Dame Elizabeth Taylor: a tribute

Sad news awaited all lovers of film this morning with the passing of Dame Elizabeth Taylor last night.

One of the iconic figures of cinema, she perhaps represented everything we know, love and (to a degree) loathe about Hollywood. In contrast to some of the most potent performances committed to celluloid were, of course, her famed excesses, indulgences and personal struggles. But the nature of stars can’t really be measured or defined by our standards. It’s that mystery that makes lives like these so important. But perhaps the most iconic thing about her, beyond the effortless style and beauty, was ‘the Elizabeth Taylor gaze’. Those eyes…oh man…those eyes.

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor in 'The V.I.P.s' © Photofest

Beyond her beauty and turbulent not-so-private life were her knock-out screen performances. A personal favourite for me is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1967). With Taylor working alongside her real-life husband, Richard Burton, the picture is nothing short of explosive, and perhaps even a little bit creepy in that ‘art imitates life’ kind of way. Either way, it is a true performer’s film; propelled by the power of the ensemble and their relationship to each other.

Contrast the leanness of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the stunning imagery of Cleopatra (1963) – again with two-time husband, Burton – and the gamut is run. Dripping with eye-popping gems, her role in Cleopatra largely defined the concept of glamour on screen. The Bulgari jewels she wore for this role remain some of the most recognisable pieces in screen history.  I recently had the opportunity to view some of these pieces, and their craftsmanship and quality is…well…they define themselves. They are much like Taylor in this way, as she herself played a defining role in Hollywood.

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor in 'The V.I.P.'s' © Photofest

Everyone is likely to have their own favourite Elizabeth Taylor film. I know National Velvet launched my sister into a life-long love affair with horses, and for me Virginia Woolf‘s stripped-to-the-chassis, unrelenting power is a constant cinematic inspiration.

Long before having an opinion was fashionable in Hollywood’s rarefied atmosphere, Elizabeth Taylor showed a commitment to supporting easily marginalised social issues. She most notably supported AIDS research and advocacy. That too is a great inspiration.

Elizabeth Taylor’s passing is indeed a great loss to us all. She was true royalty.

Richard Sowada
Head of Film Programs

Visit the Australian Mediatheque to access films featuring Elizabeth Taylor.

For an assortment of short clips featuring Taylor’s best work see Portable’s tribute to the star.

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