Why I loved Liz: A brief tribute to Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

It was sad hearing that Ms. Liz died this morning of heart failure. I knew she'd been ill often in recent years, but I felt the loss of a favorite actress and old friend who shared her melodramas on many a rainy afternoon.

My own montage of great Liz roles reeled through my head -- starring roles in Father of the Bride, Cleopatra, iconic Tennessee Williams dramas like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the unforgettable "unholy harridan" in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (a characterization coined aptly by David Warner) and her unforgettable major lead debut at age 12 in National Velvet.

Ms. Taylor was a raven-haired, violet-eyed beauty a with tiny-waisted hourglass figure -- the version of her I prefer to remember, anyway. She would sashay the set in a 1950s halter dress and render a velvety-voiced retort in a deliberate cadence distinguished by a fading British accent left over from a childhood in England. Her intense eyes bore into you with the anger and sadness of someone whose heart was broken one too many times -- and that was true both on screen and off.

Liz's adoration for Montgomery Clift, Ms. Taylor's co-star and love interest in Suddenly, Last Summer, A Place in the Sun and Raintree County, became tragically mirrored off-set by her infatuation with the real-life homosexual Montgomery.

We also read about her impassioned but failed marriages with Richard Burton -- a hot chemistry both on and off the screen (in Woolf and Taming of the Shrew) -- and the tragic plane crash death of husband Michael Todd, whose tenure wasn't enough to bestow regrets. "I have had two great loves in my life. Mike Todd was the first," she said.

Aside from her eight marriages, eccentric tabloid trifles, a friendship with Michael Jackson, addictions, etc., there was something magical about Elizabeth Taylor. She possessed a flawed but charming vulnerability that was intriguingly contrasted by a feisty inner strength that made her both lovably human and larger than life. Her realness, boundless affections and ability to face demons blessed her with an unmatched ability to be complex and nuanced in her roles, earning portrayals of characters straight from literature's hall of fame, from Shakespeare to Williams to Dreiser to Albee and so many others. Her two Academy Awards (for Butterfield 8 and Woolf) have never been disputed.

In her senior years, she became an entrepreneur famous for her "White Diamonds" perfume. More importantly, she devoted her life to charitable causes, championing AIDS funding before others would, showing the world -- along with all her many moments of humility -- just how supreme she was both as a person and as a celebrity.

Many of us who grew up in Tampa Bay fondly recall whiling away summer vacations watching old movies on WTOG-Ch.44. Before there was video and cable, that's what you'd do — watch whatever old classic was on the tube, whether it was Creature Feature Saturdays with Dr. Paul Bearer, The Three Stooges, Little Rascals, a corny 1950s comedy starring Doris Day or Sophia Loren, black-and-white classics by Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder or Technicolor epics like Spartacus and Cleopatra.

Some of the promos for the movies had montages with the voiceover slogan, "When movies were movies,"  and my mother scoffed and said, "No, it was when stars were stars." I always thought she was right on with that little nugget of wisdom, and no finer example of a real-deal movie star illuminated the screen like the sultry and complicated Elizabeth Taylor.

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