March 23, 2011 12:01 AM EDT

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Men!” The gorgeous teenager shrugs her shoulders and ponders the inanities of the lesser gender. “The minute we’re alone, he just wants to kiss me. And he says the silliest things. Well, nobody’s eyes are like wet violets, are they?” She should have known better: the man was just reporting what he saw. Even at 16, even in the creamy black and white of MGM’s 1948 Julia Misbehaves, Elizabeth Taylor had eyes the color of wet violets.

The rest of her was O.K., too. Indeed, from just about the moment MGM signed her in 1943 to the end of her contract in the early 1960s and beyond, Taylor was routinely called the world’s most beautiful woman. The label stuck to her like a price tag on the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond, one of her many famous gems. It set a tab on her allure — and on the most public of Hollywood’s “private lives” — while obscuring her value as an actress and an enduring symbol of American moviemaking. Many talented tyros had been bred in the studio hothouse. But in the ’40s, none came to flower so luxuriantly; in the ’50s, none found so bracing a challenge in Hollywood’s search for artistic maturity; and in the ’60s, when the system collapsed, none survived it so craftily as Taylor did.

(See pictures remembering Elizabeth Taylor.)

The marriage records, tabulating her eight weddings and seven divorces, would list her as Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky. The AIDS patients she helped with her brave, exhaustive work raising millions of dollars for treatment of the disease might call her St. Elizabeth, or Mom. But to generations of film fans and paparazzi, from her MGM debut at age 11 to her death of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles on March 23 at 79, she was simply Liz. Her friend Johnny Depp captured her mixture of the earthy and the ethereal when, in 2009, he described Taylor as “a glowing, levitating thing — but a real broad, a liver-and-onions broad.” Indomitable and irreplaceable, embodying glamour, excess and beguilement, she was the Hollywood star.

(Watch a video of the legacy of Elizabeth Taylor.)

Elizabeth Rosemund Taylor was born in 1932 in London to Francis Taylor, an American art dealer living there, and his wife Sara, who had acted on Broadway under the name Sara Sothern and retired when she married. When war arrived in Britain, the Taylors immigrated to California, where Sara had notions of finding for her daughter the stardom that had eluded her. At 10, Elizabeth was fighting for screen space with Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer in a Universal programmer called There’s One Born Every Minute. She seems mesmerized by the camera; she practically stares a hole through the lens. Her intensity was lost on Universal production boss Edward Muhl, who terminated her contract with this pungent critique: “She can’t sing, she can’t dance, she can’t perform.” Muhl could see that she wasn’t Deanna Durbin — the demure coloratura who was Universal’s reigning young star — but not that she could be, and soon would be, Elizabeth Taylor. (Six years earlier, the Universal talent scouts had put Durbin and a 14-year-old Judy Garland in a musical short. They kept Durbin and let Garland go.)

Over at MGM, producer Sam Marx had a problem. He had cast Maria Flynn as the girl lead in Lassie Come Home, who had either been skittish around the star collie or (the legend varies) turned out to be a head taller than her costar, Roddy McDowall. Marx called an audition for half a dozen girls who had appeared in Mrs. Miniver. He also told Francis Taylor that he should send his daughter over for inspection. When she walked in, Marx recalled in 1983, “she was wearing a kind of blue velvet cape. And to me she seemed in a glow of purple … It was truly like an eclipse of the sun. It blotted out everybody that was in the office. You just saw this gorgeous, beautiful, darling little girl.” She got the part.

See TIME’s 1949 Elizabeth Taylor cover story.

Signed initially for $100 a week, she spent the rest of her youth and early womanhood at MGM, comforting all manner of critters — Mickey Rooney, Lassie and the horse in National Velvet — with her precocious urgency. How serious, how intense she was! It was as if the girl’s beauty, which everyone but the myopic Muhl instantly noticed, gave her a fever that poured out of her pores — so much passion spilling from that tiny body. In National Velvet, she dreams of “a champion horse with invisible wings,” her eyes burning with anxiety, hope, indomitable will. She forms as strong a bond in Courage of Lassie: when she’s reunited with the collie, the tears come in rivers that practically form ditches in her flushed cheeks.

