Elizabeth Taylor’s death closes another chapter in the history of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Rising from child star to ingénue roles and finally to leading lady, Taylor’s acting gifts were often overshadowed by her impeccable beauty and tumultuous personal life. An early indication of how her startling beauty could mesmerize viewers came when a cameraman shooting one of her scenes in Jane Eyre asked the eleven-year-old if she was wearing fake eyelashes (She wasn’t.)
The camera loved Elizabeth Taylor and she became a skilled and inspired craftswoman in front of its lens. We are fortunate that George Eastman House conserves many core titles of her film legacy as well as superb still photographs of the star. Film prints of Lassie Come Home, National Velvet, Father of the Bride, Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Cleopatra and Butterfield 8 are conserved in the motion picture vaults. Nickolas Muray’s stunning 1948 photograph taken of the 16-year-old Taylor just as she was embarking on the adult phase of her career is one of the gems of the Eastman House photograph collection.
Elizabeth Taylor was recognized in her lifetime for her work as an actress and an activist, twice honored with Academy Awards for Best Actress, she was also the recipient of the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and was a Kennedy Center Honoree. She should also be remembered as a strong, forceful young woman who took charge of her career, became a producer, and was daring in her choice of roles. When asked by an interviewer to name the most difficult actors he had worked with, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz answered by naming two stars who were the exact opposite: Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. Mankiewicz had nothing but praise for Taylor’s artistry, commitment and professionalism on both Suddenly, Last Summer and the troubled Cleopatra. The latter film nearly sank the Twentieth Century Fox studio, was fraught with problems and huge cost overruns. But Mankiewicz maintained that he never lost a day because of his star – she was always on time, prepared and dynamite in front of the camera.
Elizabeth Taylor’s vibrant beauty, her earthiness and good humor and her sheer joy in life made her a force of nature. Her film legacy remains the most eloquent testimonial to this remarkable woman who brought intelligence, grace and beauty to our world.
Caroline Yeager joined the staff of the Motion Picture Department in 1998
and currently oversees and manages grants; develops, manages and curates
gallery exhibitions of motion picture artifacts, and teaches the curatorial
track in The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation. She is a
member of the Association of Moving Image Archivists and is currently
co-chair of the Advocacy Committee.