This weekend marks Elizabeth Taylor’s 84th birthday. Ms. Taylor has been the subject of so much already–from professional and personal standpoints. Depending on who you ask, Taylor will prompt thoughts about her presence in films, beauty, multiple marriages including the Eddie Fisher scandal, lifestyle choices, love for jewelry, and so on. But I’m going to talk about what is fascinating about Elizabeth Taylor which is how outspoken, strong and risk taking she was.
For those who don’t know about Elizabeth Taylor, she was born on February 27, 1932 in a community of London, England. She came to America as a young child and became a child star at MGM in the early 1940s. Her best known films of that decade is National Velvet (1944). In the 1950s and 60s she was one of the most famous actresses from MGM and starred in films such as Father of the Bride (1950) with Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, A Place in the Sun (1951) with Montgomery Clift, Giant (1955) with James Dean and Rock Hudson, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) with Paul Newman and the infamous Cleopatra (1963). After the 1960s she would begin to work in lesser known films and went to theatre and television. However Taylor lost interest in acting as a career around the 1980s, instead shifting focus to fundraise and encourage education/assistance about AIDS. She died on March 23, 2011. after suffering health related issues for some time.
Elizabeth Taylor had an immense amount of strength to overcome tragedy. During the filming of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Taylor received word that her husband, Mike Todd, died during a plane crash. In 1992 Taylor would recount to Larry King, “[Playing Maggie] was probably the hardest part I’ve ever done…when I came back [to set after two weeks off] I developed a terrible stutter. And, for some reason, when I spoke in a Southern accent I could speak okay.” Reportedly Taylor showed up on set telling director that she wanted to get back to work. He noticed how she had lost weight and ordered re-takes so Taylor would continue eating the food. In another interview years after filming, Taylor would admit that certain lines in the film hit close to home as she said them in character. Paul Newman, her co-star, would later say about Taylor’s return to work, “Acting was therapeutic for her. I was overwhelmed with her professionalism.” This is an example of Taylor’s work ethic and personal strength to be able to continue with the film despite her grieving for Todd. Her life would include many instances of ill health and injuries that she had to battle. One of the most famous was during the filming of Cleopatra in the spring of 1961, Taylor developed pneumonia and nearly died! Apparently her lung collapsed and she was given an hour max to live.
She also knew what it was like to lose friends and carry on from harsh criticism. In 1992 she told Larry King interview, “When I was being ostracized, there were times people wouldn’t take my phone calls…I learned who my real friends were.” Taylor was criticized for her marriages, particularly to Eddie Fisher who divorced Debbie Reynolds to marry her after a several month affair and her two marriages to Richard Burton. But also in the 1970s/80s, she was criticized and made fun of for gaining weight as well as her struggle with drug/alcohol abuse. She told Oprah in the 1980s regarding the weight gain comments, “I laughed but it was my way of saying I’m not going to allow you to hurt me.”
She valued her friendships and let people know that she cared for them. Among her friends were James Dean, who she would talk with for hours at night and would be ignored by his presence during the day. She’d learn that he revealed too much about himself as Dean was very shy. Montgomery Clift was also one her friends who she is often labeled as having saved his life. During the filming of Raintree County (1957), Clift was returning home from a party at Taylor’s. Moments later she got word that Clift’s car had crashed prompting her to rush to the site before the cops and paramedics came. She is said to have climbed on top of the car and slid through the shattered back window to reach Clift. She found him choking on a tooth and plucked it out of his mouth before it was too late. Much has been written that Taylor wasn’t afraid to approach the person who’d be off alone and a bit of an outcast and try to make friends with them. Dean was known for being withdrawn at times for example. About her friendship with Paul Newman, Taylor would say, “Being his friend was as golden as the sunset and a privilege I’ll never forget.” Debbie Reynolds, who later reconciled with Taylor after Taylor married Richard Burton, would say that most of Taylor’s friends were men but that she thought Elizabeth Taylor as a fun person who valued her friendships. Rock Hudson would later describe Taylor as an “earth mother…she cared for people deeply.”
She had interest in other mediums of art and wrote/illustrated her own book as a teenager. Taylor loved animals as well as people and wrote/illustrated a book entitled, Nibbles and Me, that was published in 1946. It’s a nonfiction story about her pet chipmunk, Nibbles, as well as featuring a little bit about her journey at that point in film. I have this book and as a writer who loves to draw as well, it’s inspiring for craft purposes. It’s a well written book with beautiful sketches! It makes me wish Taylor would have done another book or two like this.
Taylor didn’t permit people to make her feel inferior and she valued staying true to herself. As a child star, Louis. B Mayer disrespected her mother, prompting Elizabeth Taylor to tell him that he wasn’t going to talk to her mother like that and his studio “could go to hell”. This is not to say that Taylor started drama or couldn’t take direction, she was very professional but was not one who would be disrespected or bullied around on set. As a female film student, I really appreciate that quality of Taylor–to stand up and tell someone that they weren’t going to treat her like that. I was having a conversation with a friend several weeks ago and she couldn’t believe I had stood up to someone on a project. She asked me why I wasn’t afraid to speak up. Taylor was asked similarly why she was so outspoken. She said, “I think I was born with it. My own personal integrity and my own sense of identity have always been very important to me.”
Elizabeth Taylor could pull off a pixie cut or long hair and everything in between. I have naturally curly hair and her hairstyles of the 1950s give me ideas when I’m at the salon. Taylor was once asked what regrets she had when she looked back and she carefully admitted that while she wishes certain events hadn’t occurred, she did not look back very often. A quote by her goes, “I don’t entirely approve of some of the things that I have done, am, or been. But I’m me, God knows I’m me.” And she certainly was.