It was unsettling, unnatural, how Taylor evolved from faun child to thoroughbred woman without enduring an awkward or unlovely transition. Like so many child actresses before and after her, she suddenly sported an ample bosom, accentuated by her wee waist. By 16, she had filled out the prom dresses she’d wear in her teen movies and learned to relax onscreen, at ease in her spectacular radiance. Indeed, the characters she played treated men with a studied carelessness Taylor had never shown to dog or horse.

(See pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.)

Sporting heiress airs, a cruel gash of lipstick and a series of killer frocks in the 1948 A Date with Judy, Taylor plays snooty Carol, the marplot to Jane Powell’s swell-town girl. Yet it’s hard to take your eyes off, let alone hate, this swan-necked vision of ebony hair and ivory skin. Young Robert Stack tells Carol, “You’re the prettiest girl in Santa Barbara — that’s obvious. And you know it — that’s also obvious.” The script gives Taylor an excuse for her character’s deficiencies: a motherless child, she’s avid for her father’s love. She loses Stack, gains a dad and, by the end, ditches the glowering for glowing.

(See candid pictures of Elizabeth Taylor.)

MGM provided Taylor with a homey environment, on-the-lot schooling and dozens of actor pals — the Hollywood simulation of an ordinary teenage life. The studio also paid for her first wedding, to hotel heir Nicky Hilton, and decorated the church to resemble the one in her forthcoming film Father of the Bride. Taylor’s side of the aisle was stacked with MGM contract stars; it’s a wonder the reception wasn’t held at the studio commissary. Actually, the movie had a longer shelf life than the Taylor-Hilton marriage; it was over in less than nine months, the shortest span of any of her eight marriages.

Father of the Bride, with Spencer Tracy as the dad, still plays well today (and is much better than the 1991 remake with Steve Martin) as a wry comedy about a father’s sense of loss and fulfillment when his beautiful girl leaves him for another man. MGM, continuing to escort Taylor through virtual rites of passage, then made a sequel, Father’s Little Dividend, about the bride’s first pregnancy. In the scene in which Taylor lectures Tracy on the glory of natural childbirth, director Vincente Minnelli plants his camera in front of Taylor and never cuts away as she runs through the gamut of emotions, from A to A+. And Tracy, like Rooney before him, seems to be overacting just by daring to occupy the same frame.

(See the 1949 Elizabeth Taylor cover.)

She was just 17 when A Place in the Sun began shooting and 19 when it hit theaters; this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy would set the tone and the standard for her roles throughout the ’50s. As Angela Vickers, the beautiful rich girl dancing with poor-boy-on-the-make George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), she oozes unforced sensuality. Strangled by a lust to join the upper class she so spectacularly embodies, he accompanies her to the terrace, where she stands so near to him that their endearments amount to French whispering. As director George Stevens’ camera catches the golden couple in gigantic closeups, she purrs, “You’ll be my pickup. Tell mama all.” Clift and the audience instantly turn to warm Jell-O. No wonder his character promptly decides to wed Angela and drown his drab, pregnant girl friend. Here was a mother and a whore in one sensational package.

See Elizabeth Taylor in TIME’s list of the best and worst Oscar gowns.

This package would be reopened many times during this, her best movie decade, each time with another surprise inside. She usually played a woman of common sense and uncommon passion. In Stevens’ Giant, she is a Virginia bloom transported as the yellow rose of Texas; in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer, as Tennessee Williams heroines, she exorcizes the demons of men’s desires; in Butterfield 8, she is a chic call girl who digs her stiletto heel into the cowhide of Laurence Harvey’s thick skin. Taylor was exploring a wider, smarter, grander dramatic range: a dream of womanly invitation who could escalate without warning into arias of sexual confession or recrimination. In each role, she found the starting point for a creative journey at the crossroads of modern femininity, or proto-feminism, and ageless star quality.

