In death, she is being heralded for her great beauty, iconic and legendary persona, tireless humanitarian work, and the compassion and optimism she exuded despite decades of physical ailments.
But Elizabeth Taylor was, above all else, a performer — a three-time Oscar winner, a radiant child star whose best work as an adult was her most splashy and scenery-chewing. While she may not have been the greatest actress of her generation in terms of pure talent and technique, she had an irresistible screen presence that kept audiences ravished by her films.
The contradictions alone were fascinating: She could seem demure yet seductive, aristocratic yet bawdy. That tiny voice and petite stature seemed at odds with the intimidating femininity that would define her glamorous aura.
When she was young, though — in early, family-friendly films such as "Lassie Come Home" (1943) and especially "National Velvet" (1944) — she possessed a startling and mature beauty for someone her age. Those mesmerizing eyes that luxurious dark hair and flawless skin — they were all there, even back then. It's as if she never had to suffer through an awkward period like the rest of us.
Under Vincente Minnelli's direction in "Father of the Bride" (1950), she got a rare chance to show off some comic ability as a young woman trying to put on the perfect wedding, even though Spencer Tracy, as her beleaguered father, gets the majority of the big laughs.
The following year, opposite a blue-collar Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun" (1951), she was gorgeous, sophisticated, a vibrant image of idealized womanhood. When they first meet and she asks flirtatiously, "Do I make you nervous?" as he's trying to play billiards, there's really only one answer.
But an evolution was occurring during this time in Taylor's career. The sweetness and freshness of her looks collided with the pain and anger that seethed within many of her characters.
One of her strongest performances came in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958), as the fragile and damaged but volatile Maggie. She was all curves, dressed in clingy white, alternately playing and pleading in that breathy Southern drawl. Watching her exchange Tennessee Williams' banter with Paul Newman in his peak made you want to hold your own breath.
The next year found her in another Williams adaptation, "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1959), as a young woman in danger after witnessing a tragedy (opposite Clift again). The playwright's work suited her — the tormented characters, the great, gothic theatricality of it all.
"I'm not like anyone, I'm me," she announces in a moment of defiant confidence in "BUtterfield 8" (1960). But as Gloria, the sassy, brassy, boozy, trashy, model-call girl, she also famously acknowledges, "I was the slut of all time!" Taylor is over the top in her big, confessional scene with Eddie Fisher, but still riveting to watch, the way she works the highs and lows of it. The performance would earn her the first of her two Academy Awards for best actress.
And then ... there was the 1963 Joseph L. Mankiewicz epic "Cleopatra," which would become infamous not just for its scope (it's the most expensive movie ever made — $44 million — if you adjust for inflation) but for providing the place where Taylor's path scandalously crossed Richard Burton's. They'd go on to marry and divorce twice in real life and co-star in several movies together; this first on-screen pairing, however, was less than auspicious. When Taylor (as Cleopatra) demands that Burton (as Mark Antony) kneel before her, it's a moment that should be fraught with tension. Instead, it's impossible not to laugh out loud. The outlandish makeup and costumes were also a hoot.
But it was Mike Nichols who would get the best work out of Taylor in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966). She and Burton tear each other apart as the boozy and bickering husband and wife George and Martha. And Nichols, making his directing debut in an adaptation of Edward Albee's painfully honest play, gets up close and personal for the carnage. The glamour girl was long gone here, and the performance earned Taylor her second best actress Oscar. (She also received an honorary Academy Award for her humanitarian work in 1993.)
Screen work was scarce in the 1980s. But even in her last film role — which, sadly enough, was the 1994 live-action version of "The Flintstones" — that big personality was on full display. Her performance as Fred's mother-in-law earned her a Razzie Award nomination for worst supporting actress, but she definitely livens things up. She bursts into a party, all hair and fur and jewels, flashing those famous eyes and calling for a conga line when the situation gets awkward.
She was still irresistible, even then.