Elizabeth Taylor: a life in film

Read RT reviews and watch clips from one of Hollywood's legendary careers

In honour of screen legend Elizabeth Taylor’s passing, we’ve compiled Radio Times reviews of some of her best-loved films to remind you of what a truly remarkable talent she was.

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Lassie Come Home
(1943)
(5 stars)

This is the first and best of the canine capers featuring the lovable collie, whose popularity never waned even though she was actually played by a male dog called Pal. Here, Roddy McDowall is heartbroken when his pet is sold to the local squire, who then moves to Scotland with his granddaughter Elizabeth Taylor. But Lassie takes the high road back to her young master, while everyone dissolves into tears of happiness. Taylor never looked lovelier and Britain glows through MGM-tinted eyes. Of its kind this is an absolute delight – accept no substitute or sequels.

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National Velvet

(1944)
(4 stars)

In this adaptation of Enid Bagnold’s novel, 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor gives a star-making performance as the girl who dreams of racing her horse in the Grand National. The Yearling director Clarence Brown knows how to tug at the heartstrings and this film has become a classic, even though the story has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Thanks to a strong performance from Mickey Rooney, an Oscar-winning one from Anne Revere as Velvet’s mother, and the appeal of Taylor as Velvet, this is a richly satisfying movie. A misguided British sequel followed in 1978 starring Tatum O’Neal.

Giant
(1956)
(4 stars)

James Dean’s last film before his untimely death in a car crash reveals him as more an icon for the time than an actor – he just couldn’t portray middle age in the final half of this epic drama based on writer Edna Ferber’s homage to Texas. George Stevens, who won the best director Oscar (one of the film’s ten nominations), manages to convey some of the swashbuckling magic of oil barons and land exploitation, and elicits strong performances from a lustrous Elizabeth Taylor and a manly Rock Hudson. Those elements, plus a tremendous scene when Dean strikes oil, make it an adventure of truly epic proportions.

 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(1958)
(4 stars)

Tennessee Williams’s overheated tale of familial strife in the Deep South comes alive in this atmospheric dramatisation – it’s all steamy, fly-blown and shutters slammin’. Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman are at the peak of their star attraction. She overdoes the “Daddy Dawlin” routine – accents are not her strong suit – though Newman is splendid as the sullen but only upright member of a thoroughly dislikeable clan. The surprise plus is Burl Ives as the dying patriarch, Big Daddy. It’s one of the sounder screen adaptations of the playwright’s work, even if the play’s references to Newman’s character’s homosexuality were watered down for the film.

 

Butterfield 8
(1960)
(2 stars)

Elizabeth Taylor’s Oscar-winning performance as an up-market whore with a heart is the chief, if not only, interest of this otherwise weak and dated drama. Based on a 1930s novel by John O’Hara, the film’s attitude to sex was controversial on its release in 1960, but it is tepid stuff today. Eddie Fisher, Taylor’s husband at the time, fails to convince as the call girl’s long-time friend, while Laurence Harvey looks equally uncomfortable as the married man with whom she has a passionate affair.

Cleopatra
(1963)
(3 stars)

Cleopatra remains one of the most expensive film ever made – around $40m at the time of production and considerably more when inflation is taken into account. So why did it cost so much? Well, starting filming in wintry England with Peter Finch, Stephen Boyd and director Rouben Mamoulian didn’t help matters. Cranking up again in Rome – this time with Joseph L Mankiewicz shooting by day and writing by night – Elizabeth Taylor’s frequent illnesses gave the accountants nightmares, even if her on-set romance with Richard Burton was a publicist’s dream. The spectacle is the thing, yet, despite a multitude of screenwriters and sources, the film at least manages to make some sense of an extraordinary moment in history, as Rome expanded from republic to empire.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

(1966)
(4 stars)

Should your front room be in need of redecoration, then Elizabeth Taylor’s performance here is guaranteed to strip the paint off the walls with just one verbal volley. In tandem with her screen husband (played by then real-life husband Richard Burton, who for once realises he doesn’t have to read to the back row of the upper circle), she spits malicious barbs across their comfortable abode, often hitting their dinner guests en route. The ebb and flow of the full-blown arguments are acutely judged by director Mike Nichols, who typically laces his film with juicy psychological and social pointers. He also ensures that Taylor and Burton – even after their fictional marriage has descended to an almighty roar – never reduce their characters to caricature. This five Oscar winner (including one for Taylor) was regarded as punishingly honest in its day, though inevitably it seems a tad more muted now. Sandy Dennis – one of the luckless dinner guests here insisted years later that, at the time, the King and Queen of cinema were, in fact, enjoying a heaven-sent life of peace, love and understanding.

The Taming of the Shrew

(1967)
(4 stars)

It was made at the height of one of their own violent love affairs, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor here breathe their own personal life into Shakespeare’s not so politically correct tale of Petruchio subduing his shrewish wife. It’s a lush version in which director Franco Zeffirelli – who would return to the Bard with Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Hamlet (1990) – opts for colourful action rather than well-wrought articulation. It’s certainly a feast for the eye – ravishing photography, impressive sets and costumes – and benefits from the ebullient performances of one of moviedom’s greatest couples.