Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011: Hollywood's Star of Stars

Child actress, teen temptress, cinematic empress, Taylor helped define contemporary fame first by her beauty, then with her love life and finally with a multifaceted celebrity

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Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

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Signed initially for $100 a week, she spent the rest of her youth and early womanhood at MGM, comforting all manner of critters — Mickey Rooney, Lassie and the horse in National Velvet — with her precocious urgency. How serious, how intense she was! It was as if the girl's beauty, which everyone but the myopic Muhl instantly noticed, gave her a fever that poured out of her pores — so much passion spilling from that tiny body. In National Velvet, she dreams of "a champion horse with invisible wings," her eyes burning with anxiety, hope, indomitable will. She forms as strong a bond in Courage of Lassie: when she's reunited with the collie, the tears come in rivers that practically form ditches in her flushed cheeks.

It was unsettling, unnatural, how Taylor evolved from faun child to thoroughbred woman without enduring an awkward or unlovely transition. Like so many child actresses before and after her, she suddenly sported an ample bosom, accentuated by her wee waist. By 16, she had filled out the prom dresses she'd wear in her teen movies and learned to relax onscreen, at ease in her spectacular radiance. Indeed, the characters she played treated men with a studied carelessness Taylor had never shown to dog or horse.

Sporting heiress airs, a cruel gash of lipstick and a series of killer frocks in the 1948 A Date with Judy, Taylor plays snooty Carol, the marplot to Jane Powell's swell-town girl. Yet it's hard to take your eyes off, let alone hate, this swan-necked vision of ebony hair and ivory skin. Young Robert Stack tells Carol, "You're the prettiest girl in Santa Barbara — that's obvious. And you know it — that's also obvious." The script gives Taylor an excuse for her character's deficiencies: a motherless child, she's avid for her father's love. She loses Stack, gains a dad and, by the end, ditches the glowering for glowing.

MGM provided Taylor with a homey environment, on-the-lot schooling and dozens of actor pals — the Hollywood simulation of an ordinary teenage life. The studio also paid for her first wedding, to hotel heir Nicky Hilton, and decorated the church to resemble the one in her forthcoming film Father of the Bride. Taylor's side of the aisle was stacked with MGM contract stars; it's a wonder the reception wasn't held at the studio commissary. Actually, the movie had a longer shelf life than the Taylor-Hilton marriage; it was over in less than nine months, the shortest span of any of her eight marriages.

Father of the Bride, with Spencer Tracy as the dad, still plays well today (and is much better than the 1991 remake with Steve Martin) as a wry comedy about a father's sense of loss and fulfillment when his beautiful girl leaves him for another man. MGM, continuing to escort Taylor through virtual rites of passage, then made a sequel, Father's Little Dividend, about the bride's first pregnancy. In the scene in which Taylor lectures Tracy on the glory of natural childbirth, director Vincente Minnelli plants his camera in front of Taylor and never cuts away as she runs through the gamut of emotions, from A to A+. And Tracy, like Rooney before him, seems to be overacting just by daring to occupy the same frame.

She was just 17 when A Place in the Sun began shooting and 19 when it hit theaters; this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy would set the tone and the standard for her roles throughout the '50s. As Angela Vickers, the beautiful rich girl dancing with poor-boy-on-the-make George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), she oozes unforced sensuality. Strangled by a lust to join the upper class she so spectacularly embodies, he accompanies her to the terrace, where she stands so near to him that their endearments amount to French whispering. As director George Stevens' camera catches the golden couple in gigantic closeups, she purrs, "You'll be my pickup. Tell mama all." Clift and the audience instantly turn to warm Jell-O. No wonder his character promptly decides to wed Angela and drown his drab, pregnant girl friend. Here was a mother and a whore in one sensational package.

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