Elizabeth Taylor was so traffic-stopping gorgeous that even if she couldn't act, she almost certainly would have been a movie star.
But though her dramatic career paled next to the melodrama of her life, Miss Taylor could act. She was one of the rare examples of a beauty who ripened into an actress. (Michelle Pfeiffer is another.)
She was Hollywood's top box-office female in the period bracketed by the onset of the Korean War and the onset of Vietnam. However, her dramatic promise was evident as early as age 10, when she stared into the soul of a collie in Lassie Come Home (1943).
Her emotional gravity instantly distinguished the young Miss Taylor from peppy moppets such as Shirley Temple and winsome teens such as Judy Garland. She wasn't there to entertain her audience with a song or a smile. She was there to save a horse named The Pye, as she did in National Velvet (1944), in a performance so naturalistic and urgent that surely the child fused with the role.
Although it must have taken a considerable toll on her as a woman, Miss Taylor's acting strength was the ability to merge emotionally with whatever role she played.
Without training other than that provided by her mother, a thwarted actress, Miss Taylor plumbed her emotional experience to create a character. (This is the basis of Method acting, but explain that to a 12-year-old.) Unsettling in retrospect is that Miss Taylor conveyed this depth of feeling before she was old enough to possess more than a shallow reservoir of memories.
This certainly helped her make the transition to adult roles, one of the few child stars to do so (later examples include Natalie Wood and Jodie Foster), although she barely registered in her first grown-up parts. Miss Taylor was merely decorative for such films as A Date for Judy and Julia Misbehaves (both 1948).
The first director who demanded more than decollete from Miss Taylor was George Stevens, who cast her as debutante Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun (1951). As the superficial rich girl whose love for a factory worker (Montgomery Clift) transforms her, Miss Taylor evolves from a glacier into an active volcano during the course of the film. Her stage-trained costar, Shelley Winters, was duly impressed by Miss Taylor's combination of "simplicity and depth."
She was to play many variations on the theme of the rich man's daughter, but none more delightful than in Father of the Bride (1950), in which her dreamy narcissism comically attested to the beginning of a lifelong affair.
Although wry in life, the screen Miss Taylor was a tragedy queen who alternated between being frustrated by love and dying for it. In a series of '50s melodramas, she refined this defining persona.
As pleasure-loving Helen Ellsworth, she expired from husbandly neglect (and pneumonia) in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), a hauntingly understated performance in an otherwise overheated film. As delusional Southern belle Susanna Drake in Raintree County (1957), she entraps an idealistic schoolteacher (Clift again), descending into madness as her character collapses fantasy and reality.
In an era of strict censorship, Miss Taylor's erotically charged presence suggested what the script couldn't specify. She memorably played two Tennessee Williams creatures: lusty Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), who claws and cloys at her husband (Paul Newman), more interested in the bottle than his bride; and luminous Catherine in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), on the brink of a breakdown after the death of her cousin. Though neither version of Williams' plays dared speak the "H" word - which would have explained the closeted homosexuality of the male characters - Miss Taylor is electric as the antagonistic Maggie and spectral as the passive Catherine.
Butterfield 8 (1960), for which Miss Taylor won the first of two Oscars, is the silliest of melodramas and a blinding example of how star power can fuel an empty scenario. Miss Taylor plays a "model" (read: call girl) who speeds toward her own extinction for lack of true love, sulking her way through the film like a teenager trying to get Daddy's attention. It works. The wordless opening scene, where Taylor's character wakes up in an unfamiliar bed, prowls through the boudoir like a heat-seeking missile, brushes teeth with whiskey, and steals the fur of her lover's wife is star acting of the highest order.
Beginning with Cleopatra (1963), Miss Taylor entered her imperial phase, the queen of international intrigue and romance dressed not to the nines, but the tens.
As the princess of the Nile, she was carried into Rome, where she serially romanced Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Antony (Richard Burton) with garish violet eye makeup and pumpkin-colored gowns. In The V.I.P.s (1963), she was torn between husband (Burton) and lover (Louis Jourdan), swathed in the inevitable white fur and looking both purposeful and lost on the airport tarmac.
She bounced between career lows - in The Sandpiper (1965), as a muu-muu-wearing beatnik, and Boom! (1968), as a stripper-turned-millionairess - to a career high in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Deliberately frumpy and foulmouthed, her character Martha is a hen who doesn't merely peck at her husband (Burton), but devours him, screeching, "I'm loud and I'm vulgar and I wear the pants in the house because somebody's got to, but I am not a monster!" This monstrously great performance won her a deserved second Academy Award.
She would make dozens more films, including the disturbing Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), the lively The Taming of the Shrew (also 1967), Secret Ceremony (1968), A Little Night Music (1978), The Mirror Crack'd (1980) and even The Flintstones (1994).
Although Miss Taylor almost always dignified her material, no matter how preposterous or camp, increasingly the role of the real-life Elizabeth Taylor eclipsed the reel role of the moment.