Known internationally for her beauty, especially for her violet eyes, with which she captured audiences early on in her youth in National Velvet and kept the world hooked on since.
There’s One Born Every Minute
Lassie Come Home
The White Cliffs of Dover
Courage of Lassie
Cynthia (aka The Rich Full Life)
A Date with Judy
The Big Hangover
Father’s Little Dividend
Callaway Went Thataway
Love Is Better Than Ever
The Girl Who Had Everything
Scent of Mystery
The Taming of the Shrew
Reflections in a Golden Eye
Anne of the Thousand Days
The Only Game in Town
X,Y, and Zee
Under Milk Wood
Hammersmith Is Out
The Blue Bird
A Little Night Music
The Mirror Crack’d
Elizabeth Taylor was nominated for five competitive Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role and won two.
- Raintree County (1957)
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
- Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
- BUtterfield 8 (1960) – WON
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)- WON
In 1993, she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award
If someone’s dumb enough to offer me a million dollars to make a picture, I’m certainly not dumb enough to turn it down. ~ Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born on February 27, 1932, at Heathwood, her family’s home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. She received dual British-American citizenship at birth, as her parents, art dealer Francis Lenn Taylor (1897–1968) and retired stage actress Sara Sothern (née Sara Viola Warmbrodt, 1895–1994), were United States citizens, both originally from Arkansas City, Kansas. They moved to London in 1929, and opened an art gallery on Bond Street; their first child, a son named Howard, was born the same year.
The family led a privileged life in London during Taylor’s childhood. She was enrolled in Byron House, a Montessori school in Highgate, and was raised according to the teachings of Christian Science, the religion of her mother.
The Taylors decided to return to the United States in the spring of 1939 due to the increasingly tense political situation in Europe. American ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy also contacted Francis and encouraged him to return to the U.S. with his family. Sara and the children left first in April 1939, and moved in with Taylor’s maternal grandfather in Pasadena, California. Francis stayed behind to close the London gallery, and joined them in December. In early 1940, he opened a new gallery in Los Angeles, and after briefly living in Pacific Palisades, the family settled in Beverly Hills, where Taylor and her brother were enrolled in Hawthorne School.
In California, Taylor’s mother was frequently told that her daughter should audition for films. Taylor’s eyes in particular drew attention; they were blue to the extent of appearing violet and were rimmed by dark double eyelashes. Sara was initially opposed to Taylor appearing in films, but after the outbreak of war in Europe made return there unlikely, she began to view the film industry as a way of assimilating to American society. Francis Taylor’s Beverly Hills gallery had gained clients from the film industry soon after opening, helped by the endorsement of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Through a client and a school friend’s father, Taylor auditioned for both Universal Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer early 1941. Both studios offered Taylor contracts, and Sara Taylor chose to accept Universal’s offer.
Taylor began her contract in April 1941, and was cast in a small role in There’s One Born Every Minute (1942). She did not receive other roles, and her contract was terminated after a year. Universal’s casting director explained her dislike of Taylor, stating that “the kid has nothing … her eyes are too old, she doesn’t have the face of a child”. Biographer Alexander Walker agrees that Taylor looked different from the child stars of the era, such as Shirley Temple and Judy Garland.
Taylor received another opportunity in late 1942, when her father’s acquaintance, MGM producer Samuel Marx, arranged her to audition for a minor role requiring an actress with an English accent in Lassie Come Home (1943). After a trial contract of three months, she was given a standard seven-year contract in January 1943. Following Lassie, she appeared in minor uncredited roles in two other films set in England – Jane Eyre (1943), and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944).
Taylor was cast in her first starring role at the age of 12, when she was chosen to play a girl who wants to compete in the exclusively male Grand National in National Velvet (1944). MGM had been looking for a suitable actress with a British accent and the ability to ride horses since 1937, and chose Taylor at the recommendation of White Cliffs director Clarence Brown, who knew she had the required skills. As she was deemed too short, filming was pushed back several months to allow her to grow; she spent the time practicing riding. In developing her into a new star, MGM required her to wear braces to correct her teeth and had two of her baby teeth pulled out. The studio also wanted to dye her hair and change the shape of her eyebrows, and proposed that she use the screen name “Virginia”, but Taylor and her parents refused. National Velvet became a box-office success upon its release on Christmas 1944.
