Hollywood screen legend Elizabeth Taylor made her mark on the screen in the 1950s as one of the last of the great silver-screen superstars of the studio era. From "Cleopatra" to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," the English-born actress captivated with her onscreen intensity and beauty, even as her chaotic off-screen love life became a staple of tabloid coverage.
With Taylor's passing on Wednesday (March 23) at the age of 79, the world has lost not only a great movie siren, but also a towering pop-culture figure whose influence ran well beyond her acting to philanthropy, fashion and American mores.
Since her early days as an actress, Taylor had a striking look that became a model for women in the 1960s. Her pale, pearl-colored lipstick and heavily lined eyes became a style template for aspiring starlets and housewives alike, and the signature white chiffon cocktail dress she wore in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" opposite Paul Newman became a best-seller for designer Helen Rose. It was just one of many looks Taylor modeled in her most famous films that provided inspiration for designers over the years. Taylor's offscreen diamond-dripping glamorous look can be directly linked to the gaudy, oversize jewels worn by today's actresses at big awards shows such as the Oscars.
That fashion influence continues to this day, with actresses from Natalie Portman to Angelina Jolie often copping Taylor's raven-haired, smoky-eye looks. In fact, Jolie has long been linked to playing the title role in a new "Cleopatra," though it would use different source material than the bloated-budget 1963 film Taylor starred in that singlehandedly sunk the genre known as the "sword and sandal" epic.
In other ways, Taylor was also a trailblazer for many of modern-day Hollywood's excesses as well. From her seven marriages, including two to onscreen foil Richard Burton — both were married to other people when they began an affair on the set of "Cleopatra" — to her status as the first star to earn a $1 million payday, Taylor was a model of bigger-is-better excess.
No less an authority than the Vatican denounced her relationship with Burton, which was just one of many high-profile relationships she had with men, including a dalliance with the Iranian ambassador to Washington while on a break between her marriages to Burton. She also wed Paris Hilton's great uncle, Conrad "Nicky" Hilton; British actor Michael Wilding; producer Michael Todd; singer Eddie Fisher; five-term U.S. Senator John Warner and mullet-sporting construction worker Larry Fortensky.
Her marriage to Warner became fodder for cartoonist Gary Trudeau in his long-running "Doonesbury" strip, which at one time referred to her as the "last star" in her middle age, describing Taylor as "a tad overweight, but violet eyes to die for."
Her teenage performance in 1944's "National Velvet" created a template for the obligatory infatuation with the majesty of horses by young girls that has been mined for comedic gold by everything from the spoof movie "Hot Shots!" to the "Carol Burnett Show" and dozens of online memes.
After her good friend actor Rock Hudson died of complications from AIDS in 1985, Taylor became a tireless advocate and fundraiser for AIDS/HIV charities, raising millions over the past three decades and paving a path for celebrities such as Madonna, Elton John and Lady Gaga to lend their names and fame to AIDS fundraising.
In addition to her movie career, Taylor was also a successful entrepreneur, launching a series of best-selling perfumes, including the legendary White Diamonds line. It was the latter that also helped turn her into an icon for such young multi-media wannabe starlets as Kim Kardashian, who has spoken often about how Taylor's style influenced her own. "I am so saddened about the passing of Elizabeth Taylor! She will always be my idol!" Kardashian tweeted on Wednesday.
From her friendship with late pop great Michael Jackson (who wrote a song called "Elizabeth, I Love You" for his pal on her 65th birthday) to an unexpected cameo as Fred's mother-in-law in 1994's "The Flintstones," to a pair of stints in rehab for addiction to alcohol and painkillers in the 1980s and several brushes with death over the course of her career, Taylor lived the kind of grandiose, larger-than-life existence that we are not likely to see again in our lifetime. Her influence will be with us for a long, long time.