Her Film legacy
Despite two Oscars and brief flurries of acting excellence under the guidance of top directors, Elizabeth Taylor is better remembered for the long shadow her personality cast across decades of activity in the public eye than for her movie roles. With a few exceptions like A Place in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Reflections in a Golden Eye, she did not make great movies. On the other hand, her film career far eclipsed that of Greta Garbo, another actress who suffered from poor assignments within the studio system. Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt offers his assessment:
Lassie Come Home (1943)
Made with MGM’s stock company of British actors during World War II, the sentimental dog movie let the 11-year-old London-born actress establish her screen presence opposite Roddy McDowall, who became a lifelong friend.
National Velvet (1944)
A year later and again in a backlot version of Merry Olde England, a second animal movie established Taylor as a bona fide child star opposite another one, Mickey Rooney. The film remains a perennial on TV.
Little Women (1949)
The young actress more than held her own (despite an unbecoming blond wig) in this all-star cast, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, as the frivolous and self-centered Amy March.
Father of the Bride (1950)
Under the direction of Vincente Minnelli and perhaps the “parental guidance” of Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, Taylor moved swiftly from child star to mature young actress in this genteel wedding comedy.
A Place in the Sun (1951)
At 19, Taylor as the rich girl in love with Montgomery Clift enjoyed her first role as a love goddess, establishing her otherworldly dark-haired beauty and credentials as a star. Give director George Stevens, then at the height of his creativity, considerable credit.
Stevens took her to new heights of sensual maturity in this sprawling and sudsy widescreen adaptation of Edna Ferber’s Texas-and-oil saga. A bit of trivia: Taylor was actually a year younger than co-star James Dean.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
While never disowning its theatrical origins, Richard Brooks turned Tennessee Williams’ play into a highly charged tour de force of acting, despite having to water down the sexual content due to the Production Code. Taylor got her second Oscar nomination but was deeply affected by the plane-crash death of husband Mike Todd a week into production.
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
In another Williams adaptation and another in which references to homosexuality were only inferred, Taylor gave one of her best performances under Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s direction.
Butterfield 8 (1960)
Well, you have to include it since she won her first best actress Oscar, but it’s not much of a movie. Daniel Mann’s adaptation of the John O’Hara novel about a lovelorn call girl looks pretty dated these days.
Again, it’s not the movie but the sideshow that counts here with Liz exchanging her fourth husband (Eddie Fisher) for her fifth (Richard Burton) and overcoming a near-fatal illness to deliver one of the most expensive bombs in movie history for Fox. Director Mankiewicz never recovered, but she did.
The V.I.P.s (1963)
This is an example of the campy dreck she did in marital fidelity to then-husband Burton that interwove their offscreen myths into onscreen roles.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Time has not treated this hugely successful and much-honored Mike Nichols adaptation of Edward Albee’s stage hit kindly, but it was considered brave at the time — her willingness to put on weight and act “ugly,” for instance — and Taylor did earn a second Oscar for best actress.
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
Of the many Taylor-Burton vehicles, this adaptation directed by Franco Zeffirelli is easily the bawdiest and most fun, although Shakespeare purists will blanch.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
Finally, in a Taylor film that can express candor about sexual behavior, John Huston directed this underrated melodrama about a hotbed of sexual repression on a Southern Army base, from a novel by Carson McCullers. This is one of the better if more obscure films in the careers of both Taylor and Marlon Brando.
The Only Game in Town (1970)
Stevens’ last film has Taylor and Warren Beatty, but they can’t save it from being yet another costly Taylor flop for Fox. The studio spent a fortune building a Las Vegas set in Paris to accommodate Taylor’s wish to be near Burton, who was busy filming Staircase.
The Blue Bird (1976)
Despite a cast that includes Taylor (in four roles), Jane Fonda, Ava Gardner, Cicely Tyson and Robert Morley, an aging George Cukor wasn’t able to find the magic in Maurice Maeterlinck’s novel, about the search for the Blue Bird of Happiness, which was filmed in Moscow and Leningrad.
A Little Night Music (1977)
Harold Prince, taking a break from Broadway, directed this adaptation of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular musicals, but it failed in just about every way to reach a cinema audience.