Taylor later stated that her childhood ended when she became a star, as MGM started to control every aspect of her life. She described the studio as a “big extended factory” where she was required to adhere to a strict daily schedule: Days were spent attending school and filming at the studio lot, and evenings in dancing and singing classes and in practicing the following day’s scenes. Following the success of National Velvet, MGM gave Taylor a new seven-year contract with a weekly salary of $750, and cast her in a minor role in the third film of the Lassie series, Courage of Lassie (1946). The studio also published a book of Taylor’s writings about her pet chipmunk, Nibbles and Me (1946), and had paper dolls and coloring books made after her.
When Taylor turned 15 in 1947, MGM began to cultivate a more mature public image for her by organizing photo shoots and interviews which portrayed her as a “normal” teenager attending parties and going on dates. Film magazines and gossip columnists also began comparing her to older actresses such as Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Life called her “Hollywood’s most accomplished junior actress” for her two film roles that year. In the critically panned Cynthia (1947), she portrayed a frail girl who defies her over-protective parents to go to the prom, and the love interest of a stockbroker’s son in the period film Life with Father (1947), opposite William Powell and Irene Dunne.
They were followed by supporting roles as a teenaged “man-stealer” who seduces her peer’s date to a high school dance in the musical A Date with Judy (1948), and as a bride in the romantic comedy Julia Misbehaves (1948), which became a commercial success by grossing over $4 million in the box office. Taylor’s last adolescent role was as Amy March in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Women (1949). While it did not match the popularity of the previous 1933 film adaptation of Louisa M. Alcott’s novel, it was a box-office success. The same year, Time featured Taylor on its cover, and called her the leader among Hollywood’s next generation of stars.
Taylor made the transition to adult roles in 1950, the year she turned 18. Her first mature role was playing a woman who begins to suspect that her husband is a Soviet spy in the thriller Conspirator (1949). Taylor had been only 16 at the time of its filming, but its release was delayed until March 1950, as MGM disliked it and feared it could cause diplomatic problems. Taylor’s second film of 1950 was the comedy The Big Hangover (1950), co-starring Van Johnson. It was released in May, and the same month, Taylor married hotel-chain heir Conrad Hilton, Jr., in a highly publicized ceremony. The event was organized by MGM and used as part of the publicity campaign for Taylor’s next film, Vincente Minnelli’s comedy Father of the Bride (1950), in which she appeared opposite Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett as a bride preparing for her wedding. The film became a box-office success upon its release in June, grossing $6 million worldwide, and was followed by a successful sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951), ten months later.
Taylor’s next film release, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951), marked a departure from her earlier films. According to Taylor, it was the first film in which she had been asked to act, instead of simply being herself, and it brought her critical acclaim for the first time since National Velvet. Based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925), it featured Taylor as a spoiled socialite who comes between a poor factory worker (Montgomery Clift) and his pregnant girlfriend (Shelley Winters). Stevens cast Taylor as she was “the only one … who could create this illusion” of being “not so much a real girl as the girl on the candy-box cover, the beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy sometime or other thinks he can marry”.
A Place in the Sun was a critical and commercial success, grossing $3 million. Herb Golden of Variety stated that Taylor’s “histrionics are of a quality so far beyond anything she has done previously, that Stevens’ skilled hands on the reins must be credited with a minor miracle”, and A.H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote that she gives “a shaded, tender performance, and one in which her passionate and genuine romance avoids the pathos common to young love as it sometimes comes to the screen”.
