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," wrote the venerable film critic Vincent Canby in The New York Times. One of Hollywood's most indelible icons, Taylor has been in the public eye for six decades. Today, she is indefatigable humanitarian who is credited with raising more than $100 million in the crusade against AIDS. But first and foremost she is a thrilling film actress, the last brilliant star to emerge from the great Hollywood studio system, the heart of nearly 60 motion pictures, the muse of some of the movies' most revered film directors, including Joseph L. Mankiewicz, George Stevens, John Huston, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, Richard Brooks, Franco Zefferelli, and Mike Nichols, and the screen's finest interpreter of the works of two giants of the American theater—Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.
Born in London to American parents, Taylor moved to California with her family shortly before World War II erupted in Europe. Soon noticed by a talent scout, she made her film debut at age ten in There's One Born Every Minute. In 1943, she signed a long-term contract with MGM and fell in with the studio's celebrated gang of kid stars: Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, and Freddie Bartholomew. People noticed the exceptionally beautiful tyke on the sidelines of Lassie Come Home and Jane Eyre, but it was the horse-crazy 12-year-old girl at the center of the classic National Velvet (1944) that audiences throughout the world fell in love. A spate of frothy teenage movies followed, culminating with her first on-screen wedding in Minnelli's delightful Father of the Bride.
Then in 1951, George Stevens cast her as the impossibly desirable socialite in A Place in the Sun opposite Montgomery Clift, and their doomed romance and heartbreakingly beautiful performances suddenly turned the popular ingénue into a major adult star. She was not yet 20 years old. Stevens' Giant (1956), meanwhile, forged a new level of respect for Taylor's talent, and over the next decade she developed into one of the most glamorous and highly paid performers in the world, setting a record by earning a then-astounding $1 million to star in the legendary epic Cleopatra (1963). Along the way she was nominated for Academy Awards as best actress three years in a row—beginning with Raintree County in 1957, and followed by Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer. "As an actress, she has a breadth and scope beyond what she has ever been credited with," said her two-time director Richard Brooks at the time.
Finally, she won her first Academy Award for Butterfield 8 (1960) and returned to the podium six years later for her blistering "Martha" opposite Richard Burton's "George" in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This performance also earned her awards from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the British Film Academy.
Taylor had met Burton on the set of Cleopatra—he was Antony to her Egyptian queen—and by the time Mike Nichols directed them in Virginia Woolf they had become filmdom's most famous co-stars and one of the century's most famous couples. Together they also made the V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper, Doctor Faustus, The Comedians, Boom!, Hammersmith Is Out, and The Taming of the Shrew. Divorce His, Divorce Hers, the couple's one made-for-television film was a ratings bonanza. Also acting without Burton, Taylor remained the era's ultimate movie star appearing opposite Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye, Michael Caine in X, Y, and Zee, Warren Beatty in The Only Game in Town, Mia Farrow in Secret Ceremony, Henry Fonda in Ash Wednesday, and even Andy Warhol in The Driver's Seat.
In 1981, Taylor made her Broadway debut as Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, for which she received a Tony Award nomination, the Theater World Award, and a special Outer Critics Circle Award. In 1983, she made her second and last Broadway appearance, opposite Burton, in Noel Coward's Private Lives.
Two years later, Rock Hudson, her Giant costar and one of her most cherished friends, died of AIDS. In response to the tragedy, she cast herself in the role of Hollywood's most fearless fund-raiser in the fight against the disease, first by rallying a still reluctant film industry behind a major show in support of AIDS Project Los Angeles, then by co-founding AmFar (the American Foundation for AIDS Research) with Dr. Mathilde Krim. In 1991, Taylor established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
For her activism, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored Taylor with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1992. That same year, the American Film Institute honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award for her glorious contribution to the art of motion pictures. At the time, she was the award's youngest recipient.
Recently made a Dame of the British Empire and named a Commander of Arts and Letters by the French government, Taylor has lived virtually her entire life with us, just as millions of people around the world have grown up and lived their lives watching her. "It would be hard to conceive of a world without Elizabeth Taylor," said The Independent earlier this year on the eve of her 70th birthday.