Screen icon and two-time Academy Award winner Elizabeth Taylor has died from congestive heart failure. She was 79 years old.
According to a spokeswoman, the actress was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Hospital – where she was admitted six weeks ago – surrounded by her four children.
Elizabeth Rosamond Taylor was born in Hampstead, London to two American residents in 1932. Her family decided to return to America as World War 2 loomed over Europe, eventually settling in Los Angeles.
A ballet dancer by the age of three, Lizzie was set on a path to stardom from a young age. By the age of nine she was signed to a six-month contract with Universal Pictures, where she made her film debut in There’s One Born Every Minute. Soon after, Universal – whose new production chief felt Taylor lacked talent – cancelled her contract, allowing MGM to swoop in and sign the budding star.
Her first film for MGM was Lassie Come Home, followed by a small role in Jane Eyre and eventually as the lead in National Velvet. Her performance in that box office success saw her MGM contract increase from $100 a week (when she first signed) to $30,000 per year.
At sixteen, Taylor returned to England to film her first adult role in the thriller Conspirator. The film bombed at the box office, as did her follow up The Big Hangover, indicating that audiences preferred Taylor when she was a precocious young girl.
In 1950 however, she appeared as Kay Banks in the much loved Father of the Bride, and its sequel the very next year, Father’s Little Dividend.
Her next film, A Place in the Sun, was her best reviewed yet, and her performance was considered a standout. Taylor’s ambitions grew larger, but her MGM contract kept her tied to a number of disposable films (including a cameo as herself in Callaway Went Thataway).
Following the financial (if not critical) success of those previous films, Taylor began a run of almost unparalleled acclaim with 1956’s Giant. She scored three consecutive Oscar nominations over the next three years for her performances in Raintree County, Cat on A Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer.
Such was her fame Taylor was able to command a million dollar paycheck in 1960 (a record at the time for an actress) to play Cleopatra in 20th Century Fox’s ambitious epic of the same name. That film’s production ballooned to outrageous proportions, and wasn’t released until 1963.
Taylor picked up her first Oscar in 1960 for Butterfield 8. Six years later, the Academy would once again name her Best Actress for Who’s Afraid of the Virginia Woolf. She continued to act throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including on television and the stage. She also appeared twice on The Simpsons; first as herself, then later as the voice of Maggie.
Taylor’s salacious private life made her an object of intrigue as much as her performances. She was married eight times in her life (twice to Richard Burton); her husbands included Conrad Hilton Jr., singer Eddie Fisher (with whom she engaged in a love-triangle with Debbie Reynolds), producer Mike Todd, but most notably Burton, a married superstar with whom she started an affair on the set of Cleopatra, divorced in 1974, remarried in’75 and divorced again in ’76.
She retreated from the performance limelight following her diagnosis of congestive heart failure in 2004 (although she made numerous attempts to prove to the public she was not sick over the years). However, she continued to raise extraordinary amounts of money for AIDS research, a major focus of hers in her final years.
Elizabeth Taylor is survived by her children Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd and Maria Burton, as well as her 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.