Taylor next starred in the romantic comedy Love Is Better Than Ever (1952). According to Alexander Walker, MGM cast her in the “B-picture” as a reprimand for divorcing Hilton in January 1951 after only nine months of marriage, which had caused a public scandal that reflected negatively on her. After completing Love Is Better Than Ever, Taylor was sent to Britain to take part in the historical epic Ivanhoe (1952), which was one of the most expensive projects in the studio’s history. She was not happy about the project, finding the story superficial and her role as Rebecca too small. Regardless, Ivanhoe became one of MGM’s biggest commercial successes, earning $11 million worldwide
Taylor’s last film made under her old contract with MGM was The Girl Who Had Everything (1953), a remake of the pre-code drama A Free Soul (1931). Despite her grievances with the studio, she signed a new seven-year contract with MGM in the summer of 1952. Although she wanted more interesting roles, the decisive factor in continuing with the studio was her financial need; she had recently married British actor Michael Wilding, and was pregnant with her first child. In addition to granting her a weekly salary of $4,700, MGM agreed to give the couple a loan for a house, and signed Wilding for a three-year contract. Due to her financial dependency, the studio now had even more control over her than previously.
Taylor’s first two films made under her new contract were released ten days apart in spring 1954. The first was Rhapsody, a romantic film starring her as a woman caught in a love triangle with two musicians. The second was Elephant Walk, a drama in which she played a British woman struggling to adapt to life on her husband’s tea plantation in Ceylon. She had been loaned to Paramount Pictures for the film after its original star, Vivien Leigh, fell ill.
In the fall, Taylor starred in two more film releases. Beau Brummell was a Regency era period film, another project in which she was cast against her will. Taylor disliked historical films in general, as their elaborate costumes and make-up required her to wake up earlier than usual to prepare, and later stated that she gave one of the worst performances of her career in Beau Brummell. The second film was Richard Brooks’ The Last Time I Saw Paris, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story. Although she had instead wanted to be cast in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Taylor liked the film, and later stated that it “convinced me I wanted to be an actress instead of yawning my way through parts”. While The Last Time I Saw Paris was not as profitable as many other MGM films, it garnered positive reviews. Taylor became pregnant again during the production, and had to agree to add another year to her contract to make up for the period spent on maternity leave.
By the mid-1950s, the American film industry was beginning to face serious competition from television, which resulted in studios producing fewer films, and focusing instead on their quality. The change benefited Taylor, who finally found interesting roles after several years of career disappointments. After lobbying director George Stevens, she won the female lead role in Giant (1956), an epic drama about a ranching dynasty, which co-starred Rock Hudson and James Dean. Its filming in Marfa, Texas, was a difficult experience for Taylor, as she clashed with Stevens, who wanted to break her will to make her easier to direct, and was often ill, resulting in delays. To further complicate the production, Dean died in a car accident only days after completing filming; grieving Taylor still had to film reaction shots to their joint scenes. When Giant was released a year later, it became a box-office success, and was widely praised by critics. Although not nominated for an Academy Award like her co-stars, Taylor’s performance also garnered positive reviews, with Variety calling it “surprisingly clever.
MGM next re-united Taylor with Montgomery Clift in Raintree County (1957), a Civil War drama it hoped would replicate the success of Gone with the Wind (1939). Taylor found her role as a mentally disturbed Southern belle fascinating, but overall disliked the film. Although the film failed to become the type of success MGM had planned, Taylor was nominated for the first time for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Taylor considered her next performance as Maggie the Cat in the screen adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) a career “high point”, although it coincided with one of the most difficult periods in her personal life. After completing Raintree Country, she had divorced Wilding and married producer Mike Todd. She had completed only two weeks of filming in March 1958, when Todd was killed in a plane crash. Although she was devastated, pressure from the studio and the knowledge that Todd had large debts led Taylor to return to work only three weeks later. She later stated that she “in a way … became Maggie”, and that acting “was the only time I could function” in the weeks after Todd’s death.
