Screen legend Elizabeth Taylor died Wednesday of complications from congestive heart failure. She was 79. Taylor was English by birth and became an American movie star after she was discovered by a talent scout at age 9. In her later years, Taylor put considerable energy and money into the fight to find a cure for AIDS.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
We are remembering Elizabeth Taylor this morning. She died today of complications from congestive heart failure at the age of 79. Elizabeth Taylor was English by birth and became an American icon after she was discovered by a talent scout at the age of nine. In her later years, Taylor put considerable energy and money into the fight to find a cure for AIDS. And for decades she's been among the most famous people in Hollywood.
NPR's Gloria Hillard has this appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor's life.
GLORIA HILLARD: She was considered one of film's most beautiful and legendary women. The world first caught a glimpse of her oval face, arched dark eyebrows and deep blue eyes when she was a child. She was a 10-year-old with shoulder- length hair and eyelashes so long, a makeup man thought they were false. But it was the role of a young English girl in love with a horse in the 1944 film "National Velvet" that won the hearts of moviegoers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NATIONAL VELVET")
M: (as Velvet Brown) He's a gentle one. I will just call him Pie. Oh, you're a pretty one, Pie. You didn't mean to run away.
M: (as Farmer Ede) You're a wizard, Velvet.
M: (as Velvet Brown) May I ride him, Mr. Ede?
M: (as Farmer Ede) Ride this horse?
M: (as Velvet Brown) Oh, please, let me ride him.
HILLARD: Taylor became part of MGM's stable of young stars that included Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien. Taylor talked about her bittersweet childhood on a studio backlot in MGM's 1974 film "That's Entertainment."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT")
M: I was 10 years old when I first came to MGM and I spent most of the next 18 years of my life behind the walls of that studio. As a young girl growing up in that strange place, it's hard to recall what was real and what wasn't.
HILLARD: Taylor spent her teen years making a number of films, such as "Father of the Bride" with Spencer Tracy, "Little Women." Director George Stevens cast the 19-year-old opposite Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun." Five years later, she co-starred with James Dean and Rock Hudson in "Giant."
In her career, Taylor received three Academy Award nominations and two Oscars. Her first was for her portrayal of a call girl in the 1960 film, "Butterfield 8."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BUTTERFIELD 8")
M: (as Gloria Wandrous) Taxi.
U: (as character) Yes, ma'am.
M: (as Gloria Wandrous) Double your tip for a cigarette.
HILLARD: Her performance six years later with Richard Burton in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" earned Taylor her second Oscar.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, " WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")
M: (as Martha) You make me puke.
M: (as George) That wasn't a very nice thing to say, Martha.
M: (as Martha) Wasn't what?
M: (as George) A very nice thing to say.
M: (as George) Oh, I like your anger. I think that's what I like about you most, your anger.
HILLARD: In the years that would follow, Elizabeth Taylor seemed to embody the phrase movie star. Her life, full of success, personal tragedies and multiple marriages, played out in the headlines and on the cover of magazines. Peter Rainer is the past president of the National Society of Film Critics.
M: Well, I think, you know, Elizabeth Taylor is probably thought of at this point as someone who may have been launched by the movies but somehow became bigger than the movies. But what she had was this kind of star presence that was part and parcel of her private life, and there was just no way to separate out the two.
HILLARD: The woman who loved diamonds went to the altar eight times, twice with Richard Burton, the Welsh actor whom she first met in 1963 on the set of "Cleopatra." They soon became the notorious couple the Hollywood press couldn't get enough of.
Y: We incorrectly identified Larry Kramer as "late." The playwright, author and activist lives in New York City and Connecticut.]
M: What's so remarkable about it is so few people use their gifts, their intelligence, their celebrity, for the sake of humanity like this. She's out there, this beautiful woman, and it just gives it a bit of class, a touch of class, as the movie says, and she never stopped.
HILLARD: For her work, Taylor received a humanitarian award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1992, followed by a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute.
(SOUNDBITE OF AWARDS BROADCAST)
U: Ms. Elizabeth Taylor.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
M: Thank you. You've made me realize how much I really do miss it. But my life is full and good. It has taken so many diverse twists and turns, and I have grown into what I do now wholeheartedly.
HILLARD: Plagued by health problems the remainder of her life, Taylor continued to extend a sense of humor and strength to others, never hesitating to share her own fears and vulnerabilities with the world. When asked why she appeared with her shaved head following an operation for a brain tumor, she told an interviewer that maybe others would see the picture and say, hey, if she can get through it, so can I.
