TURNING CLASSIC MOVIES: Elizabeth Taylor (1932--2011)
Mar 23, 2011 - by Lester Brathwaite
The skies are a little darker now that one of its brightest stars has ceased to shine -- Dame Elizabeth Taylor died today. In addition to a buttload of grandkids, she leaves behind a legendary film canon. Elizabeth Taylor emerged from child stardom to become a gorgeous ingenue then a formidable actress and finally an Oscar-winning leading lady. Along the way she blazed a sartorial path that cemented her as not only a screen idol but a style icon. Let's take a leisurely stroll down memory lane for some of Liz's greatest fashions, on and off the screen, through her long, storied and above all, impressive life and career.
Elizabeth Taylor's style can probably be summed up with a trio of B's: Big, Bold and Bling. From her bodacious figure to the epic Taylor-Burton Diamond (a little trinket from husband #5/6, Richard Burton -- a pear-shaped 69.42 carat diamond bought for a paltry $1,050,000 in 1969), Liz Taylor was what a movie star should be: glamorous and larger than life.
Best known as a child star from films such as National Velvet (1944) and Lassie Come Home (1943), Liz forever shed that image in the 1951 classic, A Place in the Sun co-starring soon-to-be best friend and confidante, Montgomery Clift. Monty pines away for the unattainable Liz only to have his dream life and love sidetracked by insistent plain Jane, Shelly Winters. The story ends tragically, but not before Liz emerges as a beautiful young thing in an elegant white ball gown that takes not only Monty's breath away, but the audience's.
In Giant (1956), Liz shared the screen with two other closet cases, thus ensuring her claim as the world's foremost fag hag, Rock Hudson and James Dean. She formed lifelong friendships with both men, though they reportedly hated each other. Rock's old Hollywood studio professionalism clashed with Dean's reckless Method actor rebelliousness and Liz was often called on to act as mediator. Dean died in a car crash during the production in 1955, but one can see that in their short time together they formed a bond.
In 1956, Taylor would experience another tragedywith one of her friends when Monty Clift crashed his car in the middle of filming Raintree Country. Clift would have died had Liz not dislodged his two front teeth from his throat. Production was halted while Clift underwent surgery and though he continued to act, Clift was visibly and mentally altered, and died in 1966 after a long battle with drug and alcohol addiction.
With 1958's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Liz set pulses racing as Maggie the Cat, the sexually-frustrated wife of bitter and repressed Paul Newman, who's too busy mourning his recently deceased friend to pay any heed to Maggie or his ailing family. Though Tennessee Williams' play was toned down for film audiences, the most memorable image is that of Liz writhing around in nothing but a white silk slip.
Taylor earned Best Actress Oscar nominations for Raintree and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but she won her first statuette for 1960's BUtterfield 8. She wore a stunning Christian Dior gown to accept the prize, though she felt she only won out of sympathy -- she had recently lost husband Mike Todd and had nearly died from an illness during filming.
In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor became the first actress to earn $1 million for a movie for Cleopatra and during filming she fell in love with her co-star, the dashing Richard Burton. The costumes in Cleopatra were some of the most opulent ever put to film, but what else would one expect of the most famous woman in the world playing the most famous woman in history. Taylor had 65 costumes in total, including a dress made from 24-carat gold thread and cost a total $194,800 -- the most expensive wardrobe for any individual screen actor ever.
Liz would win her second Best Actress Oscar for 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as the volatile and alcoholic Martha alongside then-husband Dick Burton's George. Undeniably her greatest performance, Taylor eschewed her glamorous image to play the aging, plump and slovenly Martha.
The dynamic on screen was similar to real life and the Battling Burtons divorced in 1974, only to give it one more shot a year later. They were divorced for the second and final time in 1976, though their turbulent relationship led Vanity Fair to label theirs the Romance of the Century.
Though film roles dried up later in life, Elizabeth Taylor still dressed every inch the part and her impact on film, fashion, pop culture, as well as her tireless humanitarian efforts will keep her legend shining brighter than any white diamond ever could.
National Velvet (1944)
Father of the Bride (1950)
A Place in the Sun (1951)
Raintree Country (1957)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
The V.I.P.s (1963)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)