In the effulgence of Taylor’s early maturity, the movies she made became, in part, documentaries of her erotic effect on men, the camera, the audience and herself. Halfway through the 1954 The Last Time I Saw Paris, in which she plays, more or less, Zelda Fitzgerald to Van Johnson’s Scott, there’s a moment when Taylor removes a gray dress to reveal the first of many slips that will be her signature attire in the ’50s (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Butterfield 8). As she catches a glimpse of herself in a full-length mirror, her shoulders sag and she shakes her head. It might be disappointment; it ought to be awe.

(See Taylor, Fisher and Burton in TIME’s list of the top 10 love triangles.)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the first of her films about married couples who are each other’s destiny and doom, is rooted in what her fans must have thought an impossible premise: a man — Paul Newman’s Brick Pollitt — doesn’t want to have sex with Elizabeth Taylor. Her Maggie spends most of the movie battering her heart against Brick’s wall of drunken misanthropy and possible homosexuality. She acknowledges that their marriage has disintegrated into a rancorous formality (“I’m not living with you! We occupy the same cage, that’s all”) but still loves the guy. She has to; he’s Paul Newman. And he must finally satisfy her, not only because the Hollywood code demands that he display his straightness but because she’s Elizabeth Taylor.

By the time Cat was released in 1958, the actress’s off-screen life had produced as much drama, scandal and heartbreak as any of her films. Falling in love with Broadway and Hollywood impresario Michael Todd, she divorced her second husband, actor Michael Wilding, and married Todd two days later. It might have been the one great love of her life — and the one lasting marriage — if Todd hadn’t died in a plane crash in early 1958. She soon found consolation in the arms of singer-actor Eddie Fisher, like Todd a Jewish boy of humble beginnings. Fisher ankled out of his own famous Hollywood marriage, with adorable ingenue Debbie Reynolds, and at 27 Taylor had her fourth marriage and, briefly, a new job description: home wrecker.

So her next role, a haughty, high-priced call girl in Butterfield 8, struck some as typecasting. Proclaiming, “I’ve had more fun in the backseat of a ’39 Ford than I could ever have in the vault of the Chase National Bank,” and angrily scrawling “No Sale” on a mirror with her lipstick, Taylor won an Oscar for Best Actress. It’s a strong performance, but the Academy members might have been voting their sympathy: she had just undergone throat surgery. Shirley MacLaine, who had been the front runner that year, for The Apartment, quipped, “I lost to a tracheotomy!”

(See “Elizabeth Taylor: Early Years” on LIFE.com.)

All this was just the modest prequel to her volcanic romance with Richard Burton, her co-star in Cleopatra. Shooting began in 1960, but this imperial epic wasn’t released until 1963, by which time it was the most expensive film ever in real dollars (and in real dollars, among the 50 highest-grossing films). Burton, as Marc Antony, must wait for half the picture for Taylor’s Egyptian queen to throw over Rex Harrison’s Caesar. Burton seems not so much conflicted as distracted, logy, reluctant to flash his sexual eloquence. At his best, he’s bitter, haunted by Caesar’s looming shadow. And as onscreen lovers, Taylor and Burton are often remote, frosty; the joke back then was that they’d worn themselves out rehearsing. Or they were exhausted by the suffocating attention that their tryst, and her ditching of Fisher, provoked in the gossip industry. Later, the actress said, “I don’t remember much about Cleopatra. There were a lot of other things going on.”

The Taylor-Burton liaison begat 10 films and a two-part TV movie in the years 1963-73; stars still worked hard then. It could be said of them, as it was true of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, that “he gave her class, and she gave him sex.” But it would be fair to note that Burton encouraged Taylor to display her talents in a wider span of genres and properties and that Taylor brought Burton’s smoldering intelligence, the musk of his mind, to center screen after a decade of achievement onstage and in British films. He gave her freedom; she made him a star.