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Taylor hadn't made a movie in years — and she had spent decades raising millions of dollars for causes including HIV and AIDS — but to most anyone born before 1975, she was always the woman who was Cleopatra, the legendary beauty with a famous weakness for jewelry.
The world first got a glimpse of that oval face, those dark arched eyebrows and those deep blue-violet eyes when she made her movie debut in There's One Born Every Minute — a 10-year-old with shoulder-length hair and lashes so long a makeup man thought they were false.
Lassie Come Home was next, with Roddy McDowall and that collie whose name was in the title. But it was the role of a young English girl with a passion for horses — in the 1944 film National Velvet — that won Taylor the hearts of moviegoers.
From there on out, Taylor was an integral part of MGM's stable of young stars, working alongside other child actors including Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien. It was glamorous, yes, but as she suggested in the 1974 film That's Entertainment, it made for a bittersweet childhood:
"I was 10 years old when I first came to MGM, and I spent the next 18 years of my life behind the walls of that studio," she said. "[I was] a young girl growing up in that strange place, where it's hard to recall what was real and what wasn't."
Taylor's teen years are recorded in films like Father of the Bride, with Spencer Tracy, and Little Women, opposite Peter Lawford — not to mention Cynthia, in which the 15-year-old Taylor, playing a sheltered teen, received her first screen kiss.
She grew into womanhood opposite some of Hollywood's biggest leading men. Director George Stevens cast the 17-year-old Taylor opposite Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, and five years after that film's release she appeared with James Dean and Rock Hudson in Giant, the sprawling, three-hour adaptation of Edna Ferber's Texas epic. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof paired the 25-year-old Taylor with Paul Newman — and earned her a second Academy Award nomination.
Her first had come the year before, for Raintree County, and her first Oscar win would come for 1960's Butterfield 8, in which Taylor starred as a loose-living New Yorker who thinks she has found love at last — with a lawyer who married for money. Her second statue would come six years later, for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee's lacerating portrait of domestic warfare among the academic set.
'Bigger Than The Movies'
In the years that would follow, Taylor seemed to embody the phrase "movie star." Her life, full of success, personal tragedies and multiple marriages, played out in the headlines and on the covers of magazines.
"Elizabeth Taylor was launched by the movies but became bigger than the movies," says Peter Rainer, past president of the National Society of Film Critics. "What she had was this kind of star presence that was part and parcel of her private life, and there was just no way to separate out the two."
Indeed, the public watched bemused as the woman who loved diamonds went to the altar eight times — with a Hilton hotels heir, with an actor and a producer and a singer and a construction worker, with a man who'd soon become a U.S. senator, and twice with Richard Burton, the Welsh actor with whom she co-starred in Virginia Woolf and with whom she first became romantically involved in 1963 on the set of Cleopatra, when both were still married to others. She had made a million dollars for signing on to play the Egyptian queen — the first star ever to earn a seven-digit paycheck — and before the legendarily troubled film shoot was over, she and Burton had became the couple the Hollywood media couldn't get enough of.
'She's Out There ... And She Never Stopped'
In the 1980s, though beset with her own illnesses and addictions to painkillers and alcohol, the Hollywood icon took up the battle against an emerging disease called AIDS. Taylor went on to raise more than $100 million as co-founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and to launch her own AIDS foundation focused on patient care. Author, playwright and activist Larry Kramer credits Taylor with exhibiting a kind of courage that few others showed during that time.
"What's so remarkable about it is, so few people use their gift, their intelligence, their celebrity for the sake of humanity like this," Kramer says. "She's out there, this beautiful woman, and she never stopped."
For her philanthropic efforts, Taylor received a humanitarian award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1992. A Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute soon followed.
"You made me realize how much I do miss it," the largely retired star told that AFI audience in 1993. "But my life is full and good; it has taken so many twists and turns, and I have grown into what I do now wholeheartedly."
Plagued by health problems for much of her life, Taylor continued to extend a sense of humor and strength to others, never hesitating to share her own fears and vulnerabilities with the world.
Asked why she appeared in public with her head shaved after a brain-tumor surgery, she told an interviewer that maybe others would see the picture — and say, "Hey, if she can get through it, so can I."
In October 2009, after a Twitter posting announced her trip to the hospital for a heart-valve procedure, she followed up with another tweet: "Any prayers you happen to have lying around I would dearly appreciate."
NPR's Trey Graham contributed to this story.
Correction March 24, 2011
In this obituary, NPR incorrectly identified playwright Larry Kramer as the late Larry Kramer. Kramer lives in New York City and Connecticut.