Eight marriages, two Oscars and one remarkable life

The papers may have been full of the Budget yesterday. But they were also full of a 79-year-old called Elizabeth Taylor. Why?

It’s easy to forget that Elizabeth Taylor was once an actress. After eight marriages – two to the same man – her private life was often more talked of than her performances.

But it hadn’t always been like that. The peak of her film career came in the 1950s and 1960s and she won her first Oscar in 1960, for Butterfield 8.

It was not her best work, and even she conceded it was largely a sympathy vote since in the previous year she had nearly died of pneumonia — and lost a husband in a plane crash.

But her second Oscar in 1967 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was more deserved and one of 12 films she made with Richard Burton – the man she was to marry, divorce, marry and divorce.

She caused outrage on the set of the film Cleopatra, with her tantrums and financial demands. But she went on to make 50 movies in all in a film career spanning half a century.

Critics were not always kind about her acting. One critic praised a mediocre performance, ‘which is a definite step up in her dramatic career.’ While another reviewer said this of her first West End role: ‘She teeters on the brink of competence.’

And this fabulously beautiful woman was dogged by ill-health throughout her life. She was famous for gaining weight, for losing it, for alcoholism, drug dependency, detoxification, ulcers, amoebic dysentery, bursitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, brain tumours, back problems and two hip replacements.

She survived 30 operations until dying of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles surrounded by her four children.

After the death of her friend and co-star Rock Hudson, she set up an Aids charity in 1991, and became a mouthpiece for the cause. As singer George Michael said: ‘She did a great deal to help the world deal with the HIV epidemic. I am proud to have known her if only a little.’

But is a large life always a good one? Sometimes ‘colourful lives’ tread on a lot of people along the way. What do you think?

A better place

Devoted to furs, jewellery and men, Elizabeth Taylor was born in London, but moved to America during the war. It was there that she grew from child star into screen icon and the most photographed Hollywood diva of all.

Her son Michael Wilding called her ‘an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest,’ adding that ‘the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it.’ Or as columnist Julie Burchill said, ‘She lived it large.’

You Decide

  1. Is the world a better place for Elizabeth Taylor's life?
  2. 'Elizabeth Taylor: never a great actress – but a great movie star.' What's the difference?

Activities

  1. In 1959, moved by the victims of the holocaust, Elizabeth Taylor converted to Judaism. 'Does religion make a difference to people's lives?' Debate.
  2. Elizabeth Taylor gave a lot of time to her Aids foundation. Research the relationship between celebrities and charity causes. And then write a short piece: 'Are celebrities good for charity?'

Some People Say...

“Larger than life? Or just insecure attention-seeking?”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do people mean when calling her ‘The last of the True Hollywood Icons’?
Things are different for film stars now. These days, ‘Hollywood’ is more symbol than reality – the big stars decide what films they’ll do.
And in Taylor’s day?
In the 1950s actors had no independence. They were ‘owned’ by the Hollywood studios and did the films they were told to do. It was the studio who made you – or broke you.
And she married Richard Burton twice?
Yes, they had an affair while filming Cleopatra and married after that. He was the most durable of her husbands. They were together for twelve years in all – and twelve films
She seems to have needed a partner.
‘What do you expect me to do – sleep alone?’ she said to a reporter, when she took up with her dead husband’s best friend. She was 60 when she married for the eighth time.

Subjects

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