The life and times of Elizabeth Taylor, who will be remembered for her imperious beauty and many marriages
I had my first and final glimpse of the late Elizabeth Taylor suddenly last summer at the concert given by Julie Andrews at London's O2 centre. I was standing with a knot of other journalists by a lift, 10 minutes before the show was due to start, when the doors opened and she emerged in a wheelchair, accompanied by a nurse and a PA. For a moment, she was at rest in the middle of us, uncertain of where she was supposed to go. Taylor had been a wheelchair user for many years, the result of accumulating infirmities and spinal disorders which had their origin in her fall from a horse during the filming of National Velvet in 1944 when she was 12 years old.
After a microsecond, we leaned away in a kind of physical shock at the recognition, the way the trunks of tall trees are supposed to splay out from the crash site of a meteor. This was Elizabeth Taylor, for decades the most famous, adored and desired woman in the world, her name a byword, a catchphrase, for the ultimate fusion of beauty, wealth and power. Back in her heyday, Liz Taylor was the epitome of a classic Hollywood star. We looked back into the lift. Who else would come out? Jimmy Stewart, walking with a cane? Would Spencer Tracy be jabbing grumpily at the lift buttons?
Elizabeth Taylor had been everything: the child star who became a grown-up star, an actress of such sexiness it was an incitement to riot ? sultry and queenly at the same time. She was a shrewd, intelligent, intuitive acting presence in her later years and a much-married icon whose private life triggered the beginnings of today's celebrity industry.
Married as she had once (briefly) been to Paris Hilton's great-grandfather, Conrad Hilton, she had an arbitrary connection with the modern world's most questionable celeb, and, as the indulgent intimate of that other former child star Michael Jackson, she was someone who had a privileged position in the new celebrity wars, though she was someone whose own famous period played out in an era before Gawker, before TMZ, before brutally unforgiving high-definition television.
Taylor had something fabulous and exotic and imperious ? the role of Cleopatra in 1963, which marked the high-water mark of her fame, was the part she was born to play: powerful and desirable. There are plenty of beautiful and powerful female stars around now, but in 2011 none is coveted and fetishised in quite the same way. Partly due to her startling, commanding beauty and her global fame, and partly due to her British background ? she was born to American parents in Hampstead, north-west London, and was twice married to Richard Burton ? she achieved American royalty status. Nowadays, female stars might seek to consolidate their status and power by forming their own production companies: Liz Taylor exerted power by marrying a succession of wealthy and besotted men ? almost like a reverse Henry VIII ? and along the way accumulated a staggering private collection of jewellery. Nobody loved diamonds like Liz Taylor and, it seemed, no one possessed as many. It was something else that added to her royal status, and she was encouraged to think of herself as the ultimate jewel.
Taylor burst on to the scene during the second world war as a child star in Lassie Come Home and, most particularly, National Velvet, in which she rides a horse to victory in the Grand National, surely the only time that sporting event has been coated in Hollywood stardust. Her ingenuous charm stole hearts, and her career path was almost miraculously smooth in its transition from child to adolescent, and then to young woman. She played Amy in Little Women, which effected the transition to adult roles very nicely, and the next big smash was in the 1950 romantic comedy Father of the Bride, playing the lovely yet smart comic foil to her adored grumpy-soppy dad, played by Spencer Tracy. The marriage trope reintroduced her to the cinemagoing public as an adult: the face had filled out a little, still perfectly oval yet demure.
Some swooning fans might think that her most purely ravishing presence (somehow only quaint words like "ravishing" will do) was in a minor decorative role in the movie Beau Brummell, starring Stewart Granger. She was considered so beautiful as to be hyperreal. But her lethal sexiness began to uncoil with her Oscar-nominated performances in the late 1950s: in Raintree County and Suddenly, Last Summer with Montgomery Clift, and in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opposite the equally young and beautiful Paul Newman. It was this film that marked her out as the sexy but unsatisfied wife whose needs could not be satisfied by the current husband.
BUtterfield 8, in 1960, was her first Oscar, and the film that cemented her iconic status: she is the single girl with wealthy gentleman friends, the sort who might, ambiguously, leave money on her bedside table after one-night stands ? intended as "presents".
This movie contains what is perhaps her finest hour as an actor: the scene in which she explains her attraction to older men as father figures and that she was molested as a 13-year-old girl by a friend of the family. As her listener stirs uneasily, she murmurs that he still has not heard the full evil of this experience ? she turns, passionately, and almost shrieks: "I loved it!" Taylor's face has something of Jean Simmons at the very beginning of the scene, as well as Taylor's own feline self-possession, but is transformed and transfigured at the very end, eyes blazing with rage and self-hate. It is still a shocking sequence, and we can see Taylor's face at the very cusp of change from the uncomplicated loveliness of young womanhood into the older Taylor's face, full of hauteur and worldliness and hard-won knowledge of the ways of the world ? a fallen world, and a man's world.
But it was her role as Cleopatra that ignited a new global gossip industry with almost atom-splitting power. It was the most expensive movie of its day, with colossal sets that, in a pre-CGI age, all had to be built. In this simulated empire, Taylor was queen. She fell, hard, for her rugged co-star Richard Burton, playing Mark Antony, despite the fact both were married to other people. It was a sensation, a love affair of such planet-shattering importance, that they were almost comparable to the real Antony and Cleopatra. Liz and Richard starred in six movies together, including the daring and emotional Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (her second Oscar) ? and were married from 1964 to 1974, and then, again, from 1975 to 1976. The very fact that they couldn't keep away from each other, couldn't keep their hands off each other, made them the most gloriously romantic couple in the world.
After Cleopatra, her star began to fall, but she developed charity work, a stage career, and an unflagging interest in marrying more men. Despite the association with Michael Jackson ? one of her later weddings took place on the Neverland ranch ? she was known to have kept her sanity and good humour, as much as any human being can who is bombarded with such attention for six decades. One of her very last performances was saying the first word of Maggie, the baby in the cartoon Simpson family ? she says "Daddy!" An inspired casting choice.
Taylor was an old-fashioned screen actress whose career straddled the decline of old Hollywood and the surge of the rapacious new celebrity industry. But she was nothing so banal as a "celebrity" and I think she might have scorned the inflationary, debased terms "superstar" and "megastar": she was a star who had assumed that role like a mysterious royal inheritance: a burden, but a privilege to be worn lightly.