I think of Ms. Taylor as two major public figures in one person---as a female screen goddess in the time of Hollywood's "Studio System" from the 1940's to the late fifties where it was a giant group of factories turning out proven products, and into the era of independent productions where it took the improvization of talent coming together on one project--preferably a few well-known ones in front of the camera -- to get a film a wide release.
She made many critically successful and big-draw movies in both eras, and just as many unsuccessful ones and critical flops. Her most famous work has been recounted in the last 48 hours many times on television and the newspapers. "Giant", "A Place in the Sun", "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", and the notorious "Cleopatra" a film that probably did more to break a crumbling studio system than any other due to cost overruns. (right, a 1952 coloring book featuring the 20 year old starlet)
And yet it created the most popular screen couple of the 20th Century. Wonderfully paradoxical I think.
Liz Taylor was both a superstar of the studio era and also a more post-modern figure as it were, larger than life and then some. A movie star who didn't need to even make movies to be treated as if she were still the biggest name on a marquee.
Consider just two things about her----that she had a long association with diamonds and remarkably expensive jewelery. That's very old school, very chic by mid 20th century standards of conspicuous celebrity glamour. And really shallow. What serious actress today would want to be known as "Miss Diamonds"?
Throw in the yachts and the husbands and the glam outfits; in that way she epitomized the film star who lived like a wandering Queen of Sheba.
But there was also a down-to-earth quality to her, best exemplified in the way she came across in interviews as a no-bulls*** lady who said what exactly was on her mind and in her groundbreaking (by celebrity standards, or perhaps any standard ) work on behalf on bringing awareness about the AIDS epidemic to the forefront in the 1980's and beyond. She occupied a place of high distinction with two separate personas. Not bad for one lifetime. (Below, A tribute from the amFAR organization, narrated by Vanessa Redgrave).
If I had to choose one film that had the most impact on me that she did I would pick 1967's "The Comedians", a quite good adaptation of Graham Greene's novel about foreigners pretending that all is according to Hoyle and straight in the hellhole of authoritarian violence and squalor that was the Haiti of Papa Doc Duvalier. I doubt this film would have reached the audience it did without Burton and Taylor and I have to credit this film getting me interested in Greene's novels and short stories and eye-opening takes on how the world works, especially how people sometimes have to lie to each other and themselves when the truth all around them is the mirror opposite of what they say.
In this scene Richard Burton is a writer who is having a long affair with the wife of a diplomat in Port-Au-Prince. For obvious reasons the film was shot not in Haiti, but in the small nation of Dahomey, now called Benin, in West Africa. It says a lot about their commitment to making this movie that it was shot in a very hot and technically primitive place. It is a story that needed to be told and I give both these actors credit for their social and artistic efforts.
I hope in the afterlife Elizabeth Taylor has a chance to catch up with all those fellow spirits from her life in both these personas (and her private self of course). She was a rare creation in many ways!