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In Elizabeth Taylor, a remarkable blend of beauty and tenacity

Elizabeth Taylor's early roles featured only her beauty, but her career – and her fearless embrace of controversial issues – matured until she won three Oscars, including one for humanitarian work.

By Staff writer / March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, shown here in a 1958 still from her performance as Maggie Pollitt in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' died March 23. The Oscar-winning movie icon and pioneering AIDS activist's off-screen marriages, divorces and exploits rivaled her films for drama.

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Los Angeles

The violet-eyed grande dame of classic Hollywood, Dame Elizabeth Taylor died today in Los Angeles. The British-born child actor who landed her first studio contract at age 9, Ms. Taylor knew the power of beauty in a movie town from her earliest moments in the business. Those famously exotic eyes – framed by dark, double lashes – won her a film role over the objections of a studio production chief who said, “She can’t sing, she can’t dance, she can’t perform.”

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But the years proved that beauty was only one of her many assets. After winning international acclaim at age 12 with her performance in “National Velvet,” she went on to win two Academy Awards – one for her role as a call girl in “Butterfield 8,” and the other as the biting Martha in the film adaptation of the Edward Albee play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

“Taylor was always hampered by – shall we say – those who were overwhelmed by her remarkable beauty,” says Louis Giannetti, emeritus professor of film at Case Western Reserve University and the author of two of the most widely-used film-studies textbooks, “Understanding Movies” on film and “Flashback” on the history of film. “She was actually quite a wonderful natural actress,” he says, “with the natural ability from a very early age to tap into deep, and very real emotions.”

Nonetheless, she had to fight for meaty roles. Early in her career, she played a string of forgettable lightweight ingénues as the studios capitalized on her looks. Her private life also became fodder for tinseltown tabloids. “She was one of those flamboyant personalities whose private life competed with her professional skills for the public’s attention,” Professor Giannetti notes. She was married eight times to seven husbands – she wed Richard Burton twice –primarily because, as Giannetti points out, “She was old-fashioned and did not believe in pre-marital relations, so she simply married all her boyfriends.”

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