Elizabeth Taylor's 20 Greatest Roles!

The sad news of Elizabeth Taylor's death last week marked the end of Hollywood's Golden Era for me, the last remaining superstar finally expired. As a fan of Taylor's since childhood €“ I'll never forget seeing Cleopatra (1963) for the first time at 11 years old and literally being transfixed with the actress's beauty for the entire 4 hour run time! - I've decided to abandon my usual Top 10 format and offer you her 20 greatest roles...because 10 is simply not a big enough number for the biggest diva of the screen! Beginning in the industry at the tender age of 9, Taylor quickly rose to stardom on the MGM lot and become the most iconic actress of the 20th century. With an impressive 70 acting credits to her name, her life was plagued with illness but never prevented her from succeeding. Transcending her inimitable beauty, she proved that she was a thoroughly accomplished actress with an array of highly dramatic and Academy Award winning roles. Perhaps more famous for her turbulent personal life €“ multiple marriages (including 2 to Richard Burton!), battles with addiction and weight gain, her love affair with jewellery as dramatic as her personal life, and her devoted friendship with troubled superstar Michael Jackson €“ she proved to be as much of a character off screen as she did on it! An equally shrewd business woman (she insisted that Cleopatra be filmed in the large format Todd-AO system that she held the rights to as Michael Todd's widow, generating more revenue for her!) as she was a fantastic AIDS advocate and charitable contributor, lets rejoice in the screen legacy she's left behind and read on to discover her 20 greatest roles...

20. Pearl Slaghoople in THE FLINTSTONES (1994)

My first childhood introduction to the effervescent Taylor, which lead me to discover Cleopatra and the magnitude of the actress's star. Displaying excellent comic timing, here she sends herself up and reveals that she was just as apt a comic actress as she was a high-camp, melodramatic one! Looking as great at 62 years old as she did in 1962 she reveals a side to her acting that was unfortunately not properly explored in her younger years.

19. Priscilla in LASSIE COME HOME (1943)

The first major role that introduced Taylor to the audiences is a cutesy if corny piece. It€™s only a supporting role, but the charm and presence the actress would later possess in abundance on the screen is very noticeably appearing here. The film introduced Taylor to Roddy McDowall (who also co-starred in the Taylor vehicle, Cleopatra ) for the first time and the two youngsters formed a firm friendship that lasted throughout the latter€™s life. The chemistry they display on screen is very appealing and it is definitely this pair (and Lassie!) who captivates audiences to this day. The family film appealed to so many that the Lassie franchise was born, which Taylor would return to for 1946€™s Courage of Lassie.

18. Jane Reynolds in DIVORCE HIS, DIVORCE HERS (1973)

In this made for television movie Taylor performs with all her famous gusto despite the rather lacklustre and comical melodrama of the script. Told in two concurrent parts (from both husband and wife) the story of the couple€™s divorce is both farcical and vulgar, but also quite touching on brief occasions. Taylor has a certain baroque presence within the narrative, but she also gives a highly vigorous performance that definitely plunges the film into the depths of humorous camp. More a caricature of the vulgar but desperate and sympathy inducing character she played in Who€™s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), this is sheer black comedy on Taylor€™s part. It€™s a guilty pleasure, but she makes it all the more enjoyable with a solid performance.

17. Helen of Troy in DOCTOR FAUSTUS (1967)

This role proved that Taylor didn€™t even need to speak to transfix an audience. As Helen of Troy €“ who legend has it, had €˜the face that launched a thousand ships€™ and was the underlying cause of the Trojan War €“ the actress has no dialogue and it was undoubtedly her face that launched hundreds of thousands of audiences to flock to the cinema and see this filmed stage version of Christopher Marlowe€™s infamous play. Looking every bit the rare beauty she was, Taylor€™s image was so heavily used in the marketing campaign that audiences were perturbed to find that it was more of a silent cameo than an actual part! Today, the same marketing strategy is still in place; with the actress€™s flawless face (and little else) donning the DVD release cover!

