Elizabeth Taylor (1932 – 2011)

Elizabeth Taylor, screen’s ‘pre-Christian Elizabeth Arden’, is Dead at 79.

Liz Taylor was perhaps Hollywood’s best known star, albeit one better known for her alluring beauty and offscreen antics than for her acting. In an acting career than spanned six decades, she received her share of accolades and excoriations, and was best remembered for her 1963 film Cleopatra — one of the sliverscreen’s biggest flops.

The picture was originally intended as a low-budget remake of 1917 epic, to cash in on the recent popularity of sword and sandal pictures like Ben-Hur. But Fox brought in Liz Taylor, and built sets worth millions at London’s Pinewood Studios. After hefty demands (which included an unprecedented million-dollar salary, a $1500 a week stipend for her husband, a $3000 a week stipend for herself) were made, Liz Taylor conveniently woke up with a cold on the very morning the filming was to begin. The cold turned into a five-week absence.

Veteran Director Joseph Mankiewicz was brought in to save the picture the press was already calling the greatest movie never made. As the script was being furiously rewritten by Mankiewicz, Taylor again become sick, this time with pneumonia. She fought for her life and claimed that she died and came back, a publicity stunt that helped rekindle her waning star. Claiming that London’s weather contributed to her sickness, she demanded the production — massive sets and all — move to Rome.

The studio considered replacing Taylor (with among others Marilyn Monroe) but decided against it. But other cast changes led to the fateful decision to hire Richard Burton as Taylor’s opposite number. Their subsequent affair, Le Scandale as Burton called it, was shocking by the day’s standards, as were Burton’s lurid descriptions of torrid sex with Liz Taylor. Paparazzo Marcello Geppetti’s famous shot of Burton and Taylor kissing on a yacht on the Amalfi Coast confirmed these rumors. The photo was responsible for triggering not only the worldwide interest in the affair, but also sundering of carefully constructed studio images of celebrities’ lives all too common in the 50s and the 60s. The world of June 1962 had never seen anything like it. According to Snap! A History of the Paparazzi, there had always been rumours surrounding stars in gossip magazines such as Confidential and Hush Hush, but never before had there been pictures such as these to substantiate them.

The last to know were their respective spouses, and when Burton’s long-suffering wife threatened to leave him, Burton dumped Liz, who promptly overdosed. Her suicide attempt was another disaster for Fox, but a publicity scoop for Taylor. Burton dumped his wife of 12 years, and reunited with Liz. Yet things hardly picked up for Fox; Burton and Taylor’s stormy fights often incapacitated Taylor; the duo would often show up to work drunk. But Taylor kept on charming the studio executives and they kept funding this vanity project. Mankiewicz, who wanted to make a seven-hour epic, presented another problem. When the final, four-hour version was presented, the critics universally panned it, singling out Liz Taylor’s performance. “Overweight, overbosomed, over-paid and undertalented, she set the acting profession back a decade” noted David Susskind. The New Statesman‘s review which included the words “monotony in a slit skirt” was withering.

Fox nearly went bankrupt over the movie which cost it a record $42 million, and earned back just half of that. Cleopatra entered history books as the only film ever to be the highest grossing film of the year, running at a loss.

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