Movie star Elizabeth Taylor, who died this week at age 79, was famous for her legendary beauty, her many marriages, her glamorous lifestyle, and, later in life, for her charitable work for HIV/AIDS. Her affair with actor Richard Burton — who she married twice — provided gossip column fodder for years. Her acting — for example, as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958) and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966) — could be sharp and arresting. She’s considered one of the biggest stars ever. Here, creative industries director Terrence Masson, who has worked in computer graphics and visual effects for some 20 feature films, discusses Elizabeth Taylor’s impact on American movies and culture.
How did Elizabeth Taylor uniquely impact the American movie scene?
She was a real pioneer in several ways. Everyone remembers her in large part for playing Cleopatra, and for her demanding a million-dollar salary for that role. At the time, it made her the highest-paid actress in history. At the same time, there was the big scandal of her affair with Richard Burton (her costar in “Cleopatra”), since he was married at the time. Unfortunately, Taylor fits the stereotype of the often-married socialite.
What was special, or iconic, about what Elizabeth Taylor brought to her roles?
She became famous for her role in the movie “National Velvet.” She was just 12, but her persona in that film was memorable. Later, in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” she gave an incredible performance. There are some really amazing, timeless scenes in that movie that are shown in film studies classes all over the world. She and Burton really smoldered on screen. More recently, she did the voice of baby Maggie on “The Simpsons” — which is pretty funny. It speaks to Taylor’s having a good sense of humor and being hip and modern.
Can you think of any current actress who can match the fame — and notoriety — that Elizabeth Taylor achieved during her heyday?
Angelina Jolie has the extreme personality/tabloid thing going on. But she doesn’t have the same kind of persona that Elizabeth Taylor had. Taylor didn’t really make it to the top level of iconic pop — like Elvis or Marilyn Monroe or James Dean — because she didn’t die young. Still, she was the most iconic, most “grand dame” actress of her day.