Why Elizabeth Taylor Matters

[caption id="attachment_41130" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Everett Collection"]Elizabet Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof[/caption]

Blessed with great fortune and beset by tragedy throughout her life, two-time Academy Award-winner Elizabeth Taylor, who passed away today at the age of 79, has more than earned her place among cinema's lasting legends.

But why should an actress with scant modern screen credits remain relevant to the iPod generation? Well pop out those earbuds, 'cause we're about to tell you.

For starters, Taylor is not only one of Hollywood's greatest screen legends -- she, along with two-time husband Richard Burton, set the gold standard for celebrity coupledom decades before the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.

A nearly instantaneous child star, despite being unable to sing or dance, Taylor became a household name at age 12 upon release of 1944's "National Velvet," where she played a young girl who disguises herself as a male jockey and rides her horse to victory.

By the time she graduated to adult parts she was earning upwards of $2000/week (in late 1940s dollars), and transcended her glamorous image with critically-lauded roles in classics like "A Place in the Sun," "Giant," and Tennessee Williams' "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof."

In the middle of filming her iconic sex-symbol role in "Hot Tin Roof," husband Michael Todd died in a plane crash, but she soldiered on and completed the film. Co-star Paul Newman claimed he was "overwhelmed by her professionalism."

She wasn't always a pillar of work ethic, though. Prima donna behavior and personal illness on her part turned production of 20th Century Fox's (originally) modestly budgeted epic "Cleopatra" into a gargantuan disaster that nearly bankrupted the studio. The one element that kept the film from becoming a runaway flop was public interest spurred by the media feeding frenzy over Taylor's affair with actor Richard Burton.

The "Brangelina" of their day times 100, Taylor left then-husband Eddie Fisher to be with Burton, who was also married, thus one of Hollywood's great scandals was born. A photo of Burton and Taylor on the "Cleopatra" set in Rome, with an oblivious Fisher between them, became particularly famous for the looks they're shooting at each other.

Burton and Taylor formed a tempestuous hot-and-cold power coupling, tabloid fodder on an unprecedented level, with every fight and squabble grabbing headlines. They married in 1964, divorced a decade later before swiftly remarrying in 1975, followed by a second divorce in 1976. Altogether they made a dozen pictures together, and rumors persist that they would have married a third time had he not died in 1984.

There used to be a running joke about the bandleader who got his start playing Elizabeth Taylor's weddings. Of course, the screen legend's work is inseparable from her private life, but with eight walk-down-the-aisle notches on her belt how could it not be? She would eventually have four children with three different husbands, and become a grandmother at age 39.

[caption id="attachment_41133" align="alignright" width="220" caption="Everett Collection"]Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?[/caption]

Burton and Taylor reached the pinnacle of their careers with Mike Nichols' groundbreaking adaptation of Edward Albee's play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" In the film they play an old, volatile married couple engaged in full-on verbal combat. Beating out the more age-appropriate Bette Davis for the role of Martha, Taylor eschewed her status as the most beautiful woman in the world by gaining 30-pounds and adopting the look of a bitter, boozing frump at the end of her rope. All the major cast and crew were nominated for Oscars, including Burton and Taylor, but it was she who walked home with her second gold statue, after her first for "Butterfield 8."

By the mid-70s her acting career began to wane, yet she remained in the media spotlight, sometimes flattering, often harsh. Between alcoholism, repeated plastic surgeries, and bouts with illness, even Taylor remarked, "I enter hospitals as often as others enter taxi cabs." However, she also became a leading proponent in the fight against AIDS, raising over $50 million dollars to fight the disease through various organizations, including the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

Taylor even contributed to the biggest television phenomenon of our time, "The Simpsons," when she spoke baby Maggie's first word, "Daddy" in one of the series' now-classic episodes. Total Film named the heartmelting moment the greatest guest-star role in the show's history. That she could earn such accolades with a single word is a testament to her power as an actress and an icon.

What current starlet can even compare to the magnitude of Elizabeth Taylor's achievements? When the memory of today's award-winners and attention-grabbers fades into the ether, hers will linger, still electric, forever dazzling. A star.