From ‘National Velvet’ to ‘Cleopatra': Elizabeth Taylor’s 5 Greatest Film Roles (videos)

Essential films starring one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses

Last Updated: March 23, 2011 @ 12:29 PM

In a career that spanned seven decades, Elizabeth Taylor etched many unforgettable roles.

From Cleopatra, the sensual queen of the Nile, to Maggie the Cat, clawing for her husband's attention, Taylor combined classic Hollywood glamor with an unflinching psychological honesty. 

Indeed, though she always had one foot planted in the golden age of movies, her performance as the boozy and profane Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" helped usher in a new era of screen frankness. 

In recognition of the actress' passing on Wednesday, TheWrap takes at five essential films that helped cement Taylor's legend. 

1. National Velvet (1944): As the head strong Velvet Brown, who dresses up like a boy and rides her horse to victory at the Grand National, Taylor burst onto film screens. Only 12 years old at the time, Taylor captured audiences' affections, giving a nuanced performance the belies her age. 

2. A Place in the Sun (1951): Playing the object of Montgomery Clift's obsession in George Stevens' classic drama, Taylor brought depth and passion to a part that could have been little more than high society eye candy. Watch as she quietly breaks our hearts saying goodbye to the condemned Clift in the film's final scene. 

3. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958): Taylor wasn't the first choice for the role of Maggie the Cat — Grace Kelly had that distinction — but it's hard to think of anyone else playing the sexually frustrated southern siren as ably. As Taylor sobbed so memorably, "Maggie the Cat is alive!"

4. Cleopatra (1963): The movie isn't very good, but the musty epic captures Taylor's star when it was at its zenith. Squaring off against Welsh actor Richard Burton, the pair's red-hot chemistry seeped into their off-screen life as well, launching a love affair that dominated the tabloids and became the stuff of myth.

5) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966): Cursing and boozing her way through Edward Albee's unsparring look at domestic warfare, Taylor gave perhaps her greatest screen role. Her Martha numbs her pain with liquor and invective, yet the beauty of Taylor's performance is that we never stop caring. 

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