When did you first fall in love with Elizabeth Taylor? For me, it was witnessing her desperation as “Maggie the Cat” in the 1958 film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, based on the 1955 Tennessee Williams play. I mean, just the way she said the name “Brick!” as if she might die if her husband didn’t finally pay attention to her? I was hooked.
But of course Elizabeth Taylor had a career long before her stunning work in this classic adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. In fact, Elizabeth Taylor has many bookish credits to her name. So let’s explore the life of Elizabeth Taylor in all of its book-related glory.
Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was a British American actress born in London on February 27, 1932. She started her acting career as a child actress in the 1940s. But Taylor had no trouble transitioning into adult roles in the 1950s. By the 1960s, at the height of her career, Elizabeth Taylor was the highest-paid actress in the world.
Some of Elizabeth Taylor’s earliest childhood roles were in book-related films. In 1943, Taylor played Priscilla in Lassie Come Home. And she played Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. Please watch this clip of Elizabeth Taylor in Jane Eyre and note how her face barely changed from childhood to adulthood. It’s kind of wild.
Taylor’s first breakthrough role was in the 1944 film National Velvet. The movie, based on the 1935 novel of the same name by Enid Bagnold, starred Mickey Rooney, Angela Lansbury, and, of course, our girl Elizabeth. In the film, Elizabeth Taylor played a 12-year-old girl named Velvet Brown who rides her horse “Pie” to victory. Taylor recognized how significant the film was to her career, and later remarked, “Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses.”
There were plenty of other book adaptations for Elizabeth Taylor in the 1940s: The White Cliffs of Dover, based on The White Cliffs, in 1944; Courage of Lassie in 1946; Cynthia, based on the play The Rich, Full Life, in 1947; Life with Father, also in 1947; and Little Women, in which Taylor played Amy March, in 1949.
As Taylor moved into adult roles in the 1950s, the bookish films kept coming. In 1951, Taylor starred in A Place in the Sun, based on the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. It’s the story of a working class man named George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) who finds himself entangled with two very different women. One is fellow factory worker named Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), and one is a wealthy socialite named Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). The film received critical acclaim. However, there was some controversy surrounding the story and its implications of abortion, which was quite scandalous for a film released in the early 1950s.
Throughout the 1950s, Elizabeth Taylor continued starring in book-related roles: Quo Vadis (1951); Rhapsody (1954) based on Maurice Guest; Elephant Walk (1954); Beau Brummell (1954); The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), loosely based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story Babylon Revisited; Giant (1956); Raintree Country (1957). And these were just the bookish films in which Taylor starred in the 1950s! Believe it or not, there were even more roles beyond this. Elizabeth Taylor stayed busy.
The actress also starred in not one, but two adaptations of Tennessee Williams plays. Of course, there was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958. And then Taylor went on to star in Suddenly, Last Summer a year later in 1959. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and she won a Golden Globe for Suddenly, Last Summer.
Taylor won her first Academy Award for the 1960 drama film Butterfield 8, in which she starred with Laurence Harvey. The film was based on the 1935 novel of the same name by John O’Hara. Famously, Taylor was not a fan of the script and did not want to do the movie. According to the book Inside Oscar, Taylor told MGM’s head of production, “This is the most pornographic script I have ever read. I’ve been here for 17 years and I was never asked to play such a horrible role as Gloria Wandrous. She’s a sick nymphomaniac. I won’t do it for anything.” But due to contractual obligations with MGM, Taylor was forced to take the role. It’s said that after watching the film for the first time, Elizabeth Taylor exclaimed, “It stinks!”
After Elizabeth Taylor won her first Oscar, she went on to star in one of the most famous (or infamous) roles of her career, the titular character in the epic historical drama film Cleopatra, based on the 1957 book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero. The film was hugely successful, and Taylor was reportedly the first actress to ever get paid $1M for a role. But many people questioned the choice to cast Taylor in the role of the Egyptian queen.
Elizabeth Taylor converted to Judaism in 1959, and had since been very outspoken about her Zionist support. When filming for Cleopatra started in 1962, the crew was unable to film any part of the movie in Egypt because Taylor was banned from entering the country. Nevertheless, the movie performed well at the box office and won multiple Academy Awards. And Egyptian officials ended up enjoying it so much that they actually lifted Taylor’s travel ban.
Around this time, Elizabeth Taylor also got the opportunity to show her love of literature outside of the world of film. In 1963, she appeared in a CBS television special, Elizabeth Taylor in London, in which she traveled to different landmarks in London and recited passages from the works of famous British authors.
Taylor’s next big literary success story came in the form of the 1966 drama film Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? The film, based on the play by Edward Albee, won Taylor her second Oscar for playing the role of Martha.
Her literary roles continued throughout her career. In 1967 alone, Taylor starred in The Taming of the Shrew, Doctor Faustus, and The Comedians. In the following years, there was Boom! (1968), Anne of A Thousand Days (1969), The Only Game in Town (1970), X, Y, and Zee (1972), Night Watch (1973), Winter Kills (1979), and The Mirror Crack’d (1980).
After, Taylor’s turn in the Agatha Christie adaptation The Mirror Crack’d, the actress mostly focused on television and stage productions and on HIV/AIDS activism. By the end of her career, Taylor had lived quite the Bookish life, which is one of the many reasons we love her!