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Liz Taylor: A Leading Lady For Life

To simply say Elizabeth Taylor is a movie star is something of an understatement — the British-born beauty is one of Hollywood's all-time leading ladies. But her larger-than-life celebrity comes in large part from her dramas off the screen — her multiple marriages, her diamond-collecting, her yo-yo dieting.

A new biography — aptly titled How to Be a Movie Star — provides new details about Taylor's dramatic life story. As biographer William Mann tells NPR's Michele Norris, Taylor's formula for success was simple: She knew what she had, and she knew how to use it. Just when the public was ready to cast her as a has-been, she knew how to reinvent herself.

"Elizabeth always loved living large, and it served her very well," Mann says. "She was the woman swathed in mink and ermine, and dripping with diamonds and emeralds."

But the lavish lifestyle wasn't born out of arrogance, Mann insists; there was simply a sense of the way a major movie star was supposed to live.

'Life Sometimes Is Messy'

Taylor played a series of sirens (in Suddenly, Last Summer; BUtterfield 8 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) during a time when Hollywood was grappling with how to deal with sexuality onscreen.

"She became very sophisticated in terms of sex and in terms of relationships," Mann says, "not only in her films, but in her personal life."

Taylor was still married to her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher, when she fell in love with Richard Burton in Rome. Just 10 years earlier, Ingrid Bergman had been banished for having a child with a man to whom she was not married. Nevertheless, Taylor chose to deal with her own affair very openly, Mann says:

"Rather than apologize for [the affair], she stood up and honestly said, 'This is what happens. Life sometimes is messy. We're sorry if we hurt anybody, but we can't deny the fact that we're in love.' And instead of pushing the public away, I think it nudged them along a little bit in their own understanding of sex and relationships."

'Never Had An Acting Class'

Taylor's sophistication played out in her acting as well — she was more precise and accomplished as an actress than she's often given credit for.

"When she had the right director, when she had good material, she could more than rise to the occasion," Mann says. He names A Place in the Sun, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as just a few examples of her notable performances.

"She just really explodes on the screen," Mann says of Taylor's performance as Martha in Virginia Woolf. "We get frustrated with her, but we also have great compassion for her, and that's remarkable acting. That's a remarkable achievement for a woman who had never had an acting class."

Despite her diva-esque tendencies, Taylor had compassion for the non-movie stars in her life. Mann says there was one day during the filming of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when her scene was interrupted by a stagehand snoring in the rafters. Taylor came to his defense.

"She identified with these blue-collar workers who were working there," Mann says. "They had been her family ever since she was a little girl ... all of the technicians on the set. So she didn't want this poor guy fired." (And, in the end, he wasn't.)

Still In The Spotlight

Taylor is now 77 — but don't let that fool you. She has posted frequently on Twitter (you can follow her @DameElizabeth) — even as she was on her way into heart surgery in October.
Vince Bucci / Getty Images
Taylor is now 77 — but don't let that fool you. She has posted frequently on Twitter (you can follow her @DameElizabeth) — even as she was on her way into heart surgery in October.

Mann clearly has great affection for Taylor, and critics are already accusing him of dealing with her story with a gloved hand.

"They say that I've fallen in love with my subject," Mann says. "I think in some ways, you have to fall in love with your subject if you're really going to get inside them."

Still, Mann says he cast a critical eye on the pettiness that came along with Taylor's stardom.

"I think Elizabeth really deserves a lot of that respect and accolades, but I think there were moments where I certainly was critical of her narcissism, as well."

Now, many decades after Taylor first became famous as one of Hollywood's most beautiful leading ladies, she still knows how to command the spotlight. Coming out of heart surgery in October, Taylor tweeted: "Dear Friends, My heart procedure went off perfectly. It's like having a brand new ticker. Thank you for your prayers and good wishes."

"The people around her are brilliant," Mann says. "They know how to keep her name in the public. So she's actually been tweeting — going into the operating room, coming out of the operating room. And by doing that, she gets people talking about her, which, after all, is the whole point of the game."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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