Elizabeth Taylor: 1932-2011

Will Leitch
Movie Talk
R.I.P., Elizabeth Taylor Ron Galella/WireImage.com
R.I.P., Elizabeth Taylor Ron Galella/WireImage.com

Elizabeth Taylor, who died of congestive heart failure this morning at the age of 79, has been a constant of American life for nearly 70 years. We watched Taylor grow up in a way only the movies can allow us to do. We saw her as a pre-teen in "National Velvet," a blushing teen daughter in "Father of the Bride," an ethereal beauty in "A Place In The Sun," a sexpot in "Suddenly, Last Summer," the wife of an alcoholic jock in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," a fashion goddess in "Cleopatra" and, ultimately, an aging ingenue in "Sweet Bird Of Youth." There hasn't been a moment in our popular culture over the last 70 years that Elizabeth Taylor wasn't a central part of.

Taylor won two Oscars and was nominated for three others, but Taylor was the rare movie star who transcended awards: She was a far bigger star than some statue. Taylor was wonderful in films like "A Place In The Sun," "Giant" and "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf," but the film role she'll be most known for is "Cleopatra." That film, in which she met on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again paramour Richard Burton, is considered the most expensive American film ever made and nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox; that it is almost entirely an obsessive dedication to Taylor's beauty is perhaps the best evidence of how powerful and famous Taylor truly was. Men spent fortunes simply to document her.

"Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?" showed the gruffer side of the lilac-eyed Taylor, who played one-half of the film's central sparring couple.

Many critics consider her most glamorous, fully Hollywood performance was in "A Place In The Sun," which won six Oscars and was nominated for three more. Montgomery Clift plays the poor nephew of a rich businessman who meets Taylor's socialite and is immediately entranced. Here, Taylor isn't just a beautiful woman: She's the very picture of allure, an invitation to a better, lusher, more ideal world. She represents, essentially, perfection.

She won Oscars for "Butterfield 8" in 1960 and "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf" in 1966. She probably deserved it more for the latter film, but here, upon accepting her Award for "Butterfield 8" from Yul Brenner, she sets the model for the ideal Oscar acceptance speech. "Thank you with all of my heart," and then she exits. It's what all Oscar speeches should be, and never are.

As an actress, Taylor was essentially done being entirely relevant by the late '70s, though she would pop up from time to time anyway, whether it was on "General Hospital" doing a star turn on a soap before James Franco made it cool, playing "Pearl Slaghoople" on "The Flintsones" or even speaking Maggie Simpson's first words on "The Simpsons." (It was "Daddy.") But Elizabeth Taylor the celebrity and global icon -- a role she essentially invented -- was far from fading from the public spotlight.

Slideshow: Elizabeth Taylor's most memorable roles

Everett Collection

Taylor was perhaps most famous for her marriages. There were eight in total, seven husbands, ranging from Conrad Hilton Jr. when she was 18, to theater producer Mike Todd (who was killed in a plane crash, the one Taylor marriage not to end in divorce), to singer and actor Eddie Fisher, to Burton, the most famous of them all. She was married to Burton twice, from 1964-1974 and then again from 1975-1976. Her final marriage was to mulleted construction worker Larry Fortensky, from 1991-1996. (Fortensky has fallen on harder times in recent years.) She was also one of the earliest and most vocal AIDS advocates, and her Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation raised hundreds of millions to fight the disease. Her humanitarian work earned her an honorary Oscar -- the Jean Hersholt award -- in 1993.

Near the end of her life, Taylor, always adapating, actually started using Twitter, in which she dished out advice, promoted projects, defended old friends like Michael Jackson and Kathy Ireland. Her last Tweet was to an interview she did with, of all people, Kim Kardashian in Bazaar last month. In the interview, she talks about "sometimes I think we know too much about our idols and that spoils the dream." As someone who was once as big an idol has this planet has known over the last century, no one would understand that better than Taylor.

Death wasn't something that Dame Elizabeth worried too much about. In a 2000 interview with Diane Sawyer, Taylor said "I don't fear it at all," and described how her brush with death (and encountering her late husband Mike Todd in the afterlife) changed her perspective on life -- as well as what happens after it.

Elizabeth Taylor Has Died [New York Times]
Elizabeth Taylor Talks with Kim Kardashian
@dameelizabeth [Twitter]