Elizabeth Taylor was the ultimate movie star: violet-eyed, luminously beautiful, and bigger than life; although never the most gifted actress, she was the most magnetic, commanding the spotlight with unparalleled power. Whether good (two Oscars, one of the first million-dollar paychecks, and charity work), bad (health and weight problems, drug battles, and other tragedies), or ugly (eight failed marriages, movie disasters, and countless scandals), no triumph or setback was too personal for media consumption.
Born February 27, 1932, in London, Taylor literally grew up in public. At the beginning of World War II, her family relocated to Hollywood, and by the age of ten she was already under contract at Universal. She made her screen debut in 1942's There's One Born Every Minute, followed a year later by a prominent role in Lassie Come Home. For MGM, she co-starred in the 1944 adaptation of Jane Eyre, then appeared in The White Cliffs of Dover. With her first lead role as a teen equestrian in the 1944 family classic National Velvet, Taylor became a star. To their credit, MGM did not exploit her, despite her incredible beauty; she did not even reappear onscreen for two more years, returning with Courage of Lassie. Taylor next starred as Cynthia in 1947, followed by Life With Father. In Julia Misbehaves, she enjoyed her first grown-up role, and then portrayed Amy in the 1947 adaptation of Little Women.
Taylor's first romantic lead came opposite Robert Taylor in 1949's Conspirator. Her love life was already blossoming offscreen as well; that same year she began dating millionaire Howard Hughes, but broke off the relationship to marry hotel heir Nicky Hilton when she was just 17 years old. The marriage made international headlines, and in 1950 Taylor scored a major hit as Spencer Tracy's daughter in Vincente Minnelli's Father of the Bride; a sequel, Father's Little Dividend, premiered a year later. Renowned as one of the world's most beautiful women, Taylor was nevertheless largely dismissed as an actress prior to an excellent performance in the George Stevens drama A Place in the Sun.
In 1956, however, the actress reunited with Stevens to star in his epic adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel Giant. It was a blockbuster, as was her 1957 follow-up Raintree County, for which she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Taylor's sexy image was further elevated by an impossibly sensual performance in 1958's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; another Tennessee Williams adaptation, Suddenly Last Summer, followed a year later, and both were highly successful. To complete the terms of her MGM contract, she grudgingly agreed to star in 1960's Butterfield 8; upon completing the film Taylor traveled to Britain to begin work on the much-heralded Cleopatra, for which she received an unprecedented one-million-dollar fee. In London she became dangerously ill, and underwent a life-saving emergency tracheotomy. Hollywood sympathy proved sufficient for her to win a Best Actress Oscar for Butterfield 8, although much of the good will extended toward her again dissipated in the wake of the mounting difficulties facing Cleopatra. With five million dollars already spent, producers pulled the plug and relocated the shoot to Italy, replacing co-star Stephen Boyd with Richard Burton. The final tally placed the film at a cost of 37 million dollars, making it the most costly project in film history; scheduled for a 16-week shoot, the production actually took years, and despite mountains of pre-publicity, it was a huge disaster at the box office upon its 1963 premiere.
Still, the notice paid to Cleopatra paled in comparison to the scrutiny which greeted Taylor's latest romance, with Burton, and perhaps no Hollywood relationship was ever the subject of such intense media coverage. Theirs was a passionate, stormy relationship, played out in the press and onscreen in films including 1963's The V.I.P.'s and 1965's The Sandpiper. In 1966, the couple starred in Mike Nichols' controversial directorial debut Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, arguably Taylor's best performance; overweight, verbally cutting, and defiantly unglamorous, she won a second Oscar for her work as the embittered wife of Burton's alcoholic professor. Their real-life marriage managed to survive, however, and after Taylor appeared opposite Marlon Brando in 1967's Reflections in a Golden Eye, she and Burton reunited for The Comedians. She also starred in Franco Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew, but none were successful at the box office; 1968's Doctor Faustus was a disaster, and later that year Boom! failed to gross even one-quarter of its costs. After 1969's Secret Ceremony, Taylor starred in The Only Game in Town, a year later; when they too failed, her days of million-dollar salaries were over, and she began working on percentage.
With Burton, Taylor next appeared in a small role in 1971's Under Milk Wood; next was X, Y and Zee, followed by another spousal collaboration, Hammersmith Is Out. In 1972 the Burtons also co-starred in a television feature, Divorce His, Divorce Hers; the title proved prescient, as two years later, the couple did indeed divorce after a decade together.
With no film offers forthcoming, Taylor turned to the stage, and in 1981 she starred in a production of The Little Foxes. In 1983, she and Burton also reunited to co-star on Broadway in Private Lives. Television also remained an option, and in 1983 she and Carol Burnett co-starred in Between Friends. However, Taylor's primary focus during the decades to follow was charity work; following the death of her close friend, Rock Hudson, she became a leader in the battle against AIDS, and for her efforts won the 1993 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. In 1997, the actress once again became a featured tabloid topic when she underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. The same year, she received attention of a more favorable variety with Happy Birthday Elizabeth: A Celebration of Life, a TV special in which she was paid tribute by a number of stars including Madonna, Shirley MacLaine, John Travolta, Dennis Hopper, and Cher. Taylor would continue to make her voice heard when it came to issues that she felt strongly about.
In 2003, Taylor refused to attend the Academy Awards out of protest against the Iraq War. Taylor also worked tirelessly in the name of AIDS research, advocacy, and awareness, even appearing in a 2007 staging of the A.R. Gurney play Love Letters opposite James Earl Jones to benefit Taylor's own AIDS foundation -- a performance that earned over a million dollars for the cause. Sadly, Taylor was increasingly plagued by health problems, undergoing cardiac surgery in 2009 to replace a leaky heart valve. On March 23, 2011, she passed away from congestive heart failure. She was 79.