Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, DBE (February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011) was a British-American actress, businesswoman, and humanitarian. She began her career as a child actress in the early 1940s, and was one of the most popular stars of classical Hollywood cinema in the 1950s. She continued her career successfully into the 1960s, and remained a well-known public figure for the rest of her life.
Taylor received numerous American and British honours during her career: the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1985, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Chaplin Award in 1986, the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1993, the Screen Actors Guild honorary award in 1997, and a BAFTA Fellowship in 1999. In 2000, she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II.
Why is she on the site? Because she had a near death experience in the late '50s as a result of surgery and it had a marked effect on the direction her life took; we explore this in the following sections.
Career and awards in brief
Wikipedia has an extensive and well explained description of Elizabeth’s career which we will not reproduce here except to highlight the critically and commercially successful films for which she received awards.
In 1957, Taylor starred with Montgomery Clift in Raintree County, a Civil War drama. 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.
She starred in two film adaptations of plays by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Taylor considered her 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 her the husband Michael 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. Taylor received positive reviews for her performance, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times calling her "terrific" and Variety praising her for "a well-accented, perceptive interpretation". Taylor was nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA.
Taylor's next film, Joseph L. Mankiewicz' Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), was another Tennessee Williams adaptation, and co-starred Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn. Taylor received her third Academy Award nomination and her first Golden Globe for Best Actress for her performance.
Although she disliked her role as a high-class prostitute in BUtterfield 8 (1960), her last film for MGM, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Taylor and Richard Burton were married the first time (his second marriage, her fifth) in 1964. They starred in 11 films together, including The V.I.P.s (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
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. 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, and Woolf was considered ground breaking for its adult themes and uncensored language, opening to "glorious" reviews. 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.
By the late 1960s, Taylor's career was in decline. However, 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, won her the David di Donatello for Best Foreign Actress. She then appeared with Burton in the Dylan Thomas adaptation Under Milk Wood. 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. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times stated, "the spectacle of Elizabeth Taylor growing older and more beautiful continues to amaze the population". Her performance won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival.
Her other films released in 1973 were the British thriller Night Watch (1973) and the American 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.
Three films in which she starred, National Velvet, Giant and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have been preserved in the National Film Registry, and the American Film Institute has named her the seventh greatest female screen legend of classical Hollywood cinema.
The NDE and its aftermath
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 the late fifties, she underwent an operation in which some of her spinal discs were removed and replaced with donated bone. It was during surgery that the NDE occurred.
Taylor has been interviewed a number of times and described the NDE and we have provided these as observations. She was interviewed by Larry King on CNN's Larry King Live, for example, and spoke about her having died on the operating table for five minutes while undergoing back surgery. She described passing through a tunnel towards a brilliant white light and encountering the spirit of Michael Todd, whom she referred to as her great love. She had wanted to stay in heaven with Todd, she said, but he had told her that she had work and life ahead of her, and he "pushed me back to my life."
The immediate effect this had on her was to make her unafraid of death, but it also precipitated a sort of religious crisis. Taylor was raised as a Christian Scientist, but converted to Judaism in 1959, taking the Hebrew name Elisheba Rachel. Although two of her husbands—Mike Todd and Eddie Fisher—were Jewish, Taylor categorically stated that she did not convert because of them, but that there was "comfort and dignity and hope for me in this ancient religion that [has] survived for four thousand years ... I feel as if I have been a Jew all my life."
Following her conversion, Taylor became an active supporter of Jewish and Zionist causes. Taylor helped to raise money for organizations such as the Jewish National Fund and sat on the board of trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the 1980s.
She also advocated for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, cancelled a visit to the USSR because of its condemnation of Israel due to the Six-Day War, and signed a letter protesting the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 of 1975. In 1976, she offered herself as a replacement hostage after more than 100 Israeli civilians were taken hostage in the Entebbe skyjacking.
HIV/AIDS charity work
"I decided that with my name I could open certain doors, that I was a commodity in myself—and I'm not talking as an actress. I could take the fame I'd resented and tried to get away from for so many years—but you can never get away from it—and use it to do some good. I wanted to retire, but the tabloids wouldn't let me. So I thought, If you're going to screw me over, I'll use you."