During the production, Taylor’s personal life drew further public attention when she began an affair with singer Eddie Fisher, whose marriage to actress Debbie Reynolds had been idealized by the media as the union of “America’s sweethearts”. The affair – and Fisher’s subsequent divorce – changed Taylor’s public image from a grieving widow to a “homewrecker”. MGM used the scandal to its advantage by featuring an image of Taylor posing on a bed in a négligée in the film’s promotional posters. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof grossed $10 million in American cinemas alone, and made Taylor the year’s second-most profitable star. She received positive reviews for her performance. She was nominated for an Academy Award.
Taylor’s next film, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), was another Tennessee Williams adaptation, and co-starred Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn. The independent production earned Taylor $500,000 for playing the role of a severely traumatized patient in a mental institution. Although the film was a drama about mental illness, childhood traumas, and homosexuality, it was again promoted with Taylor’s sex appeal; both its trailer and poster featured her in a white swimsuit. The strategy worked, as the film became a financial success. Taylor received her third Academy Award nomination and her first Golden Globe for Best Actress for her performance.
By 1959, Taylor owed one more film for MGM, which it decided should be BUtterfield 8 (1960), a drama about a high-class prostitute. The studio correctly calculated that Taylor’s public image would make it easy for audiences to associate her with the role. She hated the film for the same reason, but had no choice in the matter, although the studio agreed to her demands of filming in New York and casting Eddie Fisher in a sympathetic role. As predicted, BUtterfield 8 was a major commercial success, grossing $18 million worldwide. Taylor won her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
After completing her MGM contract, Taylor starred in 20th Century-Fox’s Cleopatra (1963) – a historical epic which, according to film historian Alexander Doty, made her more famous than ever before. She became the first actress to be paid $1 million for a role; Fox also granted her 10% of the film’s profits, as well as shooting the film in Todd-AO, a widescreen format for which she had inherited the rights from Mike Todd. The film’s production – characterized by costly sets and costumes, constant delays, and a scandal caused by Taylor’s extramarital affair with her co-star Richard Burton – was closely followed by the media, with Life proclaiming it the “Most Talked About Movie Ever Made”. Filming first began in England in 1960 but had to be halted several times due to bad weather and Taylor’s ill health. In March 1961, she developed nearly fatal pneumonia, which necessitated a tracheotomy; one news agency even erroneously reported that she had died. Once she had recovered, Fox discarded the already filmed material, and moved the production to Rome, changing its director to Joseph Mankiewicz, and the actor playing Mark Antony to Burton. Filming was finally completed in July 1962. The film’s final cost was $62 million, making it the most expensive film made up to that point.
Cleopatra became the biggest box-office success of 1963 in the United States, grossing $15.7 million. Regardless, it took several years for the film to earn back its production costs, which drove Fox near to bankruptcy. The studio, which publicly blamed Taylor for the production’s troubles, unsuccessfully sued Burton and her for allegedly damaging the film with their behavior. The film’s reviews were mixed to negative, with critics finding Taylor overweight and her voice too thin, and unfavorably comparing her with her classically trained British co-stars. In retrospect, Taylor called Cleopatra a “low point” in her career, and stated that the studio cut out the scenes which provided the “core of the characterization”.
Taylor intended on following Cleopatra by headlining an all-star cast in Fox’s black comedy What a Way to Go! (1964), but negotiations fell through, and Shirley MacLaine was cast, instead. In the meantime, film producers were eager to profit from the scandal surrounding Taylor and Burton, and they next starred together in Anthony Asquith’s The V.I.P.s (1963), which mirrored the headlines about them. Taylor played a famous model attempting to leave her husband for a lover, and Burton her estranged millionaire husband. Released soon after Cleopatra, it became a box-office success. Taylor was also paid $500,000 to appear in a CBS television special, Elizabeth Taylor in London, in which she visited the city’s landmarks and recited passages from the works of famous British writers.
