Elizabeth Taylor will be remembered for many things: a legendary actress, a stunning beauty, a huge supporter of marriage rights, and an unflinching pioneer who raised money and awareness of HIV/AIDS.
The two-time Oscar winner died early today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from congestive heart failure. Taylor was 79.
"My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor and love," her son Michael Wilding said in a statement.
"Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world. Her remarkable body of work in film, her ongoing success as a businesswoman, and her brave and relentless advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, all make us all incredibly proud of what she accomplished,” he said.
“We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts."
Taylor was one of the last glamour queens of Hollywood. She was a child star who blossomed into one of the most popular actresses of her time, working opposite such greats as Richard Burton (twice her husband), Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Roddy McDowall, Mickey Rooney, James Dean and Spencer Tracy.
She commanded amazing salaries and worked with some of Hollywood’s greatest directors, including George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli (yes, Liza’s daddy), George Stevens, Mike Nichols and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Taylor gave some of her best performances as an actress in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
She earned an Oscar nomination for “Raintree Country” (1957), playing a Southern belle on the edge of madness.
Taylor gave a stunning performance as the angry wife Maggie in Tennessee Williams’ stunning “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” (1958), playing opposite Paul Newman as her alcoholic husband who is struggling with his homosexuality. To this day, many fans believe Taylor was robbed on the Oscar for this stellar role.
She nabbed her third Oscar nomination for another Tennessee Williams tale, “Suddenly Last Summer,” a film that dealt with homosexuality, insanity and cannibalism.
Taylor finally won her first Oscar with “Butterfield 8” (1961), playing a call girl. Many observers did not think this performance was Taylor’s best and that Oscar voters were simply honoring Taylor for her body of work the preceded this role.
The second Oscar win came in 1966 for Taylor’s gritty performance in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” She played so against type that she astonished her fans; her Martha was plump, frumpy, potty-mouthed and domineering over her henpecked college professor husband … played by Burton, then her husband.
Meeting the legendary Elizabeth Taylor
After that, though, Taylor made a bunch of forgettable films, and she began turning her attention to her business and stage careers. This is when I had the privilege of interviewing Taylor on two occasions.
I was a nervous wreck getting a one-on-one interview with Taylor in South Florida in the early 1980s, where she was about to make her stage debut in “Little Foxes.” She was as sweet as could be, speaking softly with that unique voice and looking me directly in the eyes with those stunning lavender eyes that made her famous. She put me at ease right away, calling me “honey,” and patting my hands that were probably shaking. And as the questions began flowing, Taylor shared so many stories about her life and career. And this great actress, who was a legend on the big screen, confessed that she was terrified of the thought of acting in front of a live audience.
Taylor need not fear her nerves; she was brilliant in “Little Foxes” and the audience loved her. I briefly attended the premiere party after the show to congratulate Taylor, then rushed home to write a favorable review. My review was the first in print, so I was the first theater critic in the world to review Taylor as a stage actress, something I will never forget.
Flash forward to 1987, and I again got the opportunity to interview Taylor in South Florida. This time, it was the businesswoman I was meeting. She was in town to promote her debut perfume called Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion, sold in a purple, heart-shaped bottle for a whopping $165 an ounce. Passion would become one to the top-selling perfumes in history and make her a boatload of money.
I will remember Taylor for being so accessible and so earthy, able to make fun of herself and her eight marriages. But I will also remember this Hollywood legend for being a huge supporter of the LGBT community and for her fight against HIV/AIDS.
Leading the fight against HIV/AIDS
At a time when the world was panicked about HIV/AIDS and when scientists weren’t even sure what they were investigating, Taylor was the first celebrity to join the fight against HIV/AIDS, chairing the first major AIDS benefit and calling on her A-list friends for support.
Taylor became even more adamant in her fundraising efforts when her friend and former “Giant” co-star Rock Hudson publicly announced that he had AIDS.
Over the years, Taylor’s relentless campaign against AIDS reportedly raised more than $250 million to fight the disease, but perhaps even more important, she humanized the disease and made it easier for ordinary people to discuss it.
"Today, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community lost an extraordinary ally in the movement for full equality," GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios said. “At a time when so many living with HIV/AIDS were invisible, Dame Taylor fearlessly raised her voice to speak out against injustice. Dame Taylor was an icon not only in Hollywood, but in the LGBT community where she worked to ensure that everyone was treated with the respect and dignity we all deserve."
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) honored Taylor with the Vanguard Award at the 11th annual GLAAD Media Awards in 2000 for her work to increase the visibility and understanding of the LGBT community. For the past several years, she has also served as an underwriter for the GLAAD Media Awards Young Adult Program, where hundreds of young LGBT adults and allies attend the event.
"Why shouldn't gay people be able to live as open and freely as everybody else?" Dame Taylor said in her acceptance speech at the 11th annual GLAAD Media Awards. "What it comes down to, ultimately, is love. How can anything bad come out of love? The bad stuff comes out of mistrust, misunderstanding and, God knows, from hate and from ignorance."
Taylor’s legacy will endure for her philanthropy and for her acting. She was one of a kind.
How to honor Elizabeth Taylor
Taylor is survived by sons Michael Wilding and Christopher Wilding, daughters Liza Todd and Maria Burton, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
The family has announced that Taylor’s funeral will be private.
Instead of flowers, contributions may be made to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
Personal messages can be posted to a Facebook tribute page.