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."