—Taylor on her decision to become a HIV/AIDS activist
During her lifetime, Taylor was one of the first celebrities to participate in HIV/AIDS activism, helping to raise more than $270 million for the cause. She began her philanthropic work in 1984, after becoming frustrated with the disease being widely discussed, but "nobody was doing anything about it". She began by helping to organize and by hosting the first AIDS fundraiser to benefit the AIDS Project Los Angeles.
In August 1985, Dr. Michael Gottlieb and she founded the National AIDS Research Foundation after her friend and former co-star Rock Hudson announced that he was dying of the disease. The following month, the foundation merged with Dr. Mathilde Krim's AIDS foundation to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). As amfAR focuses on funding research, Taylor founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) in 1991 to raise awareness and to provide support services for people with HIV/AIDS, paying for its overhead costs herself. Her trust continues to do so, and 25% of her image and likeness royalties are donated to ETAF. In addition to her work for people affected by HIV/AIDS in the United States, Taylor was instrumental in expanding amfAR's operations to other countries; ETAF also operates internationally.
Taylor testified before the Senate and House for the Ryan White Care Act in 1986, 1990 and 1992. She persuaded President Ronald Reagan to acknowledge the disease for the first time in a speech in 1987, and publicly criticized presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton for lack of interest in combatting the disease.
Taylor also founded the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center to offer free HIV/AIDS testing and care at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, DC, and the Elizabeth Taylor Endowment Fund for the UCLA Clinical AIDS Research and Education Center in Los Angeles.
Taylor was honoured with several awards for her philanthropic work. She was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honour in 1987 and received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993, the Screen Actors' Guild Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanitarian service in 1997, the GLAAD Vanguard Award in 2000, and the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001.
The men in her life and her futile search for nirvana
Taylor was married eight times. According to biographer Alexander Walker, "whether she liked it or not ... marriage is the matrix of the myth that began surrounding Elizabeth Taylor from [when she was sixteen]".
Before the NDE
Before her NDE, Taylor was sexually somewhat naïve and was even used by film companies. MGM organized her to date football champion Glenn Davis in 1948, and the following year she was briefly engaged to William Pawley, Jr., son of U.S. ambassador William D. Pawley. Film tycoon Howard Hughes also wanted to marry her, and even offered to pay her parents a six-figure sum of money if she were to become his wife. Taylor declined the offer, but was otherwise eager to marry young, as her "rather puritanical upbringing and beliefs" made her believe that "love was synonymous with marriage". Taylor later described herself as being "emotionally immature" during this time due to her sheltered childhood, and believed that she could gain independence from her parents and MGM through marriage.
Taylor was 18 when she married Conrad "Nicky" Hilton, Jr., heir to the Hilton Hotels chain, at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills on May 6, 1950. In the weeks after their wedding, Taylor realised that she had made a mistake; not only did Hilton and she have few common interests, but he was also abusive and a heavy drinker. She was granted a divorce in January 1951, eight months after their wedding.
Taylor married her second husband, British actor Michael Wilding—a man 20 years her senior—in a low-key ceremony at Caxton Hall in London on February 21, 1952. Taylor found their age gap ‘appealing’ as she wanted "the calm and quiet and security of friendship" from their relationship; he hoped that the marriage would aid his career in Hollywood. They had two sons, Michael Howard (born January 6, 1953) and Christopher Edward (born February 27, 1955). Taylor and Wilding announced their separation in July 1956, and were divorced in January 1957.
Taylor married her third husband, theatre and film producer Mike Todd, in Acapulco, Mexico, on February 2, 1957. They had one daughter, Elizabeth "Liza" Frances (born August 6, 1957). His death in a plane crash on March 22, 1958, left Taylor devastated. She was comforted by Todd's and her friend, singer Eddie Fisher, with whom she soon began an affair. As Fisher was still married to actress Debbie Reynolds, the affair resulted in a public scandal, with Taylor being branded a "homewrecker".
Taylor and Fisher were married at the Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas on May 12, 1959. Taylor was granted a divorce from Fisher on March 6, 1964
After the NDE
There are some forms of spiritual awakening that result in the person longing for a return to the place of divine love and bliss that they have experienced. The particularly intense experiences provide the person with a sense of unity and divine love that is never matched on earth, but unconsciously the people who have experienced this, search for a return to this feeling – and women often do this by seeking intense relationships with men.
