Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
Easily the most down to earth person that ever won the Cecil B. deMille Award, Elizabeth Taylor had a heart as big as her filmography. Married so often her director Joseph L. Mankiewicz once joked, “The problem with Elizabeth, she has to marry every man she sleeps with." But as an actor Liz was no joke. Her skills were praised by her husband Richard Burton in his published letters, and she had countless awards to prove it.
She was in her early 50s when she won the Cecil B. but she had already been acting for over 40 years. Her first film was for Universal even though she was under contract to MGM. The studio finally used her in Lassie Come Home, her English accent recommending her for that small role. Although born in England, both her parents were American; she had lived her first seven years in London before the family returned to Southern California when the war broke out.
It was that English accent that also landed her small roles in Jane Eyre and The White Cliffs of Dover, which came to the attention of famed MGM director Clarence Brown, who selected her to play National Velvet. The film was a huge success, and she held her own against her co-stars Mickey Rooney and Anne Revere, who won an Oscar for playing her mother.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth was at that awkward age, and MGM didn’t know what to do with her. So they gave her age-appropriate roles in Cynthia and A Date with Judy, two innocuous films in which she wasn’t necessarily the star. Then in one of those crazy studio decisions, while still in her teens, she was romantically teamed with MGM’s Robert Taylor, twenty years her senior, in Conspirator, a move that could have scuttled her career, but fortuitously she was rescued when MGM cast her opposite Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride.
Suddenly she was the envy of the world. Not just because she was beautiful beyond words, but because she had fallen in love with the handsome heir to the Hilton Hotel fortune. Her much-publicized nuptials were front-page news everywhere. Now she was a full-fledged MGM star.
The marriage, however, was a fiasco, and a quick divorce followed. MGM capitalized on her publicity by casting her opposite Van Johnson in The Big Hangover, a role intended for Montgomery Clift, and in Love is Better than Ever with Larry Parks just as he was being blacklisted by the industry for appearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Liz always loved to involve herself in unpopular causes and she would have been the first to give him moral support, but unfortunately, no one was there to help him, and he died a broken man.
Again, MGM had no idea what to do with her, but George Stevens, one of Hollywood’s greatest directors did. He cast her in A Place in the Sun and the rest is history. In that film, she got to play opposite Montgomery Clift, and it sparked a lifelong platonic love affair (Clift was homosexual) and one of the great friendships in Hollywood history. They later made two other films together including Raintree County, for which she received her first Oscar nomination. And there would have been a fourth, Reflections in a Golden Eye, except he was too ill at the time.
Although she wasn’t nominated for either the Oscar or the Golden Globe for A Place the Sun, though still in her teens, she was now recognized as an actress. But MGM was only interested in offering her parts that would satisfy her worldwide popularity. So again George Stevens came to her rescue. He cast her opposite Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant, in which she aged 30 years. The film was an instant classic and once again she was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
Finally, MGM saw the light: she was cast as Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and was loaned to Columbia for Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer. In both, she was brilliant and won a Golden Globe as best actress for the latter, shockingly her only Golden Globe win.
Finally, she had earned the title of Hollywood’s top actress. Which was her cue to fall in love again, this time with flamboyant showman Mike Todd. Although married to British actor Michael Wilding at the time and the mother of their two boys, she obtained a quickie divorce and married Todd. Soon she was expecting his baby, but all that bliss evaporated when he was killed in a plane crash just as his multimillion-dollar gamble Around the World in Eighty Days was winning awards - including the Golden Globe as best picture- and cleaning up at the box office.
Liz was now the bereaved widow until Todd’s best friends Eddie Fisher began consoling her. What followed was one of the most sensational stories in all Hollywood lore. Eddie at the time was married to MGMs sweetheart, innocent Debbie Reynolds - he deserted his family, including his two children, asked for a divorce, and married Liz. Not even Hollywood’s best screenwriters could have devised such a scenario.
And there was even more drama to follow.
Liz was again a Golden Globe and an Oscar nominee for Butterfield 8, a movie best remembered for her insisting that Eddie be given a co-starring role.
Six weeks before the Oscar ceremony, Liz was in a life and death situation requiring an emergency tracheotomy. The world prayed for her recovery, and of course, the Academy gave her the Oscar, and all was forgiven.
By then she was filming Cleopatra for which Twentieth Century Fox was paying her the largest salary ever paid at the time, a million dollars plus overtime. The film, of course, was a financial quagmire with overruns that resulted in Fox having to sell half their property to Alcoa for what is now fashionable Century City in Los Angeles.
And if that wasn’t enough, right on cue Liz again fell in love with her married costar Richard Burton. He filed for divorce from his wife and thus began one of the great love stories of the twentieth century. From that point on both romantically and professionally the two were inseparable. While Richard elevated her career, Elizabeth made him a star. For the next ten years, they would work together and separately.
Their films together, The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper, The Comedians, Boom, and The Taming of the Shrew were respectable successes. The one which earned them screen immortality was Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an acknowledged classic. Both he and Liz were nominated for Golden Globes and Oscars but only Liz came away from the winner.
Once again she was the most famous actress in the world, always in demand, earning top salaries, but nothing she did after that ever measured up to Virginia Woolf. She was, however, imperious, playing opposite Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye, she worked well with director Joseph Losey (Secret Ceremony), less successfully with George Stevens a third time (The Only Game in Town.) After ten tempestuous years of marriage, she and Burton went their separate ways, although both later confessed they were the only true loves of their lives. After that, her career was essentially over, one disappointment after another. She was more successful as a philanthropist and devoted her remaining years to promoting the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
Rightfully she was named the seventh greatest female screen legend of all time by the AFI. A title earned both on and off-screen.