Elizabeth Taylor: An appreciation

Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson
Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in a publicity still for "Giant" (1956), George Stevens' mammoth tale of oil men in Texas. By CBSNews.com producer David Morgan PICTURES: Elizabeth Taylor: 1932-2011 PICTURES: Elizabeth Taylor's glamorous style PICTURES: Her famous co-stars SPECIAL SECTION: Elizabeth Taylor
Warner Brothers

In this week of remembrance of the life and times of Elizabeth Taylor, who died this week at age 79, our critic David Edelstein wants us to remember her FILMS most of all:

Elizabeth Taylor did almost nothing on the big screen for the last 40 years - more than half her lifetime - and most associate her less with acting than the trappings of stardom.

In the Forties and Fifties, that meant the Hollywood PR machine at full throttle; in the Sixties, her theft of other women's husbands (and the rise of the paparazzi to document it).

From the Seventies on, it was her fights and reconciliations - all public - with her drunken soul mate, Richard Burton. It was the jewels she wore above that formidable carriage; the jokes about her weight gain and rehab; more marriages; the comfort she gave to Michael Jackson ...

So let's stop for a moment, and remember why we cared in the first place.

Photos: The films of Elizabeth Taylor

At her best, Elizabeth Taylor was as alive on screen as anyone before or since.

What she had was surprisingly rare among stars: Certainty. As a child, she daydreamed about stardom; she was groomed for it in the legendary MGM compound; she moved easily into the spotlight, knowing people would want to look at her.

When you see her in her breakthrough role, in "National Velvet," a 12-year-old shrimp coming shoulder-high to Mickey Rooney, you can't get over the grown-up steadiness in those violet eyes.

Taylor's certainty she could play the young Velvet merges with Velvet's certainty that she can ride that magnificent horse, Pie. Her ambition has an amazing purity.

And then, all at once, she was madly desirable. We saw it first through the wounded eyes of Spencer Tracy as the man who had to let her go in "Father of the Bride." Then Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun" was so overwhelmed by her lusciousness that it destroyed him. And who wouldn't fall for such a lovely and unaffected creature?

As Maggie the Cat, in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," she proved she could exhibit herself without a trace of exhibitionism - by which I mean she never seemed fake.

Her liquid emotions, her authenticity held that Panavision screen in "Giant," making Rock Hudson look callow and James Dean simpleminded.

Taylor was honest in life, too: At a certain point, she let no PR department tell her whom she couldn't take to bed. Which brought her ultimately to Burton and the "Cleopatra" triple whammy of scandal, an endless shoot, and a laughable movie.

She and Burton made some dire films, with one notable exception: Mike Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," in which you could taste her pleasure in being lewd onscreen, in using her girlishness as a mocking put-on to emasculate her husband.

But in a strange way, Martha stuck to her more than any other role. The weight she gained for the part didn't come off easily. The drunken battles with Burton became more and more the stuff of her real life - as did the drinking, though she could never match his.

She was first-rate in movies like "Reflections in a Golden Eye," but when the hits stopped, she more or less threw in the towel - and picked up the mink stole.

Good roles weren't as common for American women after age 40, and she wasn't about to seem to want the roles too much, the way Bette Davis and Joan Crawford did. She wouldn't be caught complaining that it was the pictures that got smaller.

So life - being Elizabeth Taylor - became her performance. It wasn't all conspicuous consumption. She was always close to the gay community and did more to raise money for AIDS research in its grim early days than any other public figure.

When I see her Velvet now, I don't think of waste and scandal; I think she knew what she wanted, and got it, and lived high without shame. Never a casualty of celebrity.

Then, and forever, a star.

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