Actress Elizabeth Taylor dies at age 79

Those violet eyes that captivated moviegoers for decades are closed forever.

Elizabeth Taylor died Wednesday morning at age 79 from congestive heart failure in a Los Angeles hospital, her publicist confirmed Wednesday. Her children were at her side.

From her debut as a steeplechase prodigy in 1944's National Velvet through a tumultuous career rewarded with two Academy Awards and unprecedented scandal, Miss Taylor worked, played, and fought with the best that show business had to offer.

She even married some of them.

Miss Taylor's private life that invariably became public could fill a dozen screenplays that might be rejected for seeming too incredible: Child megastar becomes psychologically scarred ingénue, then matures into an acclaimed actor, bon vivant, entrepreneur, activist and finally a parody, as gossip becomes tougher to spin with favors from sympathetic reporters, and declining health saps her capacity to fight back.

Youthful audiences buying the lion's share of movie tickets today only know Miss Taylor as a rich, batty old woman who used to be somebody.

Others remember when there was nobody else like Liz Taylor.

On screen, she matured along with her roles, from chaste objects of desire to temptresses to the foul-mouthed, fed-up housewife of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Miss Taylor was among the top box office draws in the world for much of the 1950s and 1960s, even when some moviegoers wouldn't forgive her for stealing singer Eddie Fisher from all-American sweetheart Debbie Reynolds.

Off the set, Miss Taylor was a walking headline for fan magazines and gossip columnists, collecting eight wedding rings from seven men and later mourning, or moving on from, her romantic losses. Only director Michael Todd escaped without sensational divorce proceedings: He died in a plane crash on March 22, 1958.

By far, the most legendary Taylor couplings were with actor Richard Burton, whose lusty nature and incendiary temper matched her own. Dumping Fisher for Burton while filming 1963's Cleopatra startled a world just getting over the Reynolds insult. The 69-carat diamond ring Burton slipped on her finger became legendary; even Lucille Ball had it stuck on her finger in a classic Here's Lucy TV episode.

The combustible match held fans in thrall until the breakup everyone predicted. Ten years later, Miss Taylor and Burton walked down the aisle again, which nobody guessed, or doubted was right for the tempestuous iconoclasts. Of course, it didn't last.

"I never planned to acquire a lot of jewels or a lot of husbands," Miss Taylor confessed to Kim Kardashian in a recent Harper's Bazaar interview. "For me, life happened, just as it does for anyone else."

But a life like Miss Taylor's isn't common even by Hollywood standards, reflected in her No. 7 ranking among female screen legends by the American Film Institute.

Tabloids closely watched Miss Taylor's romantic misadventures, and her tragedies rivaled the Kennedy curse for public fascination; Todd's death, her effort to revive actor Montgomery Clift after he crashed a car leaving her party drunk, plus a litany of medical problems and treatments for "exhaustion" that lent her image an Edith Piaf type of wounded-bird sympathy.

Miss Taylor had it all — good and bad — yet it never was enough, once telling a reporter: "When people say, 'She's got everything,' I've got one answer: I haven't had tomorrow."

Today's electronic gossipers would need all their megabytes to keep up with Miss Taylor's reputation. In her prime, Miss Taylor would answer such snipers with blunt brushoffs that only Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn could match for acid.

Plum roles dried up soon after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) earned Miss Taylor her second best actress Oscar. She retreated to stunt appearances on soap operas, forgettable TV movies and voicing Maggie Simpson's long-awaited first word on The Simpsons.

By the time Miss Taylor played Fred Flintstone's mother-in-law in The Flintstones (1994), she was better known for being Michael Jackson's friend, her perfume lines and supporting AIDS relief — for which she was honored in absentia shortly before her death — and less as one of Hollywood's greatest stars.

That's an injustice to be corrected in the coming days, when cable stations dust off Miss Taylor's finest films in tribute, tabloid chatter dies and what matters are her movies. You'll see an actor who was larger than life on screen and even larger off it.

Swoon at Miss Taylor's fresh-faced spunk in National Velvet and Father of the Bride (1950), her predatory sexiness in Butterfield 8 (1960) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), her fiery collisions with Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Taming of the Shrew (1967). And get lost again in those unforgettably violet eyes.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com and (727) 893-8365.

Actress Elizabeth Taylor dies at age 79 03/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 11:57pm]

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