March 23rd, 2011
01:53 PM ET
When you live life as grandly as Elizabeth Taylor did, there’s a lot to keep up with.
There was her heartfelt humanitarianism, her legendary style and her many husbands. But if that’s all you know of her, perhaps because you’re too young to have grown up with Taylor on the silver screen, you’re missing out on “how extraordinarily beautiful she was and what a very strong actress she was,” says New York Times film critic A.O. Scott.
Taylor starred in a number of movies, with two of them nabbing her Oscars: 1960’s “Butterfield 8” and 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf," but her career began long before then.
“She came to the screen very young, and made a very big impression almost immediately with ‘National Velvet’ in 1944,” Scott explains. Taylor, he says, “really embodied an era where to be a great actor and a great movie star kind of went together; [she] did some really extraordinary work.”
And while her really active film period spanned about 25 years, Scott says, "in that time, she was in some pretty amazing movies.”
First example? “A Place in the Sun” with Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters, a 1951 role that Scott believes Taylor "regarded as a breakthrough in her own seriousness as an actress.”
And then there’s the aforementioned “Butterfield 8” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” the latter of which Scott holds up as the crème de la crème of Taylor performances.
“It was one without any kind of vanity or glamour; she put on weight for the role,” Scott says. “She was playing a middle-aged woman and was in her 30s when she did it. [She was] really going all out in what was at the time a very extreme and provocative adaptation.”
Of course, there are plenty who automatically think “Cleopatra” when they think “Elizabeth Taylor,” and in some ways that makes sense. “‘Cleopatra’ will be figured in how people remember her because it’s a big movie star movie. It’s over-the-top in every way, with the make-up and the jewelry and the costumes.”
But if you really want to see “what she and Richard Burton could do when it comes to really acting and burning up the screen,” he goes on, “then ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ is the one.”
Those are the standouts, but there are many others worthy of viewing, like her sensual turn in 1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Paul Newman and Burl Ives.
“It’s hard to think of two better looking people to have on-screen at the same time as Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor,” Scott says. “If you wanted to see the kind of pure potency and sex appeal that she and he had, that’s a good one.”
Really though, Taylor had the ability to captivate regardless of the film.
“She has that thing that defined a movie star,” Scott says. “When she was on screen, your attention was on her. Whatever she was doing, whatever she was playing, she was what you were watching. And she always had that, from a very young age right up to the end.”
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