American movie icon Elizabeth Taylor, the Oscar-winning actress whose life was also a prototype for modern celebrity, died March 23 in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure. She was 79. Taylor graduated from teenage stardom to become one of the most popular movie stars of the 1950s and 1960s, while her personal life would become a target for what we now call the paparazzi. She was also an activist for AIDS research and acceptance of people with HIV/AIDS, raising millions of dollars for research through the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
Born in London in 1932, Taylor earned notice for early roles in Lassie Come Home (1943) and Jane Eyre (1943). Her big break came with National Velvet (1944), in which she played a young girl training a wild horse to compete in an equestrian event. It was a popular success, and made Taylor a star; big hits, including Life With Father (1947) and Little Women (1949) soon followed. In a few short years, she was taking on more adult roles, like the comedy Father of the Bride (1950) and the drama A Place in the Sun (1951); the latter role was Taylor’s breakout critical success.
In 1956, Taylor teamed with Rock Hudson and James Dean for the epic Giant, and her next three performances — Raintree County (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer — earned her Oscar nominations. She finally took home her first Academy Award for her performance in the drama Butterfield 8 (1960), which co-starred her then-husband Eddie Fisher.
In 1963, Taylor starred in the expensive flop Cleopatra; though Taylor and her co-star Richard Burton’s behind-the-scenes romance made for sensational headlines, the movie’s huge budget — and subsequent box-office failure — nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Taylor rebounded with a searing performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) that earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress.
Taylor took on fewer roles in the 1970s and 1980s, and her last credited performance in a theatrical release was The Flintstones (1994). Taylor’s personal life — she was married eight times, twice to Burton, and was rumored to be in poor health for years — at times threatened to overwhelm her cinematic accomplishments. However, in the early 1980s, she became a leading advocate for AIDS research and acceptance at a time when fear of the disease was widespread.
Taylor is survived by four children and 10 grandchildren.