Elizabeth Taylor had one of the most famous faces of the 20th century. Known as one of the most beautiful women on the silver screen’s golden era, her life was just as dramatic as any of her top roles. After moving to California from London (she was born to American parents living abroad) at the outset of the aggressions leading up to WW2, her mother thought a little acting would be good for acclimating to American society. Hollywood’s studio system was about as far from the typical American experience as you could get, but Taylor was no ordinary child. Considered too mature for many child star opportunities, she switched from Universal Studios to MGM, in 1942, with her breakout performance coming in 1944 starring in National Velvet.
Her beauty was considered preternatural – partially attributed to a genetic mutation that caused Taylor to grow 2 sets of eyelashes. To protect those peepers, she developed a taste for extravagant eyewear early on. She worked steadily through the 50’s achieving success for the studio, and gaining a following in the public though not getting critical recognition. That all changed in 1956 with the release of Giant where Elizabeth starred opposite Rock Hudson and James Dean (who died shortly after completing the film). It was a smash hit (and very much worth watching) and critical success. This was the same time that Taylor’s life off camera began to take center stage. Her first husband died in a plane crash, and her affair with singer Eddie Fisher painted her a home wrecker – a sentiment MGM played up in its promotion of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958.
In 1960 Taylor started filming Cleopatra, a film that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, nearly killed her, and started her love affair with Richard Burton. It was the most ambitious movie made to date, and cemented Taylor as one of the greatest leading ladies of all times. Burton and Taylor married and continued making movies together as one of Hollywood’s first onscreen power couples – culminating in Taylor’s greatest performance as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That role earned her second Oscar. By this time was famous on an unprecedented scale, but had been in the spotlight since she was a child. Any amount of anonymity – like wearing sunglasses – was necessary, but Taylor did it her way. Progressing from wayfarers with flair to more Mod European styles, Taylor’s affinity for eyewear grew throughout her life (as did the scale of her frames).
Her jet set life and fame only grew as her actual acting career began to fade at the end of the 60’s. Paparazzi followed her and Burton all over the world as they spent lavishly – creating a whole new Celebrity Industrial Complex. By the 1980’s she was better known for her big hair, multiple marriages, incredible eyewear, world class jewelry and branded fragrances than her acting. She was a fashion icon before there was such a thing, and was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the CFDA in 1997. She was knighted by Queen in 2000 and died in 2004. She lived one of the biggest lives imaginable, and upon her death her jewelry collection was auctioned for a record breaking 158 million at Christies to benefit ETAF, her AIDS charity.