Elizabeth Taylor has gone down in history as one of those iconic movie figures of the 20th century you may love or hate.
She was either one of the most beautiful women ever and a fine actress, or a rather vacuous figure who craved continual attention – or maybe she was a little of both
She was an undeniably beautiful woman in her prime – perhaps even breathtakingly so in movies like Cleopatra where she starred opposite her two-time husband and generally accepted love of her life, Richard Burton. The two prima donnas had a predictably tempestuous love-hate relationship themselves and it was always a bit of a wild ride as they were never far from the headlines during the 1960s in particular.
They were the star couple of their time, and of course Liz Taylor stayed in the public eye as she got older – becoming one of those ageing Hollywood beauties who does a few bizarre things like appearing in TV ads for perfume and befriending Michael Jackson.
But make no mistake – there was a lot more depth to Elizabeth Taylor than many people realize – particularly when it came to her genuine acting abilities. These were perhaps best displayed in the 1967 movie of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” in which she again starred opposite her husband Richard Burton.
But interestingly – one of her finest movies ever was her coming of age film in 1944, aged just 12, when she played young Velvet Brown in “National Velvet”. The movie based on an earlier (1935 ) book of the same name by English author Enid Bagnold, tells the story of Velvet who is obsessed with horses. She wins a horse in a raffle and meets a former jockey who agrees to train the horse up for the Grand National. On the day of the race, Velvet ends up taking the ride herself and, naturally, winning the race on the horse that was 100-1 in the betting as it was considered to have no chance and no one had heard of it.
It’s a real ripping yarn all shot in glorious Technicolor at Pebble Beach California – rather than on the south coast of England and at Aintree racecourse where the tale is set. But this all adds to the magic somehow and the young Taylor in her first starring role performed wonderfully alongside an other young actress playing her older sister, Angela Lansbury.
The film was Elizabeth Taylor’s first big role and an unequivocal success. She went on to appear in Father of the Bride in 1950, A Place in the Sun the following year and then in both Giant in 1956, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof two years later – both with Paul Newman. And it was in these two latter movies that she really ‘arrived’ as a beautiful iconic figure.
Taylor won an Academy Award for Best Actress for Butterfield 8 in 1960 and for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, proving her prowess as a serious actress. But it was the Grand National and National Velvet that paved the way for all this success initially – and remains a great family movie to this day.