Ask young people what they remember of Elizabeth Taylor and the answer is likely to be in the form of a furrowed brow. But there is little doubt they would have heard of her. That is how she left us, more a creature of the public consciousness than a prisoner of the pictures. As the stormy spouse of Richard Burton (and six others), she came to embody the romantic pursuit of lifelong love. As an AIDS activist, at a time few people were fully aware of the disease and fewer still wanted to be tainted with its homosexual associations, she came to represent strength and courage. As an outspoken critic of former U.S. President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war — in protest, she declined to attend the 75th Annual Academy Awards — she revealed a hitherto unsuspected political side. As gossip fodder, she, with her reckless lifestyle, spilling over with yachts and diamonds, virtually birthed the tabloid frenzy that envelops stars today. And as a world-class beauty, her name came to stand for physical perfection, even to those who had never seen a film of hers. It's a pity that these associations today have overshadowed what she was foremost — a wonderful actress, winner of two Oscars, co-star to giants such as Spencer Tracy, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean.
Taylor's cinematic career effectively ended when she won her second Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in which she played a blowsy harridan opposite Burton. She was terrifyingly convincing as a wife on the brink of a marriage breakdown and a woman at the edge of sanity. But the public seemed less interested in her interpretation of Edward Albee's scabrous dialogue than in her intimacies with her co-star and real-life husband. Were Liz and Dick simply performing their parts, or were they making thinly disguised art of their real lives? This voyeuristic cloud completely eclipsed what was — and still is — a chillingly splendid portrait of the mysteries of marriage. Thereafter, Taylor's films (many of them with Burton) were mostly much less memorable, and her fame came less from being a star on the screen and more from being a regular in the tabloid press. For her greatest screen roles, we must look much earlier — he luminous child-aspirant of National Velvet; the pampered socialite of A Place in the Sun; the generations-spanning matriarch of Giant; the tempestuous empress in Cleopatra; and the wide-eyed manipulator of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where she is breathtakingly beautiful, the very embodiment of temptation that Tennessee Williams dangled, like a ripe fruit, in front of his physically crippled hero. Few actresses have combined art and allure with such effortlessness.