Elizabeth Taylor, ‘Cleopatra’ Star and Oscar Winner, Was a Pioneering AIDS Activist

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, Elizabeth Taylor, 1958
Courtesy Everett Collection

Elizabeth Taylor, who would have turned 89 on Feb. 27, lived multiple lives. She was a movie mega-star, a tabloid mega-celebrity (which are not always the same thing), an innovator in creating herself as a brand — and a tireless and effective philanthropist and activist.

She was adored, admired, denounced, scandal-ridden and unpredictable, and the public couldn’t get enough of her.

On screen, she was at her most breathtakingly beautiful in such 1950s and ‘60s films as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “Cleopatra” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” And in the 1966 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” at age 34, she frumped herself up and gave a great performance, winning the second of two Oscars (after the 1960 “Butterfield 8”).

She also excelled in a wide array of films, like “Giant” (1956), “Raintree Country” (1958), “X, Y and Z” (1972), “Ash Wednesday” (critically blasted, but a real old-fashioned-movie-star performance), and “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980), her last leading role on the big screen.

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Taylor made a name for herself as a teenager with “National Velvet” in 1944 and became a leading lady at age 18 with the 1950 “A Place in the Sun.” As she was gaining respect as an actress, she became a young widow when producer Mike Todd died in a 1958 plane crash. The world embraced her — until singer Eddie Fisher left his wife, America’s sweetheart Debbie Reynolds, for Taylor. Those three became tabloid fodder for ages, the story growing even deeper when Taylor in turn left Fisher for Richard Burton, whom she met on the set of “Cleopatra.”

Burton and Taylor earned as much media attention as the Kardashians and Britain’s royal family combined. Their sexy glamour was combined with tales of drinking, diamonds and a lavish lifestyle that were all reported breathlessly.

Fox’s “Cleopatra” had been envisioned as a $5 million film and Taylor signed on for the unprecedented salary of $1 million. It began filming Sept. 15, 1960. A series of setbacks delayed the film: sets destroyed by weather, changes in co-stars and directors, numerous rewrites, Taylor’s near-fatal illness and other calamities. Filming was completed in 1962, two years after the start of production.

On Jan. 9, 1963, Variety editor Abel Green pronounced that the film’s final production cost was $35 million, or seven times the original budget. Others have estimated it cost even more. In today’s dollars, it probably still holds the record as the costliest movie ever. Work came to a standstill at 20th Century Fox in a desperate cost-saving measure. So the studio put all its trust into “The Sound of Music,” and that gamble paid off big-time for Fox.

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After the success of the then-daring “Virginia Woolf,” she and Burton used their clout to make a series of projects that were literate and ambitious but had little appeal for mainstream audiences, such as “Doctor Faustus,” “The Comedians,” “Boom” and “Under Milkwood.”

In the last 30 years of her life, Taylor made few big screen appearances as she focused on other priorities. She appeared onstage in “The Little Foxes” and, with Burton in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” a comedy about a battling divorced duo.

Aside from her role in the 1994 live-action movie “The Flintstones” as Fred’s mother-in-law,  she did several TV projects that seemed to amuse her: guest appearances on “General Hospital,” voicing baby Maggie in “The Simpsons,” and her last acting role, in the 2001 telefilm “These Old Broads.”

Taylor was married eight times, twice to Burton. She married Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) in 1976, playing the dutiful D.C. wife; she took the opportunity to see how things work in Washington, which she would eventually use in her activism.

She and Warner divorced in 1982. A year later she entered Betty Ford Center for prescription drug and alcohol dependency, at a time when few celebrities would talk about such things.

Taylor was furious at Variety’s Army Archerd when he ran an item on July 23, 1985, saying Rock Hudson was being treated for AIDS. She later realized that the news brought public attention to a disease that was little understood.

Even before that item, she had become a supporter of AIDS Project Los Angeles. As Variety’s Ted Johnson later quoted her, Taylor said, “I kept seeing all of these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything. And then I realized I was just like them. I wasn’t doing anything to help.”

After Hudson’s death in 1985, Taylor became a founding co-chairman for amfAR (the American Foundation for AIDS Research). As Johnson wrote, “She crisscrossed the country and the world, calling attention to and raising funds for AIDS research and care, more than any other celebrity.”

Using her savvy about D.C., she testified before Congress, urging lawmakers to expand support for research and help. When amfAR planned a 1987 fund-raiser in Washington, she shamed President Ronald Reagan into attending. That was a major breakthrough, because Reagan been in office for seven years but had never once publicly talked about AIDS.

In 1987, she launched Passion, her own perfume, which was soon generating sales of $70 million a year. In 1989, a men’s Passion was created, and in 1991 a second women’s scent, White Diamonds, was also successful. A third perfume, Black Pearls, was introduced in 1995. For many decades, stars had endorsed products, but Taylor pioneered the idea of creating her own.

Through her life, Taylor had a reputation for being late for interviews and public affairs. When she was named a Dame of the British empire, her reps contacted Buckingham Palace to see how long the queen would wait if Taylor was late. (She arrived on time.)

She’d always had health problems, which were aggravated as she got older. She died March 23, 2011, and her family requested donations to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

Her funeral took place the following day at Forest Lawn in Glendale, Calif., at a a private ceremony presided over by Rabbi Jerome Cutler. (She had converted to Judaism in her 20s.)

Taylor requested that the funeral start 15 minutes late, because, as her publicist explained, “She wanted to be late for her own funeral.”