Elizabeth Taylor Dies at 79

Oscar-winning actress starred in “Cleopatra” and “Giant,” but commanded as much attention for her love affair with Richard Burton and AIDS work

Last Updated: March 26, 2011 @ 11:55 AM

Screen legend and two-time Oscar winner Elizabeth Taylor, who commanded nearly as much attention for her tumultuous love life and work against HIV/AIDS as for her classic films, has died. She was 79.

She died of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where she had been hospitalized for about six weeks, publicist Sally Morrison said in a statement.

See slideshow: Elizabeth Taylor, A Life in Pictures 

She was surrounded by her children, Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd, and Maria Burton.

Michael Wilding, 58, said in the statement: "My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love. Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world."

Taylor's seven decade career brought two Academy Awards and indelible performances in such beloved films as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Giant” and “National Velvet,” but her greatest role was playing herself, unappologetically.

"In a career spanning more than 70 years and 50 films, her talent endured the test of time and transcended generations of moviegoers. She truly was an American icon, whose legacy went far beyond her acting skills, most notably in her efforts to lead the battle against HIV/AIDS," Chris Dodd, chairman and CEO of the MPAA, said in a statement. 

Over the course of eight marriages, Taylor’s jet-set lifestyle, high-profile friendship with Michael Jackson and penchant for expensive jewelry and conspicuous consumption often threatened to dwarf her screen work.

Her relationship with actor Richard Burton, with whom she shared two marriages, became the stuff of legend and garnered the pair the nickname “the battling Burtons.” But the off-screen drama masked the fact that Taylor was an actress of unrivalled power.

Tellingly, her greatest screen role came in 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opposite Burton. As the booze-soaked professor’s wife hurling invective at her hen-pecked husband (Burton), Taylor helped shepherd in a new era of onscreen frankness. So raw was the depiction of domestic warfare that many critics and moviegoers speculated the pair drew heavily on their own stormy relationship.

Taylor’s death means the destruction of one of the last remaining bridges to Hollywood’s Golden Age. Born in a wealthy district of North West London to two Americans, Francis Taylor and Sara Warmbrodt, Taylor first broke into movies at the age of nine in “There’s One Born Every Minute.” She would go on to appear in small supporting roles in such films as “Lassie Come Home” (1943) and “The White Cliffs of Dover” (1944) opposite Roddy McDowall, who would remain a lifelong friend.

True stardom came at 12 with her performance in MGM’s “National Velvet” (1944). As a fresh-faced (and velvet eyed) young girl who trains her horse to win the Grand National, Taylor stole audiences' hearts and was signed to a long-term contract that netted the actress $30,000 a year.

Unlike many of her contemporaries in MGM’s stable of young actors, Taylor successfully transitioned to more adult roles, scoring a major box office hit as Spencer Tracy’s daughter in “Father of the Bride” (1950).

Praised for her looks, Taylor finally demonstrated her acting chops playing a good-hearted rich girl opposite Montgomery Clift in George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun.” Yet her status as an MGM contract player threatened her development as an actress, and Taylor found herself yolked into playing wallflowers in period films such as “Ivanhoe” (1952).

At the mid-point of the 1950s, Taylor finally hit her artistic stride. Reuniting with Stevens for 1955’s “Giant,” his sprawling look at Texas ranch life, Taylor announced herself as an actress of substance. She would go on to appear in “Raintree Country” (1957) and the film versions of two Tennessee Williams plays “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958) and “Suddenly Last Summer” (1959) that played beautifully off her porcelain voice and icy sexuality.

But on a personal level, the fifties were tough for Taylor. Her marriages to hotel heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton and Michael Wilding both ended in divorce, and a happier union with Michael Todd was cut short when the producer died in a plane crash in 1958.

Todd’s death eventually led to an affair with singer Eddie Fisher. It also prompted one of the decade’s greatest celebrity scandals when the heartthrob left his wife, actress Debbie Reynolds, to marry Taylor.

Despite the uproar, Taylor continued to command big salaries and even bigger box office. Her health crisis after the filming of “Butterfield 8” (1962), during which she suffered a case of “Asian Flu” so severe she was reportedly pronounced dead at one point, garnered her widespread industry sympathy, and may have helped her win her first Academy Award. The honor aside, the film was generally considered a stinker. Fellow nominee Shirley MacLaine quipped, “I lost to a tracheotomy!”

Next came the big-budget disaster that was 1963’s “Cleopatra.” As the legendary queen of the Nile, Taylor beguiled co-star Richard Burton. Soon both left their spouses, Fisher and Sybil Burton, and set tabloids aflame. The historical epic’s price tag, meanwhile, rose to $44 million, making it the most expensive film of all time and bringing 20th Century Fox to the brink of financial ruin. The film went on to make $22 million.

Burton and Taylor would appear in eight films together, many of them forgettable trifles such as “The V.I.P.s” (1963) or out-and-out duds such as “Boom!”(1968). They drew vast attention for their entourages, lavish spending and for drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

The pair did manage to make two enduring works together — the blistering “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which snagged Taylor a second Oscar, and a rowdy adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” — before finally divorcing in 1974. They would remarry briefly in 1975, but that union lasted for less than a year.

Taylor’s second act did not match the professional triumphs of the first. Though she enjoyed a high-profile marriage to Virginia Sen. John Warner, her personal accomplishments were marred by battles with weight and booze and her screen roles dried up. In the 1980s, she underwent treatment for alcoholism.

With her personal demons more or less at bay, Taylor turned to charitable works. Prompted by the death of her close friend Rock Hudson in 1985, Taylor became one of the first movie stars to devote herself to the cause of AIDS. Taylor helped form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), and later created her own AIDS foundation, the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation (ETAF), which helped raise millions of dollars to find a cure.  

Besides her children, she is survived by 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Her family asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. The family also invited those wishing to send personal messages to log onto https://www.facebook.com/ElizabethTaylorTribute.

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