16. Barbara Sawyer in ASH WEDNESDAY (1973)

By the early 70s time had begun to catch up with Taylor. She had begun to drink much more during her relationship with Richard Burton and this had caused her to gain weight. Continuing to act throughout the weight gain, by 1973 she had gone on a strict diet and regained her slender figure. Ash Wednesday €“ the tale of a middle aged woman who undergoes intensive plastic surgery to attract her husband once more €“ was seen almost as a comeback for the glamorous again actress. Under heavy make up to make her appear ravaged by time, Taylor became ugly for the beginning of the film, allowing for a breath-taking post-surgery €˜reveal€™ scene where the actress is just as beautiful as she was in the 50s! Simply put, this film is a vanity project and it really isn€™t very good. What it does prove is that Taylor could continue to hold an audience captive with her beauty at 41 €“ a feat that few Hollywood stars are privileged with being able to do!

15. Helen Ellswirth in THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS (1954)

As the multilayered Helen, Taylor truly became a woman on screen in front of the adoring eyes of audiences. The Last Time I Saw Paris is a deeply moving and essentially tragic love story that gave the actress a chance to re-create the magic she was able to generate with her character in A Place in the Sun (1952). The role of Helen is certainly an accumulation of the Taylor ingénue that had become so popular for the actress to play in the 40s and 50s. Here she is all together an outrageous flirt who cunningly steals her older sister€™s lover; a spoiled daughter who€™s a product of her flighty parents; an irresponsible party girl who actually is well-meaning and kind-hearted underneath that facade; an abstemious young wife and selfless mother, but an insatiable adulteress; as well as possessing a delicate core that€™s unforgivably cut down by the unrelenting forces of life. The depth of character here allows Taylor to embody a common persona for audiences, whilst building upon this and revealing that there is more to her performances than playing the ingénue.

14. Velvet Brown in NATIONAL VELVET (1944)

The film that cemented her pre-teen fame, Taylor is both endearing and has a real screen charm. Displaying talent beyond her 12 years of age, Taylor steals the show (despite the fact that Anne Revere in the role of her mother was actually awarded with an Oscar for her performance!). It is in National Velvet that the talent the actress possessed suggests the longevity that she was fortunate enough to entertain throughout her 7-decade career. With a performance resplendent with innocence, enthusiasm and dedication, Taylor could easily be playing herself here. Despite having been riding since the tender age of 4, during filming Taylor was thrown from her horse and suffered a painful back injury that plagued her throughout the rest of her life. However, proving for the first time in her career that she was a trooper, she got back on the horse and completed the film! As a reward for her abiding commitment she was presented with the horse as a birthday present after filming wrapped.

13. Marina Rudd in THE MIRROR CRACK'D (1980)

Essentially playing a parody of herself, Taylor stars here as a troubled ageing actress who comes to England for a comeback role in a period epic and becomes embroiled in murder as an attempt is made on her life. Playing the classic filmstar role to the hilt, Taylor's restraint within the role is comically contrasted to the exuberant nature of her fictional co-star and rival Lola Brewster (Kim Novak). Developing her paranoid, mentally unstable screen persona (which became the staple Taylor performance in the 1970s) the actress is excellent within her role, as Marina slips further and further into despair. With an excellent ensemble cast €“ which reads as an A-Z of classic Hollywood stars €“ The Mirror Crack'd gave Taylor her best 80s role.

12. Kay Banks in FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1950)

Long before the Steve Martin version, Father of the Bride was a vehicle for Spencer Tracy and Taylor. The actress was perfectly cast as the doting Dad€™s daughter who€™s about to get hitched and the role of Kay relied much less on the glamour surrounding Taylor€™s persona, instead allowing her to play a charming and more accessible, middle-class character. Her performance here is probably one of her most natural ones, embodying the sweetness and gracious manners the character required. This is probably one of Taylor€™s less well-remembered roles, as the film almost single-handedly belongs to Tracy€™s bewildered and comically irascible father character. However, the success of the ensemble cast lead to a follow-up, Father€™s Little Dividend (1951), to be made.

