We were saddened to hear the news that Elizabeth Taylor died overnight at the age of 79. While she was known as much in recent years for her private life and questionable marriage record as she was for her films, Taylor was one of the best actors of her generation, and her performances in the 1950s and 1960s defined a string of the era’s finest films. In celebration of a fine career, here’s a selection of her best roles.
National Velvet (1944)
Taylor’s first role was in There’s One Born Every Minute at the age of ten, but this was her best childhood role. She plays a girl who disguises herself as a jockey to sneak into the Grand National to ride a horse that she’s saved from the knacker’s yard to victory. Apparently Taylor was given the horse as a birthday present after filming finished. Result.
Father of the Bride (1950)
Unlike many child stars, Taylor went straight from child roles to adult roles without any sort of hiatus. She was 18 when she starred with Spencer Tracy in this comedy about the slapstick lead-up to a wedding. It’s still a classic – don’t be put off by the Steve Martin remake that came out in the 1990s. (Just avoid the sequel, Father’s Little Dividend, which was terrible, and which both Taylor and Tracy hated.)
A Place in the Sun (1951)
Apart from being an all-time classic, A Place in the Sun was notable for being Taylor’s breakout adult role and also her first appearance with Montgomery Clift. It drew them together just as both their careers were really beginning to take off – Clift was nominated for an Oscar, and Taylor’s performance was also critically acclaimed. The film was the start of a long friendship. Years later, it was Taylor who hauled Clift out of the car after his car accident.
A quintessentially American fable, tracing the rise of the Texas oil industry over several decades, Giant provided its actors with an expansive canvas on which to express themselves. All the leads – Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean – put in fantastic performances. Taylor, particularly, seemed to relish the chance to play a weighty role after being marooned in a series of lightweight films throughout the early 1950s, and rose to the occasion with aplomb. It marked the beginning of the best phase of her career.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Tennessee Williams’ original play explored the complex and often dysfunctional relationships within the family of a dying southern cotton tycoon, and dealt with alcoholism, homophobia, and general misanthropy. Adapting such a complex and often challenging work as a Hollywood production inevitably involved watering the script down somewhat, and apparently Williams wasn’t particularly amused with the result, particularly the removal of any explicit references to homosexuality. But the film remains a classic in its own right, and Taylor’s performance ranks amongst her finest, earning her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
Another Williams adaptation, and another portrait of a family ridden with internal strife. Even for Williams, the plot is harrowing: it involves, amongst other things, a character being torn apart and eaten. Although the film version is again somewhat sanitized (all references to homosexuality are removed), it still makes for discomforting viewing half a century later. Taylor’s performance garnered another nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress, but again, no prize.
Butterfield 8 (1960)
By the early 1960s, Taylor’s talent as an actor was beginning to be overshadowed by her private life, but it was finally recognized by the Academy in 1960 when she won the first of two Best Actress awards for Butterfield 8. Perversely, Taylor apparently hated this film because of the way it portrayed her and only made it because she was contractually obliged to do so. It wasn’t so bad, although not in the league of the two Williams adaptations in which she played such killer roles. Clearly, the Academy’s penchant for overlooking excellent performances and then handing out consolation awards years later isn’t just a modern phenomenon.
Perhaps Taylor’s most iconic role, and also the film on the set of which she met Richard Burton, to whom she was to be married. Twice. The two quickly began an affair, and Taylor later said she didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the filming, because “there were a lot of other things going on.” It cost a fortune – $44 million, which was a lot of money in 1963 (and, y’know, still is) – and apparently it’s the only film in history to be the highest-grossing film of its year and still make a loss.
If Cleopatra was the honeymoon for the Taylor/Burton relationship, then Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? displayed its darker side. An adaption of Edward Albee’s harrowing stage play, the film finds Taylor and Burton playing Martha and George, a dysfunctional couple who drink too much, argue constantly and viciously, and project their issues onto another hapless couple who they invite over for drinks. The tension between the couple was palpable, and while the content – particularly the use of profanity and sexual innuendo – was hugely controversial at the time, Taylor’s performance won her another Oscar, and deservedly so.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
Probably the last great role of Taylor’s career. As with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it’s a disconcerting role in a film that deals with a disastrous relationship, and the story also revisits the notion of repressed homosexuality, which is present (albeit largely glossed over) in both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer. Taylor stars opposite Marlon Brando, and the tension between the two stars makes for compelling viewing. For both, it marked the end of their periods as pin-ups. While Brando would go on to star in The Godfather and Apocalypse Now!, and he was certainly working a twisted kind of sex appeal in Last Tango in Paris, he’d never again be the ruggedly handsome screen icon. Taylor’s career, meanwhile, sadly started to go into decline as she entered her 40s.