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The death of Elizabeth Taylor marks the end of an era

By Kees Bakhuijzen - posted Monday, 28 March 2011

I'm a survivor - a living example of what people can go through and survive.

As the last great actress of the postwar decades in Hollywood (the "Golden Years"), Elizabeth Taylor was the epitome of the star that was bigger than life. The last thing we can say of her is that she was dull. Her words say it all: "The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they're going to have some pretty annoying virtues."

Her love life and her marriages were legendary and the object of tireless press attention. She married eight times, but only to seven men - as she married (and divorced) Richard Burton twice. She met Burton on the set of Cleopatra. This was the role for which she was the first actress ever to be offered a million dollars - only to gain sevenfold that amount following the conditions she demanded before signing.


Burtonwrote in his diary after their first meeting: "She was, I decided, the most astonishingly self-contained, pulchritudinous, remote, removed, inaccessible woman I had ever seen." To which he added: "Her breasts were apocalyptic, they would topple empires before they withered. Indeed, her body was a miracle of construction and the work of an engineer of genius."

Taylorwas also lyrical about Burton: "I can tell you what I think is sexy in a man. It has to do with warmth, a personal givingness, not self-awareness. Richard is a very sexy man. He's got that sort of jungle essence that one can sense. It's not the way he combs his hair, not the things he wears; and he doesn't think about having muscles. It's what he says and thinks."

With so much focus on her love life, it's easy to forget that Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most amazing actresses Hollywood has produced. From the famous beginning in National Velvet, when she was only 12 years old, through A Place in The Sun and Giant to her brilliant performances in the adaptations of the Tennessee Williams plays Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a hot tin Roof. Butterfield 8 in 1961 was the role she claimed that she hated - but it was the one that ironically gained her the Academy Award. It was Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1965, which gained her a very well-deserved second Oscar.

As she was only 35 when the film was made, she put herself on a diet of booze and fattening food to be able to play the slovenly 52-year old Martha. As for binge-drinking, marital bickering and cynical remarks, she didn't have to practice too much. It was a well-known fact that many scenes from the film mirrored her daily life with Burton.

In later years her movies didn't get that much critical acclaim and Taylor maintained her fame through drinking and eating herself into the proverbial train wreck. Paparazzi were eagerly waiting to take another "Liz, overweight. What happened to her beauty?"shot. Her visits to the Betty Ford clinic became notorious and the slovenly look she had gained with so much effort for Virginia Woolf now came very natural to her. So much so that singer and actor Divine once said: "All my life I've wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor – and now Elizabeth Taylor looks like me!"

But Taylor was always able to overcome her weaknesses and her love-life after Burton was a great help, - with marriages to senator John Warner and construction worker Larry Fortensky (20 years her junior). Her last husband she met at the Betty Ford clinic. She had a much-publicised friendship with Michael Jackson and she stood by his side when he was troubled by scandals.


But her most important role in these later years was as campaigner for funds for AIDS-research, a role she took to heart after the death of her close friend Rock Hudson in 1985. Taylor was renowned for her great sense of compassion. "No stranger to unhappiness, I have learned how to help others in pain," she once said.Physical problems put a heavy burden on her last years.

After an illness had almost killed her during the making of Butterfield 8, she spoke the memorable words: "Dying is many things, but most of all, it is wanting to live."

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About the Author

Kees Bakhuijzen is a Sydney-based freelance business and creative writer, translator, editor and proofreader. His articles have appeared in The Weekend Australian and several Dutch broadsheets. You can contact him by email:

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