En español | Elizabeth Taylor — a child actor and legendary beauty who became a true movie star — died today of congestive heart failure, a condition with which she struggled for several years. Taylor, who celebrated her 79th birthday on Feb. 27, was surrounded by her four children at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Taylor, a two-time Oscar winner and the first actor to be paid $1 million for a role, had not made a feature film since The Flintstones in 1994. Still, her body of work is her legacy. Here is a list of my favorites from the past 67 years.
National Velvet (1944)
She'd played a handful of small movie roles, and you couldn't help but notice her, but who would have expected 12-year-old Elizabeth would steal this MGM classic right from under Mickey Rooney — who even then was one of the hottest stars in Hollywood? Spunky, athletic and already blossoming into beautiful young womanhood, she entranced audiences as the plucky girl who virtually wills her pet racehorse to a national championship.
A Date With Judy (1948)
Did Taylor's overlords at MGM take some perverse pleasure in giving 16-year-old Liz the full glamour treatment, daring — just daring — the red-blooded males in the audience to appreciate her considerable charms, despite her tender age? Liz is not the title character here — that's Jane Powell — but as Judy's pal, Carol Pringle, she virtually pops off the screen in one provocative designer dress after another. Her astonishing looks catch the attention of a young Robert Stack (and if there's a pun in there, I'm not touching it).
Father's Little Dividend (1951)
Not yet 20, Taylor had already been married and then divorced from Nicky Hilton when she costarred in this sequel to Father of the Bride. The original film belonged to Spencer Tracy, lock, stock and wedding cake: Taylor, as his daughter, was in that film little more than a sweet foil for Spence's gruff acquiescence to her nuptial wishes. This time, her character having a baby, Liz seems to find ways to hold her own versus Tracy. And it's charming to see her puttering around a nicely realized newlywed apartment, the folding chairs set up at a card table for a family dinner. Watching Taylor, little more than a kid herself, play house with screen hubby Don Taylor (no relation), you do begin to feel those familiar pangs of sadness over how Hollywood pushed its young stars to early maturity; the film's director, Vincente Minnelli, was then in the throes of divorce from Judy Garland, another former child star whose life was even then spinning out of control.
A Place in the Sun (1951)
There's a scene in George Stevens' epic potboiler in which Taylor and Montgomery Clift nuzzle on a balcony. In profile, she fits her nose atop the bridge of his nose, and for a fleeting moment they hold that position; two of Hollywood's most beautiful faces, spooning as it were, merging into one supercontinent of astonishingly good looks. This is Taylor's first great grownup role, as the society gal who sweeps good ol' boy Clift off his feet — despite the fact that he's got a very pregnant Shelley Winters waiting for him at home. Things go very, very badly for poor Monty, but Liz, impossibly sultry in glorious black and white, not only endures; she reigns.
George Stevens elicited some of Taylor's finest performances, and with Giant, the star began an astonishing run of films that established her as not just a pretty, porcelain face, but as a truly versatile big-screen actress. Here she's not just the wife of a high-powered rancher (Rock Hudson, in his only Oscar-nominated role), she's virtually the queen of Texas, a transplant from back East who starts out unsteadily as the mistress of a half-million-acre ranch but who grows to be an equal partner with her hubby. She also draws the unwanted attention of a ne'er-do-well ranch hand (James Dean), and although Rock mans up and gives the guy a good sock to the jaw, we do suspect that Liz could have handled it all by herself, thank you very much.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
I suspect they had to keep extra fire extinguishers on hand in the projection booth when they screened this sizzling, steamy Tennessee Williams drama — Taylor and Paul Newman do everything but set each other alight with Roman candles as they battle, embrace and nearly destroy each other. As Maggie the Cat, Taylor brings an urgent sexuality that must have seemed mighty daring in 1958. It's her tent pole performance of an unmatched four-year period that saw her get Oscar nominations for Raintree County (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and BUtterfield 8 (1960), for which she finally won the statuette.
Then came 1963's Cleopatra, the movie disaster that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and came close to sinking Taylor's career.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Everything about director Mike Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's play about a marriage crashing spectacularly on the rocks is daring — the shaky black-and-white photography gives the film the immediacy of a documentary; the unforgiving closeups seem to give us a view straight into the characters' souls. But perhaps the most daring achievement of all is Taylor's raw nerve of a performance. In one scene — you remember it, the one when she verbally castrates her quaking husband (Richard Burton) before the horrified eyes of their young visitors (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) — Taylor reclaims her place as the Great Movie Star Who Is Also a Great Movie Actress. She won her second Oscar for Virginia Woolf, and there are some who say she should have stopped right there. But she was in love with Burton, and from then on they collaborated in a series of films that were often interesting, when they weren't just plain bad.
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
Hands-down the best Taylor-Burton collaboration after Virginia Woolf is Franco Zeffirelli's lush treatment of Shakespeare's comedy. The Battling Burtons have more fun with the Bard than anyone has a right to; she knocks a chair out from under him, he leaves her waist-deep in a muddy ditch and on it goes. Most important, Liz unleashes her inner comedienne, a liberty she seldom allowed herself throughout her long career.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
Far as I can tell, John Huston's bleak study of sexual repression on a military base includes Taylor's one-and-only nude scene. Furious that her domineering hubby (Marlon Brando) has accused her of dressing like a tramp around the house, she stands by a fireplace and, eyes locked on his, her mouth tight with disdain, she removes her blouse, her bra (throwing it into his face) and her pants. And then she leaves the room. Only then do we realize we've never actually seen anything below her shoulders. In a truly masterful piece of screen acting, Taylor has made herself appear stark, raving naked — using only her face.
Divorce His/Divorce Hers (1973)
Nearing the end of the first of their two marriages, Taylor and Burton tried a bold experiment: A two-part TV movie that told, in part one, a husband's side of a dissolving relationship and then, in the second part, the wife's story. The Burtons had lived their private ups and downs in such a public way, it was nearly impossible to separate them from their fictional characters here. But there's a sad wistfulness to the film, and Taylor, in particular, displays a vulnerability that had all but disappeared from her work as her superstar light shone ever brighter.