It’s almost impossible to write about Dame Elizabeth Taylor without mentioning her oft-quoted love of jewellery and her eight marriages, two of which were to legendary hellraiser Richard Burton. But there was a lot more to her than a propensity for wedding vows and diamonds.
Rising through the ranks from child actress to glamourous starlet and then genuine box office dynamite, Taylor cemented her reputation as a movie icon when she became the very first actress to command a fee of $1 million for her eponymous role in 20th Century Fox’s 1963 epic Cleopatra.
Up until that point, actresses had largely played second fiddle to their male co-stars in terms of billing and cold hard cash. Taylor was the first who had the smarts, and the talent, to compete with the boys. She did, however, remain modest over her trailblazing fee when she quipped: “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”.
Taylor won her first Oscar in 1960 for her role as part-time call-girl in BUtterfield 8. However, the award was widely considered to be the result of a sympathy vote following a near-fatal bout of pneumonia – a illness which redeemed her in the eyes of public after she ran off with Eddie Fisher, the husband of American sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. Even Taylor herself acknowledged that the film was one of her worst.
In 1966, she won a much more deserved Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This time she starred as aging lush Martha alongside real-life husband Richard Burton as her long-suffering spouse George in what would prove to be her most critically acclaimed film. The famous couple starred in several other films together, ranging from glamourous star-studded flick The VIPs to the entirely forgettable nonsense that was The Comedians.
As well as making her mark in the world of film, and building a business empire based on perfume and jewellery, Taylor also devoted much of her time to raising awareness of HIV and AIDS, as well as raising a great deal of money for the cause. Following the death of her friend and Giant co-star Rock Hudson from an AIDS-related illness in 1985, she became one of the first major celebrities to talk openly on a subject that had previously been taboo and widely misunderstood.
Always one for taking in waifs and strays, Taylor was a loyal pal to Montgomery Clift and James Dean, both promising young actors who struggled with their sexuality. She was also a vocal, if somewhat misguided, friend to pop superstar Michael Jackson when he was accused of sexually abusing a child in 1993.
As a mouthy dame, Taylor always came across as a significantly more ballsy character than many of her contemporaries such as the doe-eyed Audrey Hepburn, glacial Grace Kelly or tragic Marilyn Monroe and kept up with the times by tweeting under the name @DameElizabeth. Even towards the end, Taylor proved that she still marched to the beat of her own drum by insisting that when she was laid to rest, the service should start 15 minutes later than planned so that she could be late for her own funeral. A classy final act.