Remembering Screen Legend Elizabeth Taylor

Correction March 23, 2011

This story incorrectly states that Richard Burton was not nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He was nominated for Best Actor. Also, MGM did not cast Taylor in A Place in the Sun. MGM lent Taylor to Paramount for the film.

Legendary screen actress Elizabeth Taylor has died at age 79 of congestive heart failure. Taylor's film career spanned seven decades and more than 50 leading roles — from National Velvet to Cleopatra. And her enduring glamour, multiple marriages, and public struggles with alcohol and health problems became a model for contemporary celebrity.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And now we mark the passing of an icon: Elizabeth Taylor. The legendary screen actress died today in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure. She was 79.

Taylor's film career spanned seven decades and more than 50 leading roles, from "National Velvet" to "Cleopatra."

(Soundbite of film, "Cleopatra")

Ms. ELIZABETH TAYLOR (Actress): (As Cleopatra) How wrong I was. Antony, the love you followed is here.

Mr. RICHARD BURTON (Actor): (As Mark Antony) To be had upon payment of an empire.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) Without you, Antony, this is not a world I want to live in, much less conquer because for me, there would be no love anywhere.

BLOCK: Elizabeth Taylor's enduring glamour, along with her many marriages and her public struggles with alcohol and health problems, became a new kind of model for contemporary celebrity.

Bob Mondello offers this appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO: She was an actress at the age of nine, a star by the time she turned 12, a divorcee at 18, a superstar sexpot at 24, a widow at 26, and she still had both her Oscars and a whole career in front of her.

It sometimes seemed there were at least half-a-dozen Elizabeth Taylors, all of them possessing those gorgeous violet eyes, that breathy voice, and the connection with the camera that drew audiences to her from the moment she played an adolescent Velvet Brown and dreamed of sweepstakes victory with costar Mickey Rooney in "National Velvet."

(Soundbite of film, "National Velvet")

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Velvet Brown) I want it all quickly because I don't want God to stop and think and wonder if I'm getting more than my share.

Mr. MICKEY ROONEY (Actor): (As Mi Taylor) Look, the jockey will have to wait. I'll do what I can for you. I'll write a few letters for you to London, but that's all. You bit off a big piece of dream for yourself, Velvet. From now on, it's your show.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Velvet) But Mi, I couldn't do it without you.

Mr. ROONEY: (As Mi) The National is no business of mine. Your pa won't stand for me chasing around with a horse.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Velvet) But it's you know what to do and how to train him and what the jumps are going to be like. Half the pie's in my hut and the other half's in yours.

MONDELLO: National Velvet made Taylor a star and earned her a long-term contract, which meant MGM had to figure out how she would grow up. For a few years, she was the studio's biggest child star, no small feat considering the competition included Judy Garland. But when she turned 19, she turned a corner.

(Soundbite of film, "A Place in the Sun")

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Angela Vickers) Aren't you happy with me?

MONDELLO: MGM cast her as rich, sultry Angela Vickers in "A Place in the Sun" and let her establish that she had the wiles to wrap Montgomery Clift around her little finger. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: MGM loaned Taylor out to Paramount for "A Place In the Sun."]

(Soundbite of film, "A Place in the Sun")

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Angela) You seem so strange, so deep and far away, as though you were holding something back.

Mr. MONTGOMERY CLIFT (Actor): (As George Eastman) I am.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Angela) Don't.

MONDELLO: No more the little girl, Taylor would spend the next two decades on screen as a succession of sensual creatures, sometimes vulnerable, often manipulative.

Later, in her private life, she would wrestle with all sorts of things: love affairs, alcohol. And looking back, it almost seems as if she was rehearsing in her screen roles by battling psychological adversity. Mental trauma in the overblown epic "Raintree County"; sexual frustration as Tennessee Williams' desperate Maggie struggling to lure a distant, morose Paul Newman into bed.

(Soundbite of film, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof")

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Maggie Pollitt) You know what I feel like? I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof.

