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Film Legend Elizabeth Taylor Dies at 79

March 23, 2011 at 6:24 PM EST
Film and fashion icon Elizabeth Taylor died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at a Los Angeles hospital at the age of 79. Jeffrey Brown talks to Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan about the legendary film star's life and career.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, remembering Elizabeth Taylor.

Jeffrey Brown begins with this look back at the life of the glamorous actress and icon.

JEFFREY BROWN: On screen and off, Elizabeth Taylor was larger than life, a legendary Hollywood star for nearly seven decades.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: We will win for you, mother.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fame came first as a child actress. Taylor was 12 when she played Velvet Brown in the 1944 film “National Velvet.” From there, she moved from childhood sweetheart to teen and adult beauty, starring with many of Hollywood’s most prominent leading men in numerous famed roles and films. “A Place in the Sun” with Montgomery Clift came in 1951.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: It seems like we always spend the best part of our time just saying goodbye.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Giant” came five years later, opposite James Dean and Rock Hudson.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: I’m a tough Texan now.

Haven’t I served my term? Can’t I apply for a part?

JEFFREY BROWN: And, in 1958, the Tennessee Williams drama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Paul Newman.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: Is it any wonder? You know what I feel like? I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof.

PAUL NEWMAN: Then jump off the roof, Maggie. Jump off it. Cats jump off roof and they land uninjured. Do it. Jump.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: Jump where? Into what?

JEFFREY BROWN: In all, Taylor was nominated for five Academy Awards, and won two for best actress, the first in 1961 for her portrayal of a call girl in “Butterfield 8.”

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: I earn my living modeling clothes like this.

ACTOR: Oh, I wish I had a tape recorder.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: Command performances leave me quite cold. I have had more fun in the back seat of a ’39 Ford than I could ever have in the vault of the Chase National Bank.

JEFFREY BROWN: Prior to the Oscar ceremony, Taylor was hospitalized with a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia, and her acceptance speech itself made for a dramatic moment.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: I don’t really know how to express my gratitude.

JEFFREY BROWN: Her second Oscar came six years later for her role as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in which she starred opposite Richard Burton.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: I hope that bottle was empty, George. You can’t afford to waste good liquor.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was her affair and then two marriages to Burton that became an indelible part of the Taylor celebrity, beginning while filming the 1963 epic “Cleopatra.”

RICHARD BURTON: I am Marcus Antonius.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: You will therefore assume the position of a suppliant before this throne.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Hollywood press and American public couldn’t get enough of the couple’s romance and their breakups.

In 1997, she reflected on their relationship in an interview with ABC News.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: Everything was too much. We loved each other almost too much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over the years, Taylor would become as famous for her stormy personal life and multiple marriages as for her film work.

Her first, at age 18, was to hotel magnate Conrad Hilton. It lasted just eight months. Her second husband was British actor Michael Wilding. Husband number three, movie producer Michael Todd, was killed in a plane crash in 1958. Then came actor Eddie Fisher, who’d served as best man at her previous wedding. Later on, Taylor married John Warner, who became a U.S. senator from Virginia. They divorced in 1982. Her last marriage came in 1991 to Larry Fortensky, a truck driver and construction worker. It ended after six years.

Throughout her life, Taylor struggled with medical problems, undergoing at least 20 major operations. She also battled addictions to painkillers and alcohol.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: I consumed inordinate amounts of alcohol. And combined with pills, it was deadly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Her screen roles became increasingly rare in the 1980s, and her attention turned to philanthropy. Taylor became an early advocate of the fight against AIDS, after the death of her former colleague and close friend Rock Hudson.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: In all, Taylor helped raise more than $100 million and co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: When I joined this war nearly 30 years ago, everyone died — died of AIDS. Today, over 40 million people live healthy, powerful lives with HIV.

(APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, fans paid tribute to the actress, laying flowers on her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Elizabeth Taylor had been hospitalized last month and died early this morning in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure. She was 79 years old.

More now from Kenneth Turan, movie critic for The Los Angeles Times and NPR.

Ken, there are stars, and then there are what we come to call legends. What was it about Elizabeth Taylor that put her in that latter group?

