Sad news reaches us this morning about the death of Elizabeth Taylor, aged 79, from congestive heart failure. It’s been a pretty grim year so far, with the passing of actors like Pete Postlethwaite and, last week, Michael Gough. Taylor’s death, though, feels like the closing of a specific chapter in movie history.
I suppose the fascination the media, and the general public, had with Taylor’s relationship with Richard Burton prefigured our own obsession with celebrity culture. Of course, Laurence Olivier’s off-screen relationship with Vivien Leigh had been a major pre-occupation for the papers in the 1930s and ’40s. But Taylor and Burton seemed emblematic of a more glamorous and unattainable lifestyle; Vogue magazine covers, the 33.19 carat Krupp diamond, yachts, Swiss homes, royal friends. Along with John and Jackie Kennedy, the Burtons were arguably the most famous couple in world. The public interest in their private lives was constant, the media circus was unrelenting.
The Burtons’ decade long marriage, divorce, remarriage and final divorce gave us “Liz and Dick”, the vulgar tabloid shorthand precursor to “Branjelina”. But the Burtons seemed, to some extent, happy to channel their private lives onscreen: their initial courtship in Cleopatra (1963), the very public affair in The VIPs (1963), “the battling Burtons” in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? ((1966) and, wryly, The Taming Of The Shrew (1967).
Taylor had been a child actress — Lassie Come Home (1943) and National Velvet (1945). During the 1950s, she began developing a credible body of work — A Place In The Sun opposite Montgomery Clift, Raintree County (her first Oscar nomination), Giant with James Dean and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman. She started the 1960s well, with a Best Actress Oscar win for Butterfield 8, and then played opposite Burton in Cleopatra.
Of course, it’s impossible to know, had she not met Burton, where her career would have gone, what kind of work she’d had done, particularly as old Hollywood, of which she was such so emblematic, gave way to the New Hollywood of the Easy Rider generation. Her best work, certainly, was in the 1950s and 1960s; her best film, I’d say, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, a vivid, powerful performance as blousy Martha, barely suppressing the anguish and bitterness of her relationship with her husband, George, played brilliantly by Richard Burton.