A Tribute to the Legend: Elizabeth Taylor

Friday, March 25, 2011

“The face that could launch a thousand ships.”
During her 79 years, Elizabeth Taylor — classic beauty, serial monogamist, Oscar winner, AIDS activist — captivated the world with her big-screen roles and her real-life dramas.
Born in Britain, Taylor and her American parents moved to Los Angeles at the age of seven, and became a bona fide star by age 12, with her starring role in the classic 1944 film “National Velvet,” one of a whopping 50 movies she’d appear in over the next four decades.
Though the actress was praised for her beauty and acting prowess, and landed two Academy Awards over the course of her career, as well as an honorary Oscar in 1993, in later years she was better known for her tumultuous personal life thanks to her string of fiery romances and mostly failed marriages. Her first one to Conrad Hilton at age 18 seemed to set the stage for the rest. It ended after just one year, in 1951, well before divorce was casually accepted. Just one year later, Taylor wed English actor Mike Wilding, with whom she would have two sons.

Taylor would have eight marriages over her lifetime, but none as controversial as her fourth to singer Eddie Fisher in 1959. Her third husband, producer Mike Todd — who was 25 years her senior — had died in a plane crash just a year prior. Not only had Fisher and Todd been close friends, but Fisher was married to fellow actress — and Elizabeth’s own pal — Debbie Reynolds, and the couple had two young children together (one of which was “Star Wars” actress Carrie Fisher) at the time he started up his affair with Taylor.
Said Taylor of the romance: “[Eddie] and Mike had been good friends and it seemed natural we should try to comfort each other for our loss … In hindsight, I know I wasn’t thinking straight. At the time I thought he needed me and I needed him. The press made much of Eddie’s leaving his wife, Debbie Reynolds, but Eddie and Debbie’s marriage was in trouble long before I hit the scene.”

Taylor and Fisher’s marriage set off a media firestorm … and so did their divorce. Four years later, she met the man she’d eventually call her “second great love” (with Todd being the first), legendary actor Richard Burton. The two met on the set of “Cleopatra” in 1963 and, by the next year, both had divorced their respective spouses to marry each other. Once again, the public was infatuated, especially after the two divorced a decade later, married each other again in 1975, and then divorced yet again after just a year. Over the course of their marriages, Burton and Taylor shared the screen 11 times, including the 1966 film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” for which Taylor won her second Oscar. In a recent interview with Us Weekly, Taylor revealed that “Woolf” is the film she was most proud of.
It is strange that the years teach us patience; that the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.

- Elizabeth Taylor
As she stepped back from acting in the 1980s, Taylor jumped into other endeavors. It was the AIDS-related death of good friend and one-time co-star, actor Rock Hudson, that prompted Taylor to get involved in something that would become hugely important to her for the rest of her life, HIV/AIDS charity work. Long before it became the politically correct thing to do, Taylor became involved with the AIDS Project Los Angeles in 1984. She later joined the board of directors of the National AIDS Research Foundation in Los Angeles, and the two charities eventually merged to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), a group that has invested more than $300 million in AIDS research globally since 1985. “I will not be silenced and I will not give up and I will not be ignored,” Taylor said of her AIDS advocacy. 

Dame Elizabeth Taylor leaves Buckingham Palace after receiving the honour of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II, May 16, 2000.Anwar Hussein/Getty ImagesThe screen legend speaks out for her favorite cause at amfAR’s Cinema Against AIDS benefit during the 56th International Cannes Film Festival in France on May 22, 2003.Scott Gries/Getty Images
Taylor also founded her own AIDS Foundation to help other organizations provide direct care to those suffering from the disease, and remained one of amfAR’s most public faces, even speaking on World AIDS Day at the United Nations. It was, however, a simple handshake that may have made the biggest difference of all.
In 1989, Taylor was photographed shaking hands with an HIV/AIDS patient in a Bangkok hospital. The photograph made headlines throughout Southeast Asia. According to amfAR, “At least in that region, [that photo] probably did more than any other single event to quell fears about touching people with AIDS.”

Dame Elizabeth Taylor with director David Lynch, Sharon Stone, and Sir Elton John at amfAR’s Cinema Against AIDS Gala in Cannes, 2002.J. Vespa/WireImage
Though Taylor ultimately died of congestive heart failure, she experienced brushes with death multiple times throughout her life — she nearly lost an eye and a leg, and had two serious bouts of pneumonia which required a tracheotomy and a ventilator. She was plagued with health problems her entire life and suffered from back pain dating back to when she fell of a horse during the production of “National Velvet.” Her 20 surgeries over the years included two hip replacements and a hysterectomy.

Elizabeth Taylor, an icon who transcended the arts and one of the last glorious
vestiges of the Golden Age of Hollywood

The star also battled alcoholism, which landed her at the Betty Ford Clinic twice during the 1980s. During her second stint there she met the man who would become her last husband, construction worker Larry Fortensky (quite a switch from the husband who preceded him, U.S. Senator John Warner). The couple married in 1991, when Taylor was 59, at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Taylor and Fortensky, who was 20 years Taylor’s junior, split five years later.
Taylor with her great friend Michael Jackson at his 30th Anniversary Celebration at Madison Square Garden in NYC on September 7, 2001.Kevin Mazur/WireImage.comThe multi-talented star debuts just one of her many fragrances from her Jewel Perfume Collection at the Metropolitan Club in New York on September 20, 1993.Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com
Though the public spotlight might not have shone quite as brightly on Taylor during her later years — her weight gain, diet books, and marriage to Fortensky became late-night fodder — she continued to lead an active and varied life. She launched a series of super successful perfumes, continued her AIDS work, was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth, and became close friends with Bel-Air neighborMichael Jackson, saying the two first forged a connection over having child stardom in common. Taylor was devastated after his death. “My heart… my mind… are broken. I loved Michael with all my soul and I can’t imagine life without him. We had so much in common we had such loving fun together,” she said in a statement.

The classic star also had no trouble moving right along with the times. In 1994 she played Fred Flintstone’s mother-in-law in the big-screen version of “The Flintstones,” later made a few sitcom appearances, and, in 2001, joined Shirley MacLaineJoan Collins, and one-time nemesis Debbie Reynolds in the tongue-in-cheek TV movie “These Old Broads,” which was co-written by Reynolds’ daughter Carrie Fisher.
Taylor poses for a cast shot with her “These Old Broads” co-stars, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, and Joan Collins. The 2001 TV movie was her final onscreen role.Everett Collection
Last year the self-confessed “Law & Order” fanatic even held a vote via Twitter to name her latest perfume. Her fans named it Violet Eyes, after the vivid-hued eyes that helped make Taylor famous in the first place.

In 1997, to celebrate Taylor’s 65th birthday, Jackson performed a song
he wrote exclusively for Taylor called “Elizabeth, I Love You.”

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