Elizabeth Taylor is an icon of Hollywood’s golden age, and one of the most popular movie stars of all time. From her early days as a child actress in the 1940s, through her silver-screen domination during the 1950s, to becoming the highest-paid movie star in the ’60s, the violet-eyed legend remained a famous figure until her death in 2011 at age 79.
But Taylor’s life wasn’t always as charmed as her glamorous image seemed to portray. She endured numerous health issues throughout her adulthood, was the subject of scandals in the public eye, and suffered great personal tragedy. Through it all, Taylor remained resilient. She challenged Hollywood standards, demonstrated savvy business smarts, and became an unlikely advocate for causes that were ahead of their time. She was a force to reckon with, and her spirit has made her an inspiration to generations of fans.
She was a trailblazer
I've always admitted that I'm ruled by my passions.
When Taylor was just 15 years old, the newly minted young starlet did something that even many seasoned actors wouldn’t dream of: She yelled at a studio executive. When MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer swore at Taylor’s mother, who had accompanied her on set, the young actress told him to “go straight to hell!” — and refused to apologize.
Taylor didn’t stop upending the staid Hollywood norm there. For her Oscar-winning role as Martha in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the star defied her status as one of the most beautiful women in the world to create a stunning character. She gained 30 pounds, wore appearance-altering makeup, and embodied a raw and real honesty that, while common in prestige films today, was a shock to the industry at the time.
She had business savvy
There’s no deodorant like success.
In 1963, Taylor became the first actor to be paid $1 million for a single role when she starred in the epic film Cleopatra. It was a shrewd negotiating move by a star who knew her worth and her power — she also negotiated 10% of the film’s profits.
Beyond her Hollywood career, which she had all but left behind by the late 1970s, Taylor got busy building a business empire. She invested in land, art, and jewels before their prices skyrocketed in their own bubbles. And most notably, she all but invented the celebrity fragrance landscape, licensing her name and image through Elizabeth Arden to create the classic White Diamonds perfume in 1991.
She was resilient
You find out who your real friends are when you're involved in a scandal.
Through the years, Taylor persevered through more than just the limits of the old-fashioned film industry. Her personal life — especially her eight marriages (including two to the same man, actor Richard Burton, and one to actor Eddie Fisher, which was the result of a scandalous affair) — garnered endless scrutiny.
Taylor’s life saw many struggles and setbacks, all of which played out on the public stage. She suffered a tragic loss with the death of her third husband, Mike Todd. Shealso dealt with lifelong health challenges, including scoliosis and subsequent chronic back pain. And she eventually entered a treatment facility to address substance use issues — which led to her becoming one of the first A-list celebrities to speak openly about addiction and treatment.
She was an early activist
I will remain here, as rowdy an activist as I have to be, and, God willing, for as long as I have to be.
Taylor left an indelible mark on the silver screen, but her legacy is as much in activism as acting. Starting in the mid-1980s, she became an outspoken advocate for the injustice surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 1991, she even used the $1 million she earned from the sale of photos from her wedding to her eighth and last husband, Larry Fortensky, to start the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
This was a time when the epidemic was still mired in misinformation and surrounded by fear and discrimination. But Taylor stood firm in her support for the LGBTQ+ communities, channeling the same self-assured fearlessness she showed all those years ago in speaking out against the dominant powers in Hollywood. In 1993, she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Awards for her efforts. Today, Taylor’s children and grandchildren carry on her philanthropic work through her organization, keeping her name and her inspiring legacy alive.
Photo credit: Keystone Features/ Hulton Archive via Getty Images