Elizabeth Taylor – The Last Great Star of the Mighty Studios

Even though she impressively portrayed many different characters she did not do so through pronounced changes in her acting style or looks but rather showed a unique skill for adapting her strong personality to different protagonists always dominating the screen

One of the biggest and probably last stars of the old American film studios, Elizabeth Taylor, began her career at a very early age and it lasted for many decades without interruption. Perhaps we need not count her appearance with a dance school before the British royal family in London at the age of three. She was born in London to American parents who ran an art gallery there. At the eve of WW II, they returned to the US where her unusual (then childish) beauty served as a ticket to the world of film and after her second film, Lassie Come Home (1943), directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, she became a star. Her popularity grew further with Clarence Brown’s National Velvet (1945). In her teenage years, when many child actors lose themselves, she became an even bigger star as she delivered some interesting roles in some less interesting films. At the age of eighteen she began her successful “real” career with comedies Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951), directed by the genre’s master Vincente Minnelli. The father was played by Spencer Tracy who treated her in a fatherly way on the set and gave her insight into the secrets of the acting trade, which she later emphasized as one of the key influences on her development as an actress.

In 1951, she showed what a talented student she was with a role in one of the best American films of the first half of the 1950s – the powerful melodrama with a strong socially critical element A Place in the Sun by George Stevens, based on the famous novel American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. After that film many called the fair-skinned brunette with violet eyes the most beautiful woman in the world, but also, quite unusually, praised her for her exquisite acting talent. Even though she impressively portrayed many different characters, she did not do so through pronounced changes in her acting style or looks but rather showed a unique skill for adapting her strong personality to different protagonists always dominating the screen. Nevertheless, MGM Studios, with which she had a contract, was more impressed by her looks than acting and in her next few films decided to focus on her beauty. Still, that did not prevent her from showing her superior acting competence, especially in Richard Brooks’ melodrama The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). The fact that she is remembered as a great actress and not only as a Hollywood star, she owes to George Stevens who cast her in his film Giant (1956), famous as the last film starring the charismatic James Dean as well as the film in which Elizabeth Taylor delivered one of her most complex roles. The next several years were her most successful period as she starred in the Oscar-nominated Raintree County (1957) by Edward Dmytryk, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) by Richard Brooks and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) by Joseph Leo Mankiewicz, for which she won a Golden Globe. She won her first Oscar for her role in the film Butterfield 8 (1960) by Daniel Mann.

As an actress she heavily relied on her own personality which helped her to suggestively portray different characters thanks to a passion for acting as well as everything else she did in her real life. Maybe that is the reason she got married eight times. The most important marriages for her, as an actress, were her fifth and sixth – both with the great actor Richard Burton, which, besides, filling the tabloids, caused significant changes in her acting style. She was fascinated with Burton as a man as well as an actor and thus, under his influence, began changing her own acting style. Her acting style became much more pronounced and she uses physical transformation more often. The peak in this part of her career and the different acting approach is her role of Martha, an alcoholic married to a university professor (Burton) with whom she constantly and mercilessly fights in Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) by Mike Nichols, for which she received her second Oscar. Afterwards, she managed to achieve a balance between her two very different approaches to acting and showed a solid maturity in her later films such as Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) by John Huston and Secret Ceremony (1968) by Joseph Losey, also shown in this program. (Tomislav Kurelec)