KENNETH TURAN, The Los Angeles Times and NPR: Well, it’s a combination of three things. I mean, she was extraordinarily beautiful, she was gifted, and as you know, as you said, the — her personal life was so astonishing. It was so dramatic.

It was as dramatic as her films. And the kind of back-and-forth between that personal life and her on-screen roles was kind of irresistible for people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Talk a little bit about her as an actor. I came across this line in a few places today, probably because it’s so good.

It’s from the writer and critic James Agee. In 1944, he wrote of the very young Elizabeth Taylor, he wrote: “She strikes me, if I may resort to a conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful. I hardly know or care whether she can act or not.”

KENNETH TURAN: Well, you know, one of the real curses that glamorous actresses in Hollywood faced was that, because they were so beautiful, they came to believe that that was the only reason they were successful.

They came to — to value their acting. And I think Elizabeth Taylor had a very long career. She was memorable in a lot of films. And I think she was a better actress than not only people gave her credit for but that she herself gave herself credit for.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are some performances that stand out for you?

KENNETH TURAN: Well, to me, the one in “Place in the Sun” is the one that really stands out for me. She was very young in that film. I think she was only 17 when she filmed it, starring along with Montgomery Clift.

And there’s a kind of an honesty of emotion and a naturalness that really I think was captivating then; it’s captivating now. There are huge closeups of her face that a lot of actresses couldn’t stand that are just knockouts. And it’s an extraordinary performance. And I think we should — if you want to go back and look at one film, that’s the one I would go back and look at.

JEFFREY BROWN: And she came out of that studio system of that era, right?

KENNETH TURAN: She did. She did. She started when she was 10. She was a real product of the MGM factory system, where they kind of turned people out.

And there were big stresses involved with that. Judy Garland, another MGM child, you know, also had substance abuse problems. It was a real stress to be this kind of a celebrity. It wasn’t the kind of — it was glamorous, but it was glamour with a price. And she paid the price, but she persevered.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we live a 24-hour, celebrity-saturated culture now, but she was well ahead of her time.

KENNETH TURAN: Yes. No, it was — people were on her case all the time.

And, you know, I think for the time, it was pretty intense for people. We tend to think, well, it was easier back then, but it really wasn’t easier. People really camped out in front of people’s houses. There was a lot of pressure to kind of get on top of these stories. And she was — whenever she did anything, it was all over all the papers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we used the term larger than life, so it was no great leap for her to play Cleopatra, I guess.

KENNETH TURAN: No, it was probably natural for her.

But one thing I think that’s interesting about her is that she really relished being a star. She really enjoyed it. Sometimes, with stars today, they want to be ordinary people. They kind of disdain the trappings of stardom. She really enjoyed being a star. She felt that is who she was. She really embraced it. And I think that was much to her credit.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what of her later years? As we said, she had struggled with a lot of health issues, other problems. But she also became well known for the work in AIDS.

KENNETH TURAN: Yes, I think the connection to Rock Hudson really spurred her on. And she just threw herself into things.

She threw herself into her marriages, into her career. Whatever she felt she wanted to do, she felt she could do. And she threw herself into raising money for AIDS research. And she was extraordinarily successful. It’s much to her credit.

JEFFREY BROWN: You — you mentioned embracing the glamour. You — I read your column today where you — you mentioned not meeting her, but seeing her across a room at one point. Tell us that story briefly.

KENNETH TURAN: Yes, it’s when I worked at The Washington Post. This was post-Watergate. And a lot of celebrities would come through the newsroom.

And often, they tried to kind of blend into the background and not — they didn’t want to call attention to themselves. And Elizabeth Taylor came in, and she had extraordinary jewelry on. Her violet eyes were really made up to call attention to them. She was very glamorously dressed.

She knew she was a star. She didn’t want to pretend that she was an ordinary person. So, I think she felt she would have let everyone down if she had downplayed her stardom. And just seeing her across the room, I can literally still see that vision now. Seeing her across the room, I said, “Boy, this is a star.”

And there’s not a lot of those left today.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the life and legacy of Elizabeth Taylor.

Kenneth Turan, film critic of The L.A. Times and NPR, thanks very much.

KENNETH TURAN: Thank you.