopped working. Citing irreconcilable differences, she filed for divorce in 1996 and swore off marriage.

Critics did not really take notice of her until MGM cast her in “National Velvet” as Velvet Brown, a girl who dreams of riding in England’s Grand National steeplechase. “I wouldn’t say she is particularly gifted as an actress,” James Agee wrote in The Nation in 1944. “She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful. I hardly know or care whether she can act or not.”

After the success of “National Velvet,” it was difficult for Taylor to call her life her own. Her contract, she said later, “made me an MGM chattel” for the next 18 years. The studio chose her roles, controlled her public appearances, picked her dates and stage-managed her first wedding. After a string of ingenue roles, she won her first romantic lead opposite Robert Taylor in the forgettable melodrama “Conspirator” (1950). She experienced enough success to be noticed by the Harvard Lampoon, which teased her for “so gallantly persisting in her career despite a total inability to act.”

In 1951 she answered those skeptics with her work in “A Place in the Sun,” directed by Stevens. Playing a restless, sexually eager society girl drawn to a young man from a lower-class background, Taylor won her first critical praise as an adult actress.

Shelley Winters, who played Taylor’s lower-class rival in the movie, said in 1985 that “A Place in the Sun” was “still the best thing she ever did. Elizabeth had a depth and a simpleness which were really remarkable.”

Stevens later hired her for another demanding role in “Giant” (1956), an epic about two generations of Texans. She played the wife of cattleman Rock Hudson, and James Dean, who died in a car crash before the movie was released, played a wild young ranch hand. Critics hailed her artistry, her “astonishing revelation of unsuspected gifts,” the Times of London put it.

Her next three films would bring her Oscar nominations.

The first was for “Raintree County,” a 1957 release directed by Edward Dmytryk, in which Taylor played a passionate Southern belle capable of madness.

The next nomination was for her portrayal of Maggie in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958). Taylor played the beautiful, sexually seething wife of Paul Newman, the alcoholic, latently homosexual son of a Mississippi plantation owner. Although the actress was widowed in the midst of filming when Todd’s plane crashed, she managed to turn in a performance widely considered one of the best of her adult career.

“She was an intuitive actress,” Newman said years later of the woman who never took an acting lesson. “I was always staggered by her ferocity, and how quickly she could tap into her emotions. It was a privilege to watch her.”

Her third nomination recognized her work in “Suddenly Last Summer,” another Williams story, which explored insanity, homosexuality and cannibalism. A commercial success like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” it boosted Taylor into the box-office top 10 for the first time. She remained in the top 10 almost every year for the next decade.

In 1961 she won her first Oscar for her portrayal of a call girl in a tortured affair with a married man in “Butterfield 8.” Although she hated the part and the script, she agreed to the role because it ended her contractual obligations to MGM.

Her next project was “Cleopatra” for Twentieth Century Fox. Taylor was loath to take the title role and set her asking price at $1 million. According to Fisher, she eventually earned $7 million after her percentages and other fees were paid.

With a record-breaking final price tag of $62 million, the film ushered in a new era of excess in Hollywood. It nearly bankrupted Fox, which was forced to sell its back lot bordering Beverly Hills to a developer, who turned those 200 acres into Century City.

The production also launched the most turbulent period of Taylor’s life. She contracted pneumonia during filming in Rome and underwent an emergency tracheotomy. She was reported to be near death for days.

After she recovered and returned to the “Cleopatra” set, headlines around the world began to scream details of her affair with Burton. When the movie was finally released in 1963, the reviews were brutal, but audiences flocked to see its shameless-in-love stars.

Taylor co-starred with Burton in several more movies, including “The V.I.P.s” (1963); “The Sandpiper” (1965); “Doctor Faustus,” “The Comedians” and “The Taming of the Shrew” (all 1967); “Boom!” (1968); “Under Milk Wood” and “Hammersmith Is Out” (both 1972); and an aptly titled television movie, “Divorce His, Divorce Hers” (1973). Critics found most of their collaborations unremarkable.

The exception came in 1966, when the ritzy couple were cast against type in Edward Albee’s drama of marital angst, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Taylor gained 25 pounds and donned a gray wig and extra padding to play Martha, the frumpy, foul-mouthed, highly educated wife of Burton’s henpecked college professor. She was reportedly terrified by the challenge of playing a role so far removed from her glamorous persona.

Nichols put the Burtons and the other two cast members — George Segal and Sandy Dennis — through weeks of private rehearsals and closed the set during filming. Gradually, Taylor said, she grew so comfortable in her “Martha suit” that it freed her acting.

Critics lavished praise on her performance, calling it the best of her career. The film won five Oscars, including Taylor’s second for best actress. She also won awards from the National Board of Review, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the New York Film Critics Circle and what is now the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Her AIDS work brought her the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian award, in 1987 and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993.In 2000, Queen Elizabeth made her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an honor on the level of knighthood.

Through her various efforts she would eventually raise more than $270 million for AIDS prevention and care.

In addition to her sons Michael and Christopher Wilding, Taylor is survived by daughters Liza Todd and Maria Burton, 10 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.

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