Lassie Come Home/Jane Eyre (1943, 1944)
These two films served notice that an eerily intense young talent was blossoming on the MGM backlot. Taylor isn’t the star of either movie, but nobody paid attention to the other actors when she was on screen. In Lassie Come Home, she’s the granddaughter of rich duffer Nigel Bruce, sympathetic to the homesick collie he buys and to the poor boy (played by lifelong Friend of Liz Roddy McDowall) who has to give the dog up. Taylor doesn’t even get a credit in Jane Eyre, but her handful of scenes as Jane’s serenely doomed schoolmate Helen Burns cast a spooky pall over the whole film.
National Velvet (1944)
The 12-year-old Taylor pulled out all the stops for this classic tale of a girl and her horse — it’s a freakily vibrant portrait of a young woman living on the knife-edge of her senses. The rich Technicolor adds to the movie’s otherworldliness (it brought out the new star’s azure eyes), and Donald Crisp and Oscar winner Anne Revere as Velvet’s parents ground the film’s coltish emotions. And there