11. Frances Andros in THE V.I.P.s (1963)

Very much a vanity project for Taylor and Richard Burton's relationship, the real life couple play a loosely veiled image of themselves as the rich and glamorous Paul and Frances Andros. The ensemble cast drama plays out nicely but it is undoubtedly Taylor who steals every scene, looking every bit the moviestar even on screen. The chemistry between Burton and Taylor is lucid throughout and adds an interesting depth to their characters in what is essentially a feature-length, multi million dollar soap opera. As accomplished a melodrama as anything the seminal contributor to the genre, Douglas Sirk, directed, Taylor competently displays the anguish her loveless marriage causes and her fear at revealing to her husband that she is leaving him for her playboy lover. Commonly deemed a piece of fluff with a high-gloss veneer, The V.I.P.s digs much deeper with its multi-strained narrative and its exceptional performances.

10. Leonora Penderton in REFLECTIONS OF A GOLDEN EYE (1967)

Taylor threw herself wholeheartedly into the sadistic and amoral role of Leonora, a wife who emasculates her latently homosexual husband (played by Marlon Brando) at any given opportunity. She is concurrently vulgar and acerbic, but there€™s also a rather innocent or naive angle to her cruelty. Taylor manages to layer her character with so many complexities that she manages to transcend what is generally a rather €˜messy€™ production and her performance is certainly the best aspect of the film. Her portrayal of Leonora certainly verges on the realms of camp, but it works simply because she undoubtedly had the foresight to realised that the tense drama director John Huston believed he was filming was more likely to become a cynical black comedy instead. Interestingly, Reflections was to reunite Taylor with closest co-star Montgomery Clift and the actress even used her salary as collateral against the insurance required to employ the alcoholic and unreliable star. Unfortunately, Clift passed away before production could begin.

09. Susanna Drake in RAINTREE COUNTRY (1957)

During the filming of Raintree Country Taylor€™s close friend and co-star Montgomery Clift was badly disfigured in a car accident. The deep nature of their friendship allowed the actress to stay strong once filming re-started after Clift€™s reconfiguration surgery and she simply dazzled in her role as the antebellum Southern belle. Producers envisioned the film as a second Gone With the Wind (1939), but the film stands up better in its own rights and Taylor is certainly the glue that binds the narrative and characters together. Flitting between apparent insanity and the stoicism of a regulated antebellum existence, Drake is one of Taylor€™s most intelligent and colourful characters. The role also garnered her her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, but she unfortunately lost out to Joanne Woodward€™s engaging performance as a schizophrenic in The Three Faces of Eve (1957).

08. Leslie Benedict in GIANT (1956)

Opposite two of the biggest screen giants of the time €“ James Dean and Rock Hudson €“ Taylor is glamorous and fills her performance with substance. As the outsider who marries into the highly regarded Texan family at the centre of the narrative, the actress portrays perfect Southern manners whilst also insisting that she doesn€™t relinquish her rights. Very much a tale of Southern wealth, excess and vulgarity, Taylor plays the calm in the ever-changing storm of the Benedict family and is excellent at displaying her unfaltering love for her husband, but her insistence on independence and challenging his outdated notions. The on screen marriage here certainly mimics the actress€™s personal life, as tenderness and turbulence are closely mixed and this is perhaps why she€™s so successful in her role.

07. Katharina in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1967)

Through her relationship with Richard Burton, Taylor was introduced to roles that she generally wouldn€™t have even attempted to tackle previously. Opening her eyes to the power of Shakespeare and other classical works of literary excellence, The Taming of the Shrew displayed Taylor€™s talents in a way that no other production had ever been able to. As the vulgar but comical Katharina the actress shone, by embodying the true essence of her character and simultaneously portraying her as shrewish and sweet. Taylor also looked beautiful in her period costumes and performed the action scenes within the narrative with the elegance and grace that audiences were accustomed to seeing from her performances. As a follow up to Who€™s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Taylor again proved her worth as an actress rather than simply being a celebrity in movies, solidifying the notion that she wasn€™t simply a one trick pony in the acting stakes.