The end result is often a total disaster, as unless the man is similarly spiritually awakened, he can never equal or fulfil the extraordinary desire for unity generated by the spiritual experience – the person is unconsciously seeking ecstasy, moksha, nirvana and annihilation and these experiences cannot be obtained by ordinary love making.
Elizabeth Taylor would not have known this. Selecting a new religion as she did provided her with no new answers, if anything it probably only served to confuse things.
While filming Cleopatra in Italy in 1962, Taylor began an affair with her co-star, Welsh actor Richard Burton, although Burton was also married. After her divorce from Fisher, Taylor married Burton in a private ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton Montreal.
The relationship was as intense as relationships can be when one participant is unconsciously searching for a spiritual fulfilment which cannot be achieved via other human beings. Ironically they did all the wrong things, leading a jet set lifestyle, spending millions on "furs, diamonds, paintings, designer clothes, travel, food, liquor, a yacht, and a jet". All forms of compensation for a lack of spiritual progress.
They divorced for the first time in June 1974, but reconciled and remarried in Kasane, Botswana, on October 10, 1975. Poor Richard must have been beside himself wondering what was wrong. As is well known he took to drink as compensation. The second marriage lasted less than a year, ending in divorce in July 1976.
Elizabeth Taylor clearly saw Richard Burton as the route to moksha, but he – poor man – was never able to take her there. She later stated, "after Richard, the men in my life were just there to hold the coat, to open the door. All the men after Richard were really just company."
Soon after her final divorce from Burton, Taylor met her sixth husband, John Warner, a Republican politician from Virginia. They were married on December 4, 1976, after which Taylor concentrated on working for his electoral campaign. Once Warner had been elected to the Senate, she started to find her life as a politician's wife in Washington, DC, boring and lonely, becoming depressed, overweight, and increasingly addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. Taylor and Warner separated in December 1981, and divorced a year later in November 1982.
Perhaps the saddest twist of all is that Taylor and Burton attempted a revival of Noël Coward's comedy Private Lives, on stage in Boston in spring 1983, and although commercially successful, received generally negative reviews. Taylor admitted herself to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre after the play's run ended, and Burton died the following year.
From that point it was downhill all the way. Elizabeth never did realise why the men in her life would never be able to fulfil the longing NDEs and other intense experiences engender in people. The alcohol, the addiction to prescription drugs are simply symptoms of an overwhelming and unfulfilled spiritual longing – the Native American Indians suffered the same fate and sought alcohol as their ‘solution’.
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. Taylor sold the wedding pictures to People for $1 million, and used the money to start her AIDS foundation. Taylor and Fortensky divorced in October 1996.
The effect of the NDE on her career
We are all born with a destiny. Some are born to support those who are key players, some are born to change the world, some are born to be creative and enrich life culturally. Taylor appears to have been born to enrich our lives culturally and effect some major changes, but before her NDE it is noticeable that she appeared to have been on cruise control, allowing the studios to dictate her roles for her and largely allowing them to even rule her life.
Before the NDE
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born on February 27, 1932, at Heathwood, her family's home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. She received dual 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 Kansas. They moved to London in 1929 and opened an art gallery on Bond Street.
The Taylors' privileged life in London was little affected by the Great Depression. Elizabeth was enrolled in Byron House, a Montessori school in Highgate. The Taylors decided to return to the United States in the spring of 1939 due to the increasingly tense political situation in Europe. In early 1940, after briefly living in Pacific Palisades, the family settled in Beverly Hills, where Taylor and her brother were enrolled in Hawthorne School.
In Los Angeles, Taylor's mother was frequently told that her "beautiful" 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. The fiancée of Universal Pictures' head executive John Cheever Cowdin, arranged Taylor to audition for the studio in early 1941. Taylor began her contract in April 1941, but Universal terminated her contract in March 1942. 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). The audition led to a three-month "test option" contract, which was upgraded to a standard seven-year contract in January 1943.
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). 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.
According to Taylor, she had "no real childhood" after becoming a star, as MGM controlled 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 practising the following day's scenes. 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.
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.
When Taylor married hotel-chain heir Conrad Hilton, Jr. 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).