It was a gift that, at time, Burton must have thought was bondage, and it chafed him so. Yet it preserved, in fictional form, as accurate and coruscating a record of modern marriage as exists outside the Ingmar Bergman canon: the flaming of first forbidden love in Cleopatra; the verbal sparring in The Taming of the Shrew, alternately Tracy and Hepburn and Moe and Larry; the shared lies and binding compromises in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In a way, the stars and their films were splendid anachronisms by the late ’60s. This was the era of gritty movies about the counterculture and the lower depths, the era of Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy. Serious dramas about the domestic disputes of the well fed and middle-aged were quickly becoming passé. Yet they proved they were true actors disguised as stars and convinced their huge audience that all these glamorous, embattled characters, especially Edward Albee’s George and Martha, were themselves: “Liz” and “Dick,” apotheosized from tabloids to tragedy.

The couple’s letters, collected for the 2010 book Furious Love, were as passionate and ornate as any playwright’s dialogue. “You must know, of course, how much I love you,” wrote Burton in a fit of Welsh eloquence. “You must know, of course, how badly I treat you. But the fundamental and most vicious, swinish, murderous, and unchangeable fact is that we totally misunderstand each other … we operate on alien wavelengths … I love you and I always will. Come back to me as soon as you can. ” Taylor expressed an erotic, all-American optimism when, at the time of their second marriage, in 1975, she writes, “Dearest Hubs, How about that! You really are my husband again, and I have news for thee, there bloody will be no more marriages — or divorces, either. Yours truly, Wife.” That marriage lasted less than 10 months, though they would reunite on Broadway for a 1983 revival of Private Lives, the Noël Coward comedy about a divorced couple who fall in love again on their respective honeymoons with new partners. The thing was a disaster, with the aging icons slogging through the airy romance as if they were dragging Cleopatra’s barge behind them.

(See Elizabeth Taylor in TIME’s list of the top 10 perpetual divorcés.)

There would be two more marriages: to Virginia Senator John Warner, for nearly six years, and to construction worker Larry Fortensky for five years, ending in 1996. Taylor moved from husband to lover (who would become her next husband) as she had from movie to movie when she was at MGM. Describing herself as a serial monogamist, she seemed to need companionship with a contract. In the 46½ years from her first “I do” to her final divorce, she was married for all but 13 of those years. She also knew that her fealty to any one man couldn’t last. She might have been happier if she’d married McDowell — a lifelong friend, and perhaps the most caring permanent bachelor in Hollywood — and pursued affairs with a modicum of discretion. But Taylor had to live her private life in the public eye and show the world that Hollywood was a romantic melodrama, onscreen and off.

In the movies — a medium that loves youth and is ruthless to age — beautiful women have two choices: grow old out of the public’s sight, as Greta Garbo did, or grow old in it. (There is a third: early death, which preserves the image at a steep price.) Taylor chose to ease out of films and into her noblest role as an AIDS humanitarian. Devastated by the 1985 death of Rock Hudson, her Giant co-star, she helped found the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and over the next quarter-century, she raised perhaps $100 million for the cause. She remained a tireless champion through many illnesses: skin cancer, a (benign) brain tumor, injuries to her hips and back. “I get around now in a wheelchair,” she said in 2005, “but I get around.” The grand lady was also a game gal.

In her last decades, Taylor made films only as a visiting dignitary, vacationing from her good works, her incorrigible celebrity. In a 2001 TV movie, These Old Broads, she put salve on an old wound by co-starring with Debbie Reynolds. In an HBO film, the 1983 Between Friends, as a divorcée coping with loneliness, she mulls an aphorism: “Nothing lasts, do you notice that?” She was wrong about the violet eyes, and wrong again in this instance. Nothing lasts but the cinema, its reels still racing with invisible wings, and the world’s fascination with Elizabeth Taylor.

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