06. Maggie Pollitt in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958)

Displaying a strong chemistry with co-star Paul Newman, Taylor is incredible as Maggie. A woman that both craves attention and affection from her husband and simultaneously despises him, Taylor€™s Maggie is vitriolic and venomous yet sexy and alluring. The image of a lingerie clad Taylor on that wrought iron bed is one of the most iconic images of 20th century cinema and undoubtedly still sets male hearts racing! There€™s a beautiful frustration in the actress€™s performance here and with incredible restraint she manages to avoid slipping into the realms of monstrosity or histrionics. The film earned Taylor another Oscar nomination, but unfortunately she lost out to Susan Hayward€™s excellent performance in I Want to Live! (1958), who was a shoe-in for that years award.

05. Gloria Wondrous in BUTTERFIELD 8 (1960)

Long before Belle Du Jour and Billie Piper's trashy television show, Taylor was forced to accept a rare role that rejected the rich playgirl image she had spent so long building (during the 50s in particular), playing a call-girl: something that would have still been rather taboo back in 1960. Under contract to MGM still, she was legally bound to take the role of Gloria (for her standard $125000 fee...another slap in the face, surely!) before she could accept her record-breaking $1million role in 20th Century Fox's Cleopatra. Undoubtedly inspired by her rage at having to star in Buttefield 8, Taylor plays the part with acidic conviction and gives a thoroughly over-the-top performance. What the star didn't realise was that this simply fits perfectly with the lowbrow nature of the narrative. In fact her performance is so fitting that it went on to earn her her first Academy Award!

04. Angela Vickers in A PLACE IN THE SUN (1952)

As more of a supporting character to Montgomery Clift's lead, Taylor steals the show here and it is clear that at this point in her career she really had to do very little but be shot in dialogue-free close up to transfix an audience. As the spoilt but kind Angela, A Place in the Sun saw the continuation of the rich socialite stereotype the actress began to suffer in the 1940s and would make her own throughout the 50s. Taylor plays the part to perfection and her insatiable love for Clift's George Eastman is one of the most passionate and convincing love affairs committed to celluloid.

03. Catherine Holly in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959)

Opposite an actress of equal legend, Katharine Hepburn, Taylor steals each and every scene here as the mentally unstable Catherine Holly. Capturing a real sense of insanity in her performance, the actress is thoroughly convincing within the role. The anguish and suffering that Holly has been subjected to is not only demonstrated in Taylor's relaying of the dialogue (particularly the laborious monologue that is pivotal in the climactic scenes) but also in her facial expression. Proving her abilities as a substantial dramatic actress for one of the first times, Taylor successfully tackles the weighty nature of Tennessee William's original play to make this one of her finest performances. The role of Holly won her the Best Actress nomination of 1960 and all I can really say is that it€™s a massive crime that she didn€™t win!

02. Cleopatra in CLEOPATRA (1963)

Undoubtedly envisioned as a vanity project for Taylor this production introduced the actress to Richard Burton, who would go on to be one of the biggest influences in her life. Cleopatra gave Taylor the opportunity to have the largest number of costume changes in the history of cinema (65 in total) and the $194800 budget for these remains the largest ever for a single star. The actress vamps her way through the convoluted dialogue and limited action of the narrative, smouldering on the screen to make the film well and truly about her presence! Whilst it may not be her biggest acting triumph or indeed her greatest film, personally, Cleopatra sums up exactly what Taylor was to Hollywood €“ it's golden girl!

01. Martha in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)

One of the most successfully dramatic performances to ever grace the silver screen, Taylor quite simply proves her salt as an actress in this single performance. Managing to simultaneously repulse the audience whilst generating a deep sympathy for her character, Taylor brilliantly flits between drunken rage and the subsequent depression this causes. Donning a fat suit and rendering herself relatively unrecognisable as the older Martha, Taylor rejected her real life beauty and demonstrated her sheer talent for acting. If you only check out one Elizabeth Taylor film in your life, this is certainly the best: not an easy watch €“ it will probably leave you feeling rather down yourself! - it simply shows her transition from moviestar to actress...
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