I had my first and final glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor suddenly last summer at a concert in London. I was standing with a knot of other journalists by a lift, when the doors opened and she emerged in a wheelchair, accompanied by a nurse and a PA. For a moment, she was at rest in the middle of us, uncertain of where she was supposed to go. Taylor had been a wheelchair-user for many years, the result of accumulating infirmities and spinal disorders which had their origin in her fall from a horse during the filming of National Velvet in 1944 when she was 12.
After a microsecond, we leaned away in a kind of physical shock at the recognition, the way trunks of tall trees are supposed to splay out from the crash site of a meteor. This was Elizabeth Taylor, for decades the most famous, adored and desired woman in the world, her name a byword, a catchphrase, for the ultimate fusion of beauty, wealth and power. We looked back into the lift. Who else would come out? Jimmy Stewart, walking with a cane? Would Spencer Tracy be jabbing grumpily at the lift buttons?
Elizabeth Taylor had been everything: the child star who became a grown-up star, an actress of such sexiness it was an incitement to riot — sultry and queenly at the same time. She was a shrewd, intelligent, intuitive acting presence in her later years and a much-married icon whose private life triggered the beginnings of today's celebrity industry.
Taylor had something fabulous and exotic and imperious — the role of Cleopatra in 1963, which marked the high-water mark of her fame, was the part she was born to play: powerful and desirable. There are plenty of beautiful and powerful female stars around now, but in 2011 none is coveted and fetishised in quite the same way.
Some swooning fans might think that her most purely ravishing presence was in a minor decorative role in the movie Beau Brummell, starring Stewart Granger. She was considered so beautiful as to be hyperreal. But her lethal sexiness began to uncoil with her Oscar-nominated performances in the late 1950s: in Raintree County and Suddenly, Last Summer> with Montgomery Clift, and in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opposite the equally young and beautiful Paul Newman. It was this film that marked her out as the sexy but unsatisfied wife whose needs could not be satisfied by the current husband.
Butterfield 8, in 1960, was her first Oscar, and the film that cemented her iconic status: she is the single girl with wealthy gentleman friends, the sort who might, ambiguously, leave money on her bedside table after one-night stands — intended as ‘presents’.
But it was her role as Cleopatra that ignited a new global gossip industry with almost atom-splitting power. It was the most expensive movie of its day, with colossal sets that, in a pre-CGI age, all had to be built. In this simulated empire, Taylor was queen. She fell, hard, for her rugged co-star Richard Burton, playing Mark Antony, despite the fact both were married to other people.
It was a sensation, a love affair of such planet-shattering importance, that they were almost comparable to the real Antony and Cleopatra. Liz and Richard starred in six movies together, including the daring and emotional Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (her second Oscar) — and were married from 1964 to 1974, and then, again, from 1975 to 1976. The very fact that they couldn't keep away from each other, couldn’t keep their hands off each other, made them the most gloriously romantic couple in the world.
After Cleopatra, her star began to fall, but she developed charity work, a stage career, and an unflagging interest in marrying more men. Despite the association with Michael Jackson, she was known to have kept her sanity and good humour.
One of her very last performances was saying the first word of Maggie, the baby in the cartoon The Simpsons; she says “Daddy!” An inspired casting choice.
*The views expressed by the authors are personal.