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Tuesday 2 September 2014

The best performance Liz gave was herself

Paul Whitington

Published 24/10/2009 | 05:00

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It was perhaps fitting that when Elizabeth Taylor reassured fans about the success of her heart surgery a few weeks back, she did so via Twitter. It should surprise no one that this master of the art of celebrity would be bang up to date with the latest technology, and she has apparently embraced the immediacy of the chat site with gusto.

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Now 77, the grande dame of Hollywood may not have acted much for quite a while but her greatest performance has always been herself, and she will no doubt continue merrily dancing in and out of the spotlight until the bitter end.

She's been in the limelight for the guts of 70 years, and while fame has destroyed some, and the modern generation of film stars never tire of moaning about it, Taylor has never really hidden her deep love of the flashbulb's glare.

In a way, she was thrust into stardom before she was old enough to have a say in the matter, but as a new book by William J Mann illustrates, she certainly took to it like a duck to water. And she's always had a brilliant knack for turning celebrity to her advantage at crucial moments.

At one point during How to be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, Mann evokes another hospital stint Taylor experienced in the early 1960s. Rushed to a London health clinic after a health scare in 1961, Taylor became the not very reluctant epicentre of a global media storm, with premature reports of her death circulating like wildfire and thousands of fans holding vigils in the surrounding streets.

Though in some discomfort, the actress was hardly at death's door, but she knew a good photo op when she saw one.

Ignoring the ill effects of a tracheotomy, she had three nurses hold her upright while the celebrated coiffeur, Alexandre of Paris, gave her a glamorous new 'artichoke' hairdo.

When she was ready for her public, she was wheeled towards the waiting cameras waving faintly but bravely from a wheelchair. The waiting crowd got so excited they ripped the door off her Rolls Royce and she had to be rushed to another car.

As the photos shot around the world, Taylor had a specific audience in mind -- the Academy members back in Los Angeles, who were getting ready to cast their votes for that year's Best Actress Award.

A year before, she had been demonised in Hollywood for running off with Eddie Fisher, husband of all-American 'girl-next-door' Debbie Reynolds.

But when she arrived back in Hollywood having recast herself as a victim, fans showered her limousine with flowers. And when she strode dramatically up to collect her Best Actress award for Butterfield 8, Eddie Fisher described the moment as being "like a coronation".

Partly by luck, but mainly by design, she's rarely been out of the news since, and you get the strong sense that that's how she likes it.

Married eight times and the survivor of more near-death health scares than Rasputin, Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor is perhaps the greatest celebrity of them all, and the fey and transient current bunch could definitely learn a lot from her. Born in London to American parents on February 27, 1932, Elizabeth was raised in the rarefied surrounds of Hampstead and began ballet lessons at three.

However, her life really got going after she decamped with her parents to Hollywood shortly after the outbreak of World War II. Her ambitious former actress mother quickly made some impressive connections, including the vitriolic social diarist Hedda Hopper.

Hopper and her mother pushed young Elizabeth towards child acting, and though her father wasn't keen on the idea, he soon found out that his daughter was. She was given a contract with Universal in 1941, and had made her screen debut before the end of the year. Her role opposite Mickey Rooney in the tear-jerker National Velvet (1944) made her a child star at the age of 12, but she herself had canvassed fiercely for the role.

Through the rest of the 1940s she was cast as a cute little girl in Lassie films and the like, often alongside Roddy McDowall, who would become a lifelong friend. But like many another child star before her, Taylor found the going tough once she reached adulthood.She once said that "if you were considered pretty, you might as well have been a waitress trying to act -- you were treated with no respect at all". Taylor was pretty alright, and her striking looks initially doomed her to forgettable peripheral roles.

MGM also forced her to marry at 18, in order to be considered respectable; little wonder she developed a certain cynicism for that institution later on. But Liz Taylor wanted to act, and neither husbands nor studios were going to stand in her way. She managed to persuade George Stevens to cast her in his 1956 oil epic, Giant, alongside James Dean and Rock Hudson, and surprised many by holding her own in a meatier role.

She received Oscar nominations for her performances in the historical drama Raintree County (1957) and the Tennessee Williams adaptation Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), before finally winning with the steamy 1960 thriller Butterfield 8. That same year she became the highest-paid actress in the world when she signed a one million dollar contract to play the title role in Cleopatra, and her fame went through the roof when she met her co-star, Richard Burton.

Though both were married, they fell very publicly in love while shooting in Rome, and the Italian photographers' aggressive attempts to catch them in action could be said to have started the 'paparazzi' phenomenon. And that spectacular on-off relationship kept her in the headlines for the next 15 or so years. But in fairness, she wasn't just famous for being famous: she could act too, as she proved most memorably in Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf (1966), opposite Burton, the man she'd later say was the love of her life.

pwhitington@independent.ie.

Irish Independent

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