Elizabeth Taylor is a Hollywood screen legend who made her mark during the ‘50s as one of the last of the greatest silver-screen superstars of the studio era. The English-born actress, who played a wide variety of roles on screen, captivated the world with her onscreen beauty, intensity and personality. Even her chaotic off-screen love life became a tabloid staple.
As an actress, she was okay. One would not remember Taylor as the actress with the best raw talent, but of course, there are plenty of excellent actors who never became a star as iconic and as famous as her. And regardless of the acting awards she won, her film performances were overlooked as many critics continue to regard her as playing herself rather than acting. Her real claim to fame was her claim to fame. It overshadowed her every work in her career. To the boomer generation, Taylor is the epitome of Hollywood glamour, rampant fame, and sexual adventurousness.
While she might have been on the front pages for her scandalous love life, she redeemed herself as a humanitarian due to her philanthropic efforts against AIDs and HIV.
After succumbing to congestive heart failure and death 10 years ago, here are the reasons why Elizabeth still remains and always will be a pop culture icon:
She is one of the first modern celebrities.
Elizabeth Taylor was considered as the first modern “celebrity” as we know the term. Since her private life was inextricably linked to her public image, it would look like Taylor “played” Elizabeth Taylor more than she played any character in her film career.
She never seemed to have consciously cultivated fame – at least not with the determination of celebrity wannabes today. Under the studio system during Taylor’s time, actors’ public images were protected and curated by publicists who labored to get career-advancing information to the papers and keep any negative stuff out. But Taylor’s red-hot celebrity personality rendered this system moot. The public’s desperate need for information and images about her personal life spawned an industry of celebrity muckraking that continues to this day.
Her birth as a modern celebrity arose as the scandal of her “stealing” Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds became widespread. The public was against their marriage but she went on with it, becoming the first star to break free from the image constructed by the big studio and just be herself.
Her tabloid-newsworthy marriages became the ultimate source of gossip.
One of the most memorable facts about Elizabeth Taylor is that she was married eight times (two to the same man). Throughout her adult years, her personal life and especially her marriages drew a lot of media attention and public disapproval.
Taylor’s sheltered and puritanical upbringing made her believe that love was synonymous to marriage. At a young age, she believed she can gain independence from her parents and from MGM studios through marriage. MGM organized her to date football champion Glenn Davis in 1948, and was briefly engaged to William Pawley Jr. But at the age of 18, she married Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr., the heir to Hilton Hotels chain, on a large and expensive wedding organized by MGM. That wedding became a major media event. However, the pair divorced after eight months of marriage in 1951.
In 1952, she married her second husband, British actor Michael Wilding, a man who was 20 years her senior. They had two sons together, but the couple drifted apart, and Wilding’s failing career was becoming a source of marital strife. Their marital problems were subject to intense media attention and scandal, as gossip magazines claimed that Wilding entertained strippers at home while Taylor was away. They were separated by July 1956 and divorced by January 1957.
By February of the same year, Taylor got married to Mike Todd and had a daughter. Taylor referred to Todd as one of the greatest loves of her life (alongside Richard Burton and her jewelry). Todd loved publicity stunts and encouraged media attention to their marriage. Sadly, this was her only marriage not to end in divorce, as Todd died in a private plane crash on 1958.
Michael Todd’s best friend, Eddie Fisher, comforted her in her grief, and it soon blossomed into an affair. As Fisher was still married to actress Debbie Reynolds – Taylor’s maid of honor at her wedding to Todd – the affair resulted into a public scandal. Taylor was branded from being a widow to a homewrecker. Taylor and Fisher married on May 1959. Later, she admitted that she married him only due to her grief.
While filming Cleopatra in Italy in 1962, Taylor began a scandalous affair with her co-star, Richard Burton, though Burton was also married. Rumors about their affair circulated in the press, and were confirmed by a paparazzi shot of them in a yacht. Their affair was condemned by no less than the Vatican. In 1964, Taylor was granted a divorce from Fisher, and ten days later, married Burton.
Before there was Brangelina, there was “Liz and Dick.” Taylor and Burton’s relationship was often referred to as the “marriage of the century” by the media. The two lived a jet-set lifestyle and spent millions on luxury and excess. After 10 dramatic years together, “Liz and Dick” divorced in 1974. Taylor had a brief dalliance with the Iranian ambassador to Washington after divorce from Burton, but the pair remarried in 1975. However, the doomed lovers only divorced again in 1976.
Taylor met her sixth husband, John Warner, a Republican politician for Virginia, soon after her final divorce from Burton. The two married on December 1976, but she found out that playing a role of a politician’s wife to be boring, lonely, and depressing. She became overweight, and addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. The pair separated in 1981 and divorced a year later in 1982.
After her divorce from Warner, Taylor dated some more before meeting her seventh and last husband, Larry Fortensky, a construction worker. The wedding again became paparazzi-stalked (one even parachuted into the ultra-secure and secret event). However, this didn’t end well for Taylor, as they divorced five years later. But still, they remained friends and in contact for life.
