Today would have been Dame Elizabeth Taylor‘s 80th birthday. Hollywood is still feeling the loss of the iconic actress, whose violet eyes and dramatic finesse made an unforgettable impression on movie audiences the world over. Though the tabloid terror of Liz’s colorful personal life sometimes overshadowed her later career, she was a dazzling screen legend who graced us with her charm, beauty, and undeniable talent. We’ve taken a look back at the starlet’s film history, ranking her roles from best to worst. It’s not an easy job, given her prolific filmography. Lists like these are always subjective, but we’ve spotlighted some of the good, the bad (or the so bad it’s good), and the ugly. Thanks to Liz’s cinematic accomplishments, there’s lots to choose from. Share your picks below, and tell us what movies we may have missed.
It’s too easy to call a beautiful actress brave for undergoing a dramatic physical transformation. While anything that brings us closer to a character and makes a performance more believable is commendable, Mike Nichols’ study of one toxic couple’s marital decline doesn’t win a top spot for Taylor simply due to her downgraded looks. Her alcohol-soaked metamorphosis into the frumpy and foul-mouthed Martha is amazing to behold. It’s the shifting psychological and emotional hurricane that convincingly swings from sadistic to pitiable, however, that truly won Taylor her Oscar. Her braying manner and crass sex appeal doesn’t overpower the nuanced shades that Taylor expertly imbued her complex character with.
Taylor’s emotional range was equally riveting in the 1958 adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The family drama finds Taylor as a frustrated and desperate wife coping with her alcoholic husband’s (Paul Newman) struggling identity and sexual repression. Taylor is smoldering as “Maggie the Cat,” and her undeniable chemistry with Newman draws us in, but it’s the star’s impassioned honesty that helps keep us shrouded in southern gothic deliciousness. (Or maybe it’s just the hypnotizing power of the lead stars’ stunning peepers … )
Based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy, Taylor’s appearance in A Place in the Sun proved the young actress really was more than just a pretty face. Still a teenager, but showing an incredible depth for a complex, “adult” role, her part as the glamorous socialite Montgomery Clift falls for showed a complex vulnerability, passion, and dramatic prowess that matched her more experienced co-stars.
Ranking high because of Taylor’s radiant display of early promise, National Velvet tops all the best-of Liz — and with good reason. Her performance at only twelve years old belies her age, exhibiting a charm and talent beyond her years in the family classic. It’s incredible to see how far Taylor came from playing the farm girl riding her horse in the Grand National race, but her performance still holds its own after so many great roles that would eventually transpire.
We can think of a few films to fill this mid-level spot, but Liz’s convincing psychodrama in yet another Tennessee Williams adaptation — co-starring Katharine Hepburn, who won the Academy Award that Taylor was also nominated for — is too strong to resist. The actress stars as a young girl traumatized by tragic family events. Her aunt (Hepburn) wants to have her lobotomized to cover up the truth behind the harrowing occurrence. We have to wonder how difficult the equally dark strife on set weighed on the screen star. Taylor’s scandalous affair with Eddie Fisher the year before sullied her public reputation, and arguments with cast and crew on set — particularly surrounding the delays that co-star/friend Montgomery Cliff’s dwindling health and addiction to booze and pills caused — made things difficult. Despite it all, Liz delivered another stellar, memorable performance.
With taglines like “The glamour girl who wakes up ashamed!” it’s easy to imagine why Taylor despised the 1960 melodrama BUtterfield 8 — especially post Eddie Fisher relationship mudslinging. She was contractually obligated to make the movie, but resented her portrayal as a Manhattan model-turned-call girl — and winning the Oscar for her part didn’t put a Band-Aid on things, either. Cinema-savvy audiences and Taylor herself agreed that she won the sympathy vote that Awards season since she nearly died from pneumonia and had to have an emergency tracheotomy. Still, the film could have been an bland affair, but Liz’s overwrought performance is clearly inspired by real-life disgust — and for that, it works.
The success of Butterfield 8 prepped Liz for stardom in the uber expensive Cleopatra. The 1963 film marks Taylor’s most iconic look as the Egyptian queen. (The actress had a whopping 65 costume changes, too.) Director Joseph Mankiewicz was clearly not worried about historical accuracy here — which was probably not an option anyway considering the lavish production cost $44 million to make. Taylor’s public affair with co-star Richard Burton started during filming and caused tabloid scandal part deux for the actress. You wouldn’t know the couple was having a torrid romance, however, as the scenery chewing hid most of the real-life passion. Even if it isn’t as convincing as it could have been, Liz’s eyeliner was a force to be reckoned with.
Definitely one of the strangest and most unexpected roles Taylor ever took on, The Driver’s Seat (AKA Identikit) found Liz as a mentally deranged spinster. Surreal, psychedelic, experimental, and haunting, the Italian production has since become a bit of a cult classic, but the adaptation of the Muriel Spark novella confused, and in some cases frightened, audiences during its release. (The cameo appearance of people like Andy Warhol didn’t help matters.) Liz’s bizarre trip usually falls into the camp genius or the gutsy, daring performance category. We hope you’ll watch it and decide for yourself.
Holding a paltry 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Taylor’s 1968 British drama — adapted from yet another Tennessee Williams’ play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore — she created with then-hubby Richard Burton is one of John Waters’ favorite films. We love the cult filmmaker, so we find it hard to give Boom! an absolute worst rating — which is why we want you to fill in the number ten spot for us. Liz’s overdrawn diva-lish misfire is indeed filled with moments of camp hilarity — aided by Burton’s portrayal meant for a much younger actor. Still, it was a strange detour for the actress, particularly given the genius of some of the other Tennessee Williams works she mastered in her earlier career.