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Grace Kelly Sophia Loren
Elizabeth Taylor - Goddesses of the Silver Screen
1568    Dibyendu Banerjee    28/07/2020

One of the most celebrated stars of the film world, noted for her graceful beauty and her portrayals of volatile and strong-willed characters, Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born on 27 February 1932, in Hampstead, London. Her American parents, art dealer Francis Lenn Taylor and retired stage actress Sara Sothern, moved to London in 1929, when their first child, a son, was born. However, at the onset of the World War II, the family returned to the United States in early 1939 and settled into their new life in Los Angeles.

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Elizabeth liked to dance at her own, as soon as she could walk and she was given ballet lessons at a very early age. In fact, performing was in her blood and at the age of three she danced with her class in front of Princess Elizabeth and Margaret. In California, the beauty of her dark hair and the unusual violet eyes attracted the attention of many neighbours, who frequently told her mother that the girl should audition for films. Although her mother was not very much interested about the idea, one of the influential clients of her father led her to a screen test at the age of 10, at the Universal Studio. Consequently, she was cast in a small role in There's One Born Every Minute (1942), but did not receive any other role and her contract was terminated after a year. However, one of her father’s acquaintances, MGM Producer Samuel Marx arranged for her to an audition in late 1942, for a minor role in Lassie Come Home (1943), which required a child actress with an English accent. After a temporary trial contract for three months, Elizabeth was given a seven-year contract in January 1943 and appeared in minor roles in Jane Eyre (1943) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944).

elizabeth taylor
Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet (1945)

However, her important break came soon, when her mother came to know that the studio was looking for a young girl to play Velvet Brown, who won the Grand National disguised as a boy in National Velvet (1945) and brought her daughter to see the producer Pandro S Berman. Although she could ride well, Berman thought her too thin and fragile for the role. Nevertheless, after rigid training for next three months under her guidance of her mother, she became successful to win Berman’s heart and her performance in the film, as a young woman who rescues a horse and trains it to race, won the heart of all. Eventually, the film turned out to be a big hit that pulled in more than $4 million and made the 12-year-old actress a huge star. Following the success of the film, MGM gave her a new seven-year contract with a weekly salary of $750 and cast her in a minor role in Courage of Lassie (1946).

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In 1947, as Elizabeth turned 15, MGM began to cultivate a more mature public image for her. In Cynthia (aka The Rich Full Life) she portrayed a frail girl who defies her over-protective parents to go to promenade dance and in the period film Life with Father (1947), she portrayed the love interest of a stockbroker's son, opposite William Powell and Irene Dunne. For her performance in those two roles she was acclaimed by the Life magazine as the Hollywood’s most accomplished junior artist. Her success in those films was followed by her supporting roles as a teenaged ‘man-stealer’ who seduces her peer's date to a high school dance in the entertaining musical A Date with Judy (1948) and a bride in the romantic comedy Julia Misbehaves (1948).She also co-starred in the ensemble film Little Woman (1949), in her last adolescent role was as Amy March, which was also a huge success.

elizabeth taylor

By that time, Elizabeth was struggling to get an education at the Hollywood school, where she developed a crush on an older pupil, John Derek, which is the first recorded instance of her interest in the opposite sex. At the age of 17, she was also despairing about getting much school work done while making Conspirator (1949), her first adult role, in which she portrayed a woman who begins to suspect that her husband is a Soviet spy.

It is interesting to note that MGM organized Taylor to date football champion Glenn Davis in 1948 and the following year, she was briefly engaged to William Pawley Jr., son of US ambassador William D Pawley. Apart from that Film tycoon Howard Hughes also wanted to marry her and sent his lawyer to her mother with an offer of one million dollar to arrange a marriage with her daughter. Elizabeth declined the offer with a loud laugh, but was otherwise eager to marry young. Suddenly, she married Nicky Hilton, the 23-year-old playboy son of the hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, on 6 May 1950. It all started like a fairytale romance, as both were young, attractive, rich and pampered. MGM took the advantage of Hollywood's biggest wedding of the year by releasing Vincente Minnelli's delightful comedy Father of the Bride (1950), in which Taylor played the bride and Spencer Tracy was the father, at around the same time. The film was a big hit, grossing $6 million worldwide and was followed by a successful sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951). However, Taylor’s marriage did not last long. Within a few weeks, Taylor realized that she had made a mistake and eight months after their wedding she was granted a divorce on 1st February 1951. At the divorce proceedings Elizabeth testified that Hilton had ignored her during their long European honeymoon, drank heavily and abused her in public, while Hilton complained that he unknowingly married an institution, not a girl.

