LOS ANGELES – Elizabeth Taylor went from dazzling beauty in her glory years to self-described ruin in old age.
She spent almost her entire life in the public eye, from tiny dancer performing at age 3 before the future queen of England, to child screen star to scandalous home-wrecker to three-time Academy Award winner for both acting and humanitarian work.
A diva, she made a spectacle of her private life – eight marriages, ravenous appetites for drugs, booze and food, ill health that sparked headlines constantly proclaiming her at death’s door. All of it often overshadowed the fireworks she created on screen.
Yet for all her infamy and indulgences, Taylor died Wednesday a beloved idol, a woman who somehow held onto her status as one of old Hollywood’s last larger-than-life legends, adored even as she waned to a tabloid figure.
Taylor, 79, died of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she had been hospitalized for about six weeks.
“The shock of Elizabeth was not only her beauty,” said director Mike Nichols. “It was her generosity, her giant laugh, her vitality, whether tackling a complex scene on film or where we would all have dinner until dawn.”
“She is singular and indelible on film and in our hearts,” he said.
A star from her teen years in such films as “National Velvet,” “Little Women” and “Father of the Bride,” Taylor won best-actress Oscars as a high-end hooker in 1960s “BUtterfield 8” and an alcoholic shrew in a savage marriage in 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
In the latter, she starred with husband Richard Burton, their on-screen emotional tempest considered a glimpse of their stormy real lives (they divorced in 1974, remarried in 1975 and divorced again a year later).
Though Taylor continued acting in film, television and theater in the 1980s and 1990s, she called it quits on the big screen with 1994’s “The Flintstones,” playing caveman Fred’s nagging mother-in-law.
Taylor bid farewell to the small screen with 2001’s “These Old Broads,” a geriatric diva romp co-starring Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and one-time romantic rival Debbie Reynolds, whose husband, Eddie Fisher, left her for Taylor in the late 1950s.
She was remembered for her friendship, standing by Michael Jackson, Rock Hudson and other troubled friends.
“I don’t know what was more impressive, her magnitude as a star or her magnitude as a friend,” MacLaine said. “Her talent for friendship was unmatched. I will miss her for the rest of my life and beyond.”
AIDS activism had become Taylor’s real work long before she gave up acting. Her passion in raising money and AIDS awareness brought her an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in 1993.
“Acting is, to me now, artificial,” Taylor told the Associated Press at the 2005 dedication of a UCLA AIDS research center. “Seeing people suffer is real. It couldn’t be more real. Some people don’t like to look at it in the face because it’s painful.
“But if nobody does, then nothing gets done,” she said.
Taylor herself, however, suffered through the decades.
She fell from a horse while shooting 1944’s “National Velvet,” causing a back injury that plagued her for the rest of her life. Her third husband, producer Michael Todd, died in a plane crash after only a year of marriage.
Taylor had life-threatening bouts with pneumonia, a brain tumor and congestive heart failure in her 60s and 70s, and from drug and alcohol abuse, including a 35-year addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers, which prompted her to check in to the Betty Ford Center.
She had at least 20 major operations, including replacements of both hip joints and surgery to remove the benign brain tumor.
After a lifetime of ailments and self-abuse, Taylor said in a 2004 interview with W magazine that “my body’s a real mess. … Just completely convex and concave.”
Born in London on Feb. 27, 1932, to art dealer Francis Taylor and American stage actress Sara Sothern, Taylor seemed born for the spotlight. A seasoned ballerina at age 3, Taylor danced before Princess Elizabeth, the future queen.
Her family moved to Hollywood at the outset of World War II. She then made her screen debut with a tiny part in the 1942 comedy “There’s One Born Every Minute.” Her big break came a year later in “Lassie Come Home.”
Taylor showed her first real grown-up glimmers as an actress with 1951’s “A Place in the Sun,” adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy.”
After some old-fashioned costume pageants, Taylor set the screen ablaze opposite Rock Hudson and James Dean in the 1956 epic “Giant.”
She was primed to become one of the era’s most-acclaimed actresses.
Taylor got four straight Oscar nominations from 1957-1960, for “Raintree County,” the back-to-back Tennessee Williams adaptations “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Suddenly, Last Summer,” then her win for “BUtterfield 8,” a film she later disparaged.
Professional success was tempered by the headlines that came with Taylor’s personal life. Already married and divorced once, she was wed again at 19, to British actor Michael Wilding, a marriage that lasted four years and produced two sons.
She married producer Todd, with whom she had a daughter. Fisher was best man at Todd’s wedding to Taylor. A year after Todd’s death in the plane crash, Fisher left Reynolds to marry Taylor, who converted to Judaism before the wedding.
Then came Burton. They met while filming “Cleopatra,” a colossally expensive production that nearly ruined 20th Century Fox.
The movie was derided by critics as a bloated bore, but the ardor between Taylor’s Cleopatra and Burton’s Mark Antony came to life for real as the co-stars began one of Hollywood’s great and stormy love affairs.
The romance created such a sensation that the Vatican denounced their behavior as the “caprices of adult children.”
After Taylor divorced Fisher and Burton divorced his wife, they were married in 1964. Along with a daughter, the fiery relationship produced a surprisingly durable working partnership.
It was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, released in 1966 when their marriage still was fairly fresh, that stands as the dramatic peak for Taylor and Burton and an eerie window into an explosive romance.
Based on Edward Albee’s play, the film stars Burton and Taylor as George and Martha, who nearly destroy each other over the course of a drunken evening of vicious role-playing and mind games with another couple.
Taylor’s survivors include daughters Maria Burton-Carson and Liza Todd-Tivey, sons Christopher and Michael Wilding, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A private family funeral is planned later this week.