After completing The V.I.P.s, Taylor took a two-year hiatus from films, during which Burton and she divorced their spouses and married each other. The super-couple continued starring together in films in the mid-1960s, earning a combined $88 million over the next decade; Burton once stated, “They say we generate more business activity than one of the smaller African nations.” Alexander Walker compared these films to “illustrated gossip columns”, as their film roles often reflected their public personae, while Doty has noted that the majority of Taylor’s films during this period seemed to “conform to, and reinforce, the image of an indulgent, raucous, immoral or amoral, and appetitive (in many senses of the word) ‘Elizabeth Taylor'”. Taylor and Burton’s first joint project following her hiatus was Vincente Minelli’s romantic drama The Sandpiper (1965), about an illicit love affair between a bohemian artist and a married clergyman in Big Sur. Its reviews were largely negative, but it grossed a successful $14 million in the box office.
Their next project, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), featured the most critically acclaimed performance of Taylor’s career. She and Burton starred as Martha and George, a middle-aged couple going through a marital crisis. To convincingly play 50-year-old Martha, Taylor gained weight, wore a wig, and used make-up to make herself look old and tired – in stark contrast to her public image as a glamorous film star. At Taylor’s suggestion, theater director Mike Nichols was hired to direct the project, despite his lack of experience with film. The production differed from anything she had done previously, as Nichols wanted to thoroughly rehearse the play before beginning filming. Woolf was considered ground-breaking for its adult themes and uncensored language. The film also became one of the biggest commercial successes of the year. Taylor received her second Academy Award, a BAFTA, a National Board of Review, and a New York City Film Critics Circle awards for her performance.
In 1966, Taylor and Burton also performed Doctor Faustus for a week in Oxford to benefit the Oxford University Dramatic Society; he starred and she appeared in her first stage role as Helen of Troy, a part which required no speaking. Although it received generally negative reviews, Burton produced it into a film, Doctor Faustus (1967), with the same cast. It was also panned by critics and grossed only $600,000 in the box office. Taylor and Burton’s next project, Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967), which they also co-produced, was more successful. It posed another challenge for Taylor, as she was the only actor in the project with no previous experience of performing Shakespeare; Zeffirelli later stated that this made her performance interesting, as she “invented the part from scratch”. Critics found the play to be fitting material for the couple, and the film became a box-office success by grossing $12 million.
Taylor’s third film released in 1967, John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, was her first without Burton since Cleopatra. It was a drama about a repressed homosexual and his unfaithful wife and was originally slated to co-star Taylor’s old friend Montgomery Clift. His career had been in decline for several years due to his substance-abuse problems, but Taylor was determined to secure his involvement in the project, even offering to pay for his insurance. However, Clift died from a heart attack before filming began; Marlon Brando replaced him. Reflections in a Golden Eye was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release. Taylor and Burton’s last film of the year was the Graham Greene adaptation The Comedians, which received mixed reviews and was a box-office disappointment.
By the late 1960s, Taylor’s career was in decline. She had gained weight, was nearing middle age, and did not fit in with New Hollywood stars such as Jane Fonda and Julie Christie. After several years of nearly constant media attention, the public was also tiring of Burton and her and criticized their jet set lifestyle. In 1968, Taylor starred in two films directed by Joseph Losey – Boom!, and Secret Ceremony – both of which were critical and commercial failures. The former, based on Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, features her as an aging, serial-marrying millionaire, and Burton as a younger man who turns up on the Mediterranean island on which she has retired. Secret Ceremony is a psychological drama which also stars Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum. Taylor’s third film with George Stevens, The Only Game in Town (1970), in which she played a Las Vegas showgirl who has an affair with a compulsive gambler, played by Warren Beatty, was unsuccessful.
The three films in which Taylor acted in 1972 were somewhat more successful. Zee and Co., which portrayed Michael Caine and her as a troubled married couple. She then appeared with Burton in the Dylan Thomas adaptation Under Milk Wood; although her role was small, its producers decided to give her top-billing to profit from her fame. Her third film role that year was playing a blonde diner waitress in Peter Ustinov’s Faust parody Hammersmith Is Out, her tenth collaboration with Burton. Although it was overall not successful, Taylor received some good reviews. Her performance won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival.
