Geoffrey Macnab: Icon who evoked a lost world of film glamour

Elizabeth Taylor was far more adventurous than her image as a Hollywood diva might suggest
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The Independent Online

Age did wither Elizabeth Taylor. In her latter years, the Hampstead-born former MGM child actress who had so memorably (and notoriously) played Cleopatra on screen cut a curious figure. A friend of Michael Jackson, and an Aids activist, she was still photographed regularly in magazines but younger readers could hardly have guessed that the blowzy, frizzy-haired woman in the flowing dresses was once the highest paid and most glamorous actress in the world.

In her pomp, Taylor transcended her own limitations. She was beautiful but so were many other Hollywood stars at the time. She didn't have the range of a Katharine Hepburn or quite the widescreen oomph of sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell. She wasn't a natural comedienne. But she was the quintessential film star. Her private life was very public and she conformed to what fans expected of their movie idols.

Her biography is a wonderfully lurid and colourful story of conspicuous consumption, failed marriages, affairs, illnesses, bickering and boozing. The actress who seemed so prim and demure in Lassie Come Home and National Velvet turned into the ultimate screen siren who excelled at playing jaded, sensual women.

"I must don my armour once more to play against Miss Tits," her two-time husband Richard Burton is claimed to have said at the beginning of his work with Taylor on Cleopatra. Soon as the entire world quickly found out, he was utterly in thrall to her.

Taylor's greatest performances came when she was playing brats – caustic, highly sexed women trapped in faltering marriages. She was excellent as Maggie, the unfulfilled wife of the alcoholic Paul Newman, in Richard Brooks' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958). With a simpering Southern accent, she caught brilliantly the masochism, yearning and desperation of a woman married to (and in love with) a man physically disgusted by her. "If I thought you would never make love to me again, why I'd find me the longest, sharpest knife I could and I'd stick it straight into my heart," Maggie says... and we believe her.

She was even better opposite Burton in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf ? (1966), for which she won her second Oscar (the first was for her performance as the femme fatale and part-time call girl in Butterfield 8).

Scan through Taylor's filmography and what is apparent is that she was far more adventurous than her image as a Hollywood diva might suggest. She did Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Dylan Thomas. She worked with James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. She wasn't scared to take roles in experimental Joseph Losey movies like Boom! (1968) and Secret Ceremony (1968). Taylor made her share of lousy movies but even the worst of them have a kitsch fascination because of her presence in them.

Taylor was at her peak as a movie star when the star system was supposedly in the doldrums. By the time she played Cleopatra, Hollywood's golden age was long over. Perhaps that was one reason she was so cherished – she was a throwback, an actress who even in the late 1950s and 1960s was able to evoke memories of a lost world of glamour.