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN (Actor): (As Brick Pollitt) Then jump off the roof, Maggie, jump off it. Cats jump off roofs, and they land uninjured. Do it. Jump.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Maggie) Jump where? Into what?

Mr. NEWMAN: (As Brick) Take a lover.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Maggie) I don't deserve that.

MONDELLO: When you're as gorgeous as Elizabeth Taylor, you often have to fight to be taken seriously as an actress. But in the late '50s and early '60s, she received four consecutive Oscar nominations while dealing not just with superheated fame but with the death of third husband Mike Todd, the scandal of stealing fourth husband Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds and a near-fatal battle with pneumonia.

On the fourth nomination, she took home the Best Actress trophy for playing a slatternly man-trap in "Butterfield Eight." Her voice at the ceremony was even breathier than usual because the Oscars were held so soon after she got out of the hospital that she accepted with a bandage still covering her tracheotomy scar.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. TAYLOR: I don't really know how to express my gratitude for this and for everything. I guess all I can do is say thank you. Thank you with all my heart.

MONDELLO: For her next picture, she was back in full voice and being paid the highest salary ever earned by an actress to that point. The part: history's most imperious femme fatale, Cleopatra, in a production so grand she risked being swallowed up by the scenery.

She also had to hold her own opposite the greatest stage actor of his generation: Richard Burton.

(Soundbite of film, "Cleopatra")

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) You will kneel.

Mr. RICHARD BURTON (Actor): (As Mark Antony) I will what?

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) On your knees.

Mr. BURTON: (As Antony) You dare ask the proconsul of the Roman Empire?

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) I asked it of Julius Caesar. I demand it of you.

MONDELLO: Things were friendlier between these two elsewhere in the movie and also off-screen, though both were married at the time. Burton soon became Taylor's fifth husband, also her sixth after a divorce and reconciliation that involved quite a lot of jewelry.

But during their first marriage, the tempestuous lovebirds did two pictures based on stage plays that proved Taylor had more range than she'd ever been credited with.

(Soundbite of film, "The Taming of the Shrew")

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Katharina) The door is open, sir. There lies the way. You may be jogging 'til your boots are green. For me, I'll not be gone until I please myself.

MONDELLO: Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and the landmark Edward Albee masterpiece, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," in which Taylor allowed herself to look haggard and hung-over, as she boozily mocked her academic husband until he could stand it no longer.

(Soundbite of film, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf")

Mr. BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Martha) Like hell I will. You see, George didn't have much push. He wasn't particularly aggressive. In fact, he was sort of a flop, a great, big, fat flop.

(Soundbite of bottle smashing)

Mr. BURTON: (As George) (Unintelligible). Stop it, Martha.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Martha) I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can't afford to waste good liquor, not on your salary, not on an associate professor's salary.

MONDELLO: Taylor won another Oscar for her performance, but was so furious at Burton's not being nominated that she refused to pick up the award or thank the academy for it. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This sentence is incorrect; Richard Burton was nominated for Best Actor.]

As often happened with Taylor, she was forgiven over time - hell, she even made up with Debbie Reynolds eventually - and was gracious when she accepted an honorary Oscar in 1992 for her extensive work in the fight against AIDS.

Her screen presence was much diminished by that time, both by congestive heart failure, which kept her in a wheelchair for most of the last decade, and by the fickleness of Hollywood. Taylor was such a huge star for so long she never got to play the smaller roles that might have allowed her to extend her career as a character actress.

So, late in life, she was known more for those diamonds of hers, her charitable work, and her friendship with Michael Jackson, another superstar who grew up in the public eye, and with whom Taylor understandably felt a special kinship, having started big and gotten far bigger.

(Soundbite of film, "National Velvet")

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Velvet) Were we the best in the world, mother?

Ms. ANNE REVERE (Actor): (As Mrs. Brown) Yes, dear, the best in the world.

MONDELLO: For a long time, she kind of was. I'm Bob Mondello.

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