elizabeth taylor
Elizabeth Taylor in Ivanhoe (1952)

In the same year Elizabeth appeared in A Place in the Sun (1951), opposite Montgomery Clift, which marked a departure from her earlier films and brought her critical acclaim. After that MGM sent her to Britain to take play the role of Rebecca in the historical epic Ivanhoe (1952), one of the most expensive projects in the studio's history, as a means of breaking up her affair with the director Stanley Donen. Ridiculously, there she met the sophisticated British actor Michael Wilding, 20 years her senior, whom she married on 21 February 1952 and had two sons with him in 1953 and 1955.Gradually, as Elizabeth became more confident in herself, she began to drift apart from Wilding, whose career was failing disastrously. While she was away filming Giant (1956), a gossip magazine caused a scandal by claiming that Wilding had entertained strippers at their home in her absence. Finally, the couple announced their separation on 18 July 1956 and was divorced on 30 January 1957.

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Nevertheless, Giant became a box-office success and although not nominated for an Academy Award like her co-stars Rock Hudson and James Dean, Taylor garnered positive reviews for her performance. In 1957, she appeared in Raintree Country (1957), a Civil War drama, opposite Montgomery Clift, her male lead in A Place in the Sun. Although she found her role of a mentally disturbed Southern belle fascinating, on the whole she disliked the film. In addition, Clift was seriously injured during the film and Taylor helped him to save his life by pulling a dislodged tooth out of his throat to stop him choking. However, despite the film's shortcomings and off-camera tragedy, it was for the first time Elizabeth Taylor was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film.

elizabeth taylor
With Montgomery Clift in Raintree Country (1957)

Elizabeth Taylor married her third husband, the flamboyant impresario Mike Todd (real name Avrom Goldbogen), on 02 February 1957, in Acapulco, Mexico. Mike Todd, noted for his youthful spirit and his abundant energy, threw a birthday party at Madison Square Garden in June 1957, which was attended by 18,000 guests and broadcast on CBS. In the same year, Taylor gave birth to a daughter by caesarean and both mother and child nearly died. She was advised by the doctors never to have another baby. Despite everything she was happy, although her domestic happiness did not last long. Only seven months later, Todd's private plane Lucky Liz, in which he was flying to New York, crashed in a storm near Albuquerque on 22 March 1958, leaving no survivors. The incident left Taylor devastated and it was reported that on hearing of the news of the crash, she screamed so loudly that neighbours a few doors away could hear her and she had to be drugged to prevent her from taking her own life. During those days she was comforted by Todd’s friend, singer Eddie Fisher, with whom she soon began an affair.

elizabeth taylor
elizabeth taylor
With Paul Newman in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Gradually, she came out of seclusion and completed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Despite her shattered mental state, she gave one of her finest wrought performances as the sexually frustrated Maggie and matched Paul Newman and Burl Ives blow for blow. The film received rave reviews from the critics and Elizabeth was nominated again for an Academy Award for Best Actress. The film grossed $10 million in American cinemas alone, although its box-office potential was substantially increased by the gossip surrounding Taylor and Fisher. As Fisher was still married to actress Debbie Reynolds, Taylor found herself in the role of a home-breaker. In fact, the moralistic public was not aware that the Fisher-Reynolds marriage was already in tatters. The matter ended on 12 May 1959, when Elizabeth converted to Judaism and married Fisher at the Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas.

Taylor’s next film, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) was another mega-hit, in which she earned US$500,000 for playing the role of a severely traumatized patient in a mental institution. The film was a drama about the mental illness, childhood traumas and homosexuality, which was successfully promoted with Taylor’s sex appeal. Apart from her third Academy Award nomination, Elizabeth Taylor also earned her first Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her excellent performance in the film.

elizabeth taylor
Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 (1960)

However, her Oscar drought ended with Butterfield 8 (1960), in which she portrayed the role of Gloria Wandrous, a call girl who is involved with a married man. The Studio tactfully calculated that Taylor's public image would make it easy for audiences to associate her with the role and she hated the film for the same reason. Although the film was a major commercial success, it was blasted by some critics, but they could not ignore her performance in it.

