Elizabeth Taylor: Every Inch a Star, and Sometimes a Great Actress

She was far more complex than the shorthand by which we knew her, and Elizabeth Taylor’s award-winning roles provided the evidence

Violet eyes. Eight marriages. Big diamonds. Michael Jackson's pal. An AIDS crusader.

An easy shorthand ID of Elizabeth Taylor developed and then hardened over the years, but it's selling her short to think that handful of tags can sum up the woman who passed away on Wednesday morning at the age of 79.

She was much more than that: more complex, more intriguing, more confounding, more endearing, more interesting.

She was every inch a star, in ways both of her time and ahead of it. She wasn’t always a great actress, and she didn't need to be; the beauty and charisma and magnetism got her through lots of films, and often as not producers and directors seemed to come looking for the persona as much as the actress.

Butterfield 8Her history at the Academy Awards is instructive: in her five nominations, two Oscars and one honorary award, a stormy career arc is clearly defined.  

Her first Oscar came for "Butterfield 8," and was the result of what might well have been the most notorious sympathy vote in the history of the Oscars. She hadn't wanted to appear as a hooker in the steamy potboiler ("she's a sick nymphomaniac," Taylor said of her character), but was forced to do so under the terms of her MGM contract.

Even after the movie turned out to be a hit, Taylor insisted that she hated it. But the Academy liked her — they'd previously nominated her for "Raintree County," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Suddenly, Last Summer," all more-or-less worthy performances — and voted her a Best Actress nomination for the movie she said "stinks."

But Academy voters didn’t pay attention to her feelings about the film. Instead, they were watching as a severe case of pneumonia sent the actress to a London hospital, where a doctor pronounced her condition "grave" and performed an emergency tracheotomy. 

The Oscars in 1961 were the first time she appeared in public since her hospitalization, and the Academy couldn't resist the opportunity to write its own happy ending. She won her first Oscar and an emotional ovation for the movie she hated – while Shirley MacLaine, whose performance in "The Apartment" might otherwise have made her the favorite, was left to wonder what might have been.

"I lost to a tracheotomy," MacLaine was heard to say afterwards. Soon, she received a telegram from her film's director, Billy Wilder. "YOU MAY NOT HAVE A HOLE IN YOUR WINDPIPE," it read, "BUT WE LOVE YOU ANYWAY."

The next time Taylor would win an Oscar, things would be different: for one thing, the actress would stay in London and not attend the ceremony.

It came six years after "Butterfield 8," and after Taylor had left her co-star in that film, Eddie Fisher, for her leading man in the subsequent and disastrous "Cleopatra." She and Richard Burton embarked on a tumultuous relationship that would include two marriages, two divorces, an adopted daughter, and eight movies (plus an uncredited cameo in another).

Of those films, most were nothing to write home about. "Cleopatra" was a mess, "The V.I.P.s" and "The Sandpiper" were lightweight, "The Taming of the Shrew" was passable, and their final string of pictures — "Doctor Faustus" and "The Comedians" in 1967 and the overheated Tennessee Williams melodrama "Boom" the following year — went from bad to much, much worse.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth TaylorBut in the middle of that string was something else entirely. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" won Taylor an Oscar not because of sympathy, or illness, or titillation, or anything apart from what she put on the screen. Suffused with rage and self-loathing, her performance (and Burton's alongside her) was far and away her best; it took the sometimes brassy, always seductive charm she'd often relied on and turned it monstrous, summoning up demons that would have seemed unthinkable in the young girl who made "National Velvet" 22 years earlier.  

Taylor was the prohibitive favorite going into that Oscar show, but she opted to remain in France with Burton — who was also nominated, but who was expected to lose to Paul Scofield for "A Man for All Seasons." (He did.) Anne Bancroft accepted on Taylor's behalf.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" would be Taylor's last Oscar, and last Oscar nomination, not counting a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993. In its aftermath, it was as if she had proved the point that she could indeed be a great actress — but without the urge to prove it again, or the drive to create or find the rare works that would enable her to do that, she went back to being a movie star…and, later in life a humanitarian.

When she would grace the Oscar stage over the next few decades, it would be as an icon, as the woman whose life and career could be summed up in a few words and phrases.

But it wasn't that simple. It never is.