Taylor and Burton’s last film together was the Harlech Television film Divorce His, Divorce Hers (1973), fittingly named as they divorced the following year. Her other films released in 1973 were the British thriller Night Watch (1973) and the drama Ash Wednesday (1973). For the latter, in which she starred as a woman who undergoes multiple plastic surgeries in an attempt to save her marriage, she received a Golden Globe nomination. Her only film released in 1974, the Italian Muriel Spark adaptation The Driver’s Seat (1974), was a failure.
Taylor took fewer roles after the mid-1970s and focused on supporting the career of her sixth husband, Republican politician John Warner. In 1976, she participated in the Soviet-American fantasy film The Blue Bird (1976), a critical and box-office failure, and had a small role in the television film Victory at Entebbe (1976), and in 1977, she sang in the critically panned film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1977)
After a period of semi-retirement from films, Taylor starred in The Mirror Crack’d (1980), adapted from an Agatha Christie mystery novel and featuring an ensemble cast of actors from the studio era, such as Angela Lansbury, Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, and Tony Curtis.
From the mid-1980s, Taylor acted mostly in television productions
After the divorce from Warner, Taylor was engaged to Mexican lawyer Victor Luna in 1983-1984,and New York businessman Dennis Stein in 1985. She met her seventh – and last – husband, construction worker Larry Fortensky, at the Betty Ford Center in 1988. They were married at the Neverland Ranch of her long-time friend Michael Jackson on October 6, 1991. The wedding was again subject to intense media attention, with one photographer parachuting to the ranch and Taylor selling the wedding pictures to People for $1 million, which she used to start her AIDS foundation. Taylor and Fortensky divorced in October 1996.
In the 1990s, Taylor focused her time on HIV/AIDS activism. Her few acting roles included characters in the animated series.
2001 Taylor announced that she was retiring from acting to devote her time to philanthropy.
She gave one last public performance in 2007, when James Earl Jones and she performed the play Love Letters at an AIDS benefit at the Paramount Studios.
Taylor was the first celebrity to create her own collection of fragrances. In collaboration with Elizabeth Arden, Inc., she began by launching two best-selling perfumes – Passion in 1987, and White Diamonds in 1991. Taylor personally supervised the creation and production of each of the 11 fragrances marketed in her name. According to biographers Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, she earned more money through the fragrance collection than during her entire acting career, and upon her death, the British newspaper The Guardian estimated that majority of her estimated $600 million-$1 billion estate consisted of revenue from fragrances. In 2005, Taylor also founded a jewelry company, House of Taylor, in collaboration with Kathy Ireland and Jack and Monty Abramov.
Taylor struggled with health problems for most of her life. She was born with scoliosis, and broke her back while filming National Velvet in 1944. The fracture went undetected for several years, although it caused her chronic back problems. In 1956, she underwent an operation in which some of her spinal discs were removed and replaced with donated bone. Taylor was also prone to other illnesses and injuries, which often necessitated surgery; in 1961, she survived a near-fatal bout of pneumonia that required a tracheotomy.
In addition, she was addicted to alcohol and prescription medications. She was treated at the Betty Ford Center for seven weeks from December 1983 to January 1984, becoming the first celebrity to openly admit herself to the clinic. She relapsed later in the decade and entered rehabilitation again in 1988. Taylor also struggled with her weight – she became overweight during her marriage to Senator John Warner, and published a diet book about her experiences, Elizabeth Takes Off (1988). Taylor was a heavy smoker until she experienced a severe bout of pneumonia in 1990.
Taylor’s health increasingly declined during the last two decades of her life, and she rarely attended public events in the 2000s. She used a wheelchair due to her back problems and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2004. Six weeks after being hospitalized, she died of the illness at age 79 on March 23, 2011, at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Her funeral took place the following day at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The service was a private Jewish ceremony presided over by Rabbi Jerome Cutler. At Taylor’s request, the ceremony began 15 minutes behind schedule, as, according to her representative, “she even wanted to be late for her own funeral”. She was entombed in the cemetery’s Great Mausoleum.