While Elizabeth was completing Suddenly, Last Summer in London, producer Walter Wanger offered her the title role in Cleopatra and she half-jokingly told him that she would accept the offer for one million dollar against 10% of the gross. To her utter surprise, 20th Century-Fox agreed to it, making her the highest-paid performer for a single film in the history of Hollywood to that date. However, after a short stint of cold and mild fever, she was rushed to a London clinic with lung congestion in March 1961, where she was given a tracheotomy that helped her to come out of breathing difficulty. In the meantime, the project of Cleopatra was shifted from London to Rome, due to bad weather and Taylor’s ill health. On her arrival in Rome, Taylor settled in a huge mansion, with a large entourage consisting of one husband, three children, five dogs, two cats, various secretaries and dozens of servants. The progress of filming Cleopatra, characterized by costly sets and costumes, constant delays and a saucy scandal caused by Taylor's extramarital affair with her co-star Richard Burton, was closely followed by the media. Nevertheless, Cleopatra (1963) became the biggest box-office success in the United States and grossed $15.7 million at the box office, but it took several years for the film to earn back its production costs. While the reviews of the film were mixed to negative, Taylor branded it a low point in her career and said that the studio had cut out the scenes which provided the core of the character.

elizabeth taylor
elizabeth taylor
With Richard Burton in Cleopatra (1963)

In spite of that, as the film producers were eager to profit from the scandal around Taylor and Burton, they next starred together in The VIPs (1963), in which Taylor played a famous model attempting to leave her husband for a lover and Burton her estranged millionaire husband. In short, the film simply mirrored the headlines about Taylor and Burton and public interest in the couple's private lives made the film a top earner of 1963.

Throughout this period the affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton continued desperately in the public eye. While the Vatican condemned their affair as erotic vagrancy and an insult to the nobility of the hearth, Eddie Fisher and Sybil Burton held out for the best possible divorce deals. Finally, Sybil gave in, complaining cruelty and infidelity of her husband, who was in constant company of another woman. To close the scandal the couple got married on 15 March 1964 at the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal by a Unitarian minister, when the bride and groom gave their respective religions as Jewish and Presbyterian.

elizabeth taylor

However, after their marriage, the world's most famous couple became celebrities rather than actors and their reputations as serious actors were not much enhanced by the next film they made together, the romantic drama The Sandpiper (1965), about an illicit love affair between a bohemian artist and a married clergyman. However, Taylor won her second Oscar in their next project Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), in which she transformed her legendary beauty into a blowsy virago and brilliantly portrayed the 52-year-old, bitter and vulgar wife of a self-loathing professor, played by Burton.

Burton continually claimed that Taylor had taught him how to act on film. However, despite their genuine affection for one another, they came to be known in the studio as the battling Burtons, due to their open quarrels throughout the 1960s, which was cleverly exploited in the coloured version of The Taming of the Shrew (1967). After that, the couple also co-starred in The Comedians (1967) and Boom (1968).

elizabeth taylor
elizabeth taylor
In The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

However, by that time Burton started to drink heavily and became an object of derision. The marriage broke down and Taylor divorced Burton in Switzerland on 26 June 1974 due to many differences. But they were reconciled and remarried in Kasane, Botswana on 10 October 1975, though the second marriage lasted less than a year, ending in divorce on 01 August 1976. The relationship between the two was often referred by the media as the marriage of the century and later Taylor confessed that after Burton, the men in her life were just there to hold the coat and to open the door. Soon after her final divorce from Burton, Taylor married her sixth husband, John Warner, a Republican politician from Virginia on 04 December 1976. But when Warner became a Senator, Taylor found her life as the wife of a politician in Washington DC, boring and lonely. As a result, she became depressed, overweight and increasingly addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. Finally, they divorced on 07 November 1982. After the end of Warner episode, Taylor dated actor Anthony Geary, was engaged to Mexican lawyer Victor Luna in 1983-1984 and a New York businessman Dennis Stein in 1985. Finally, she married her seventh and last husband, construction worker Larry Fortensky, at the Neverland Ranch of her long-term friend, legendary Michael Jackson on 06 October 1991, whom she divorced on 31 October 1996.

From the mid-1980s, Taylor acted mostly in television productions, which included several television films. Her last theatrically released film The Flintstones (1994) was in the critically panned, but commercially very successful. Upon the death of her friend, actor Rock Hudson in 1985, she began her crusade on the behalf of AIDS sufferers and became the first celebrity to create her own collection of fragrances. However, her health increasingly declined during the last two decades of her life. Apart from serious bouts of pneumonia in 1990 and again in 2000, she underwent hip replacement surgery in mid 1990s and a surgery for a benign brain tumor in 1997. She was also treated for skin cancer in 2002 and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2004. Six weeks after she was hospitalized for the last time, Elizabeth Taylor died at the age of 79 at Ciders-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on 23 March 2011 and was entombed in the Great Mausoleum at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

Grace Kelly Sophia Loren
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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