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 causing a scandal when she divorced Hilton after only nine months of marriage. She signed a new seven-year contract with MGM in the summer of 1952, after several months of deliberation.
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. She was even loaned to Paramount Pictures for a film after its original star, Vivien Leigh, fell ill. Taylor starred in Beau Brummell another project in which she was cast against her will.
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 apparently attempted to break her will in order to make her easier to direct, as a consequence she was often ill, resulting in delays. To further complicate the production, Dean died in a car accident only days after completing filming; and grieving Taylor still had to film reaction shots to their joint scenes. Nevertheless, when Giant was released a year later, it became a box-office success and was widely praised by critics.
By 1959, Taylor owed one more film for MGM, which it decided should be BUtterfield 8 (1960), a drama about a high-class prostitute. She hated the film, but had no choice in the matter. The critics drooled with Crowther writing that Taylor "looks like a million dollars, in mink or in negligée".
According to Taylor, before the NDE, George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951), was the first film in which she had been asked to act instead of simply being herself.
After the NDE
After the NDE, Taylor starred in 20th Century-Fox's Cleopatra (1963) and somehow she changed – and took control. In March 1961, she developed nearly fatal pneumonia, which necessitated a tracheotomy; one news agency even erroneously reported that she had died. But 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. And from there she never looked back.
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.
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. But Cleopatra also became the biggest box-office success of 1963 in the United States, grossing $15.7 million, it took several years for the film to earn back its production costs, which drove Fox near to bankruptcy. But it marked a shift away from the control by studios of their ‘stars’, to one where the stars started to gain the upper hand. And it may be that some of Taylor and Burton’s destiny was to achieve this, as many actors subsequently benefited from this shift.
The studio publicly blamed Taylor for the production's troubles, of course, but their attempt to sue Burton and her for allegedly damaging the film with their behaviour was entirely unsuccessful.
Taylor was later 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, again showing that the tables were turning. The couple continued starring together in films in the mid-1960s, earning a combined $88 million over the next decade.
The seizing of control of her destiny also gave Elizabeth a chance to show that she could act, indeed act roles that were neither glamourous or easy. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), she played 50-year-old Martha, and 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. The New York Times stated that she "does the best work of her career, sustained and urgent". In other words, once she was allowed to act in roles that were interesting for her, she was an exceptionally good actress.
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 Franco Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew (1967), which Taylor and Burton co-produced, 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".
But there appears to be one area where she was unable to provide a convincing portrayal and that was when she was cast as a lover of a leading man other than Burton. Taylor's third film released in 1967, John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye, was her first without Burton since Cleopatra. It was originally slated to co-star Taylor's old friend Montgomery Clift. However, Clift died from a heart attack before filming began and he was replaced by Marlon Brando. Reflections was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release. 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 also unsuccessful. The spark simply was not there, and it appears that after the NDE, Burton was her source of inspiration for the reasons we gave above.
Taylor and Burton divorced in 1974. 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. In 1976, she participated in the Soviet-American fantasy film The Blue Bird (1976), a critical and box-office failure, and in 1977 sang in the critically panned film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music (1977). The spark had gone.
But Taylor found her niche in the 1980s, by turning to the stage and television.
One key role she chose was that of Regina Giddens in a Broadway production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. And here we see destiny playing out as instead of portraying Giddens in negative light as had often been the case in previous productions, Taylor's idea was to show her as a victim of circumstance, explaining "She's a killer, but she's saying 'Sorry fellas, you put me in this position'". Although rarely seen as such this was a role which challenged men, the rise of the feminine. The production premiered in May 1981, and had a sold-out six-month run despite mixed reviews.
Throughout her life, Taylor's personal affairs were subject to constant media attention. She was married eight times to seven men, endured serious illnesses, and led a jet set lifestyle, including amassing one of the most expensive private collections of jewellery. After many years of ill health, Taylor died from congestive heart failure at the age of 79 in 2011.
Vincent Canby - The New York Times in 1986
"More than anyone else I can think of, Elizabeth Taylor represents the complete movie phenomenon — what movies are as an art and an industry, and what they have meant to those of us who have grown up watching them in the dark ... Like movies themselves, she's grown up with us, as we have with her. She's someone whose entire life has been played in a series of settings forever denied the fourth wall. Elizabeth Taylor is the most important character she's ever played."
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