She embodied the excesses of Hollywood and she transcended them. Living large proved a brilliant survival strategy for Elizabeth Taylor who saw fame as neither a blessing nor a curse. MANOHLA DARGIS

T he last movie star died recently. By the time Elizabeth Taylor left this mortal coil at 79, she had cheated death with a long line of infirmities that had repeatedly put her in the hospital — and on front pages across the world — and in 1961 left her with a tracheotomy scar on a neck more accustomed to diamonds. The tracheotomy was the result of a bout with pneumonia that left her gasping for air and it returned her to the big, bountiful, hungry life that was one of her greatest roles. It was a minor incision (later, she had surgery to remove the scar), but it's easy to think of it as some kind of war wound for a life lived so magnificently.

Unlike Marilyn, Liz survived. And it was that survival as much as the movies and fights with the studios, the melodramas and men (so many melodramas, so many men!) that helped separate Taylor from many other old Hollywood stars. She rocketed into the stratosphere in the 1950s, the era of the bombshell and the Bomb, when most of the top female box-office draws were blond, pneumatic and classifiable by type: good-time gals (Betty Grable), professional virgins (Doris Day), ice queens (Grace Kelly). Marilyn Monroe was the sacrificial sex goddess with the invitational mouth. Born six years before Taylor, she entered the movies a poor little girl ready to give it her all, and did.

Accepted no defeat

Taylor, by contrast, was sui generis, a child star turned ingénue and jet-setting supernova, famous for her loves (Eddie and Liz, Liz and Dick) and finally for just being Liz. “I don't remember ever not being famous,” she said. For her, fame was part of the job, neither a blessing (though the jewels were nice) nor a curse. Perhaps that's why she never looked defeated, unlike those who wilt under the spotlight. In film after film she appears extraordinarily at ease: to the camera born. She's as natural in “National Velvet,” the 1944 hit that made her a star at 12, as she is two decades later roaring through “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” proving once again that beauty and talent are not mutually exclusive, even in Hollywood.

In many respects she was a classic product of the old studio system. Pushed by a quintessential stage mother, she was signed to a contract in 1943 by MGM, which was banking on child talent, much of which was used up by adolescence, either disappearing for good or absorbed into the ranks of character actors. Unlike so many fledgling stars then and now, Taylor blossomed as a teenager and seemed remarkably relaxed in that newly plush body that soon became a big-screen fetish. She made it all seem so effortless, as did the studio machinery grinding away in the background. “She's the kind of a girl,” wrote a reporter for The New York Times in a charmingly naive 1949 profile, “to whom nice things just happen.”

Yet Hollywood and nice don't often keep company, as one after another crash-and-burn studio tell-all attests and the perils faced by the young, beautiful and exploitable are legion. “Remind me to be around when she grows up,” Orson Welles joked after watching the 10-year-old Taylor shoot a scene in “Jane Eyre.” It's a half-funny, queasy comment and however made in jest (or so you hope), it's also a reminder of the predators that were always lurking and could have swallowed Taylor whole. That seems particularly the case given how, as she developed (at 16, she was “obviously mature,” as the reporter from The Times put it), she often seemed far too knowing, too womanly for the juvenile and young-lady parts she played.

It was George Stevens, who directed “A Place in the Sun,” who gave the young actress her first Elizabeth Taylor role, the one in which everything — her looks, presence and power — came together. Based on Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy, it starred Taylor as a heiress whose allure is so potent it drives a young striver (Taylor's close friend, Montgomery Clift) to murder his pregnant working-class lover (Shelley Winters). Everything wondrous and mysterious about cinema itself is captured in a dazzling, sensuously lengthy kiss between Taylor and Clift that Stevens shot in tight, almost claustrophobic close-up, filling the frame with beauty made immortal by film. It's an intoxicating vision of bliss if one that — and this is critical to the film's force — has been paid for by the murder of another woman.

Here, the movies seemed to say, was a woman worth killing for. It's hard to think of many actresses, even those die-hard professionals raised inside the old studio bubbles, who could have weathered such an impossible burden. Taylor managed the role of sex object effortlessly as if it too were just part of the job. In contrast to so many other actresses, she seemed as desiring as desirous, with the gift of a thrillingly unladylike appetite.

Food lover too

She was a great lover of food, of course, as her cruelly documented weight gains make evident. Yet the appetite that appeared to drive, at times even define her, exceeded mere food to include everything, and her consumption of men, booze, jewels and celebrity itself was an astonishment.

Living large proved a brilliant survival strategy as well as something of a rebuke to the limits of the studio system, both its formulas and false morality, which was all but gone by the time she appeared in “Virginia Woolf” in 1966. Her weight went up and down and the accolades kept coming. She cheated on one husband and then another at a time when adultery was still shocking, and her career kept going. She was a lovely actress and a better star. She embodied the excesses of Hollywood and she transcended them. In the end, the genius of her career was that she gave the world everything it wanted from a glamorous star, the excitement and drama, the diamonds and gossip, and she did it by refusing to become fame's martyr.

© 2011 New York Times News Service

Unlike Marilyn (MONROE), Liz survived. And it was that survival as much as the movies and fights with the studios, the melodramas and men (so many melodramas, so many men!) that helped separate Taylor from many other old Hollywood stars.