Every marriage that Taylor had become subject to intense scrutiny of the media and the public, becoming one of the first stars to have a life that’s a constant topic of gossip.
She was the godmother of paparazzi culture.
In an era when mainstream news rarely stopped to celebrity gossip, Taylor’s romantic exploits became an exception as her dalliance with men got front-page coverage. Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and the Kardashians are mere dilettantes compared to Taylor. She was the godmother of paparazzi culture – the face that launched a thousand tabloids. Growing up during the ‘50s and ‘60s was impossible to do if you want to avoid the Taylor phenomenon, as it penetrated the newspapers, magazine covers, to TVs and radios.
The paparazzi photograph of Taylor and Burton together on a yacht became a turning point that began a new era in which it became hard for celebrities to keep their personal lives separate from their public images.
She became known as the homewrecker who stole Eddie Fisher from the nice Debbie Reynolds, then dumped him to carry on with Richard Burton. She also had several brushes with death with her repeated life-threatening crises, which made her underwent more than 20 surgeries over the course of her life. Her romantic ups and downs, as well as her health problems and personal issues were obsessively scrutinized and commented on.
She was a trailblazer for many modern-day Hollywood excesses.
In other ways, Taylor was also considered a trailblazer for many modern-day Hollywood excesses as well. From her eight weddings to her status as the first star to get a $1 million payday, Taylor was an example of a bigger-is-better excess. She had everything excessively – husbands, work demands, endless health dramas, jewelries, luxuries, and other personal indulgences – making her subject to judgement from a multitude of moral perspectives.
Taylor often played the drama of her personal life more astutely than she did her film roles. She was the epitome of a grandiose, larger-than-life existence that we are not likely to see again in our lifetime.
She was an accidental feminist.
Elizabeth Taylor actually raised America’s feminist consciousness, but people are too distracted by her beauty and her off-screen drama to notice. For a generation of women, she unlocked possibilities that may have never been considered if not for example. She was touted as a “pre-feminist woman” who ran her own life and career the way she wanted to, years before any of those doctrines were formulated.
Her movie roles seemed to have introduced feminist ideas to a broad audience. In the film National Velvet, she played a character who challenged gender discrimination. Her next milestone, A Place in the Sun, can be seen as an abortion rights movie. In Butterfield 8, she was portrayed as a prostitute who chooses the men and controls her own sexuality – a core ideal of the third-wave feminism that emerged during the ‘90s.
Though she was hardly an archetypal feminist, consider how she navigated her stardom compared to the other great ‘50s sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe. Whereas Marilyn’s own emotional issues made her unlucky in love, Liz appeared to be the one in charge as she moved on from one rich husband to another. Even Mike Todd’s death in an airplane crash couldn’t destroy her passion or slow down her search for love.
Taylor became the first actress to command a million dollar pay for a movie, which almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox when it bombed. No regrets from her about that either – not for taking another married man on that movie set.
Though many might not have approved of everything she did, she gave women a sense of liberation and a push to act on what they want or feel about themselves.
She’s a fashion icon.
Taylor is considered as a fashion icon, both for her film costumes and personal style. Since her early days as an actress, she had a striking look which became a model for women in the ‘60s. Her heavily lined eyes and pale lipstick became a style template for both aspiring stars and housewives. Her signature white, Grecian chiffon cocktail dress, as seen in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, became a bestseller for designer Helen Rose. Her makeup in Cleopatra started a cat-eye eyeliner trend in makeup.
Her many costumes on screen provided inspiration for fashion designers over the years. Plus, her off-screen diamond-dripping glamorous looks can be directly linked to the oversized jewels worn by today’s actresses at red-carpet events.
Taylor also collected a lot of jewelry through her life – owning the 33.19-carat Kripp Diamond, the 69.42-carat Taylor-Burton Diamond, and the 50-carat La Peregrina Pearl – which were all gifts from her ex-husband Richard Burton.
After her death, her fashion and jewelry collections were auctioned to benefit her AIDs foundation.
She became the first celebrity to launch a perfume brand.
Besides being a successful actress, Taylor was also a successful entrepreneur. She became the first celebrity to create her own fragrance collection. In collaboration with Elizabeth Arden, Inc., she launched two best-selling perfumes: Passion in 1987 and White Diamonds in 1991. The creation and production of each of the 11 fragrances marketed in her name were personally supervised by Taylor. It was notable that she earned more through her fragrance collection than during her entire acting career. In 2005, she also founded a jewelry company, House of Taylor.
Her success in perfumery helped turn her into an icon for the then-wannabe stars like Kim Kardashian. She paved the way for a number of famous performers to commodify their star status into sellable products, making it available for sale to legions of fans.
She supported the fight against HIV and AIDs.
After her good friend, actor Rock Hudson died due to AIDs in 1985, Taylor became a tireless advocate and fundraiser for AIDS and HIV charities. She raised millions in three decades and paved a way for celebrities like Elton John, Madonna and Lady Gaga to lend their fame to AIDs fundraising.
Due to her humanitarian work, she became one of the gay icons, as she worked to ensure that everyone was treated with respect and dignity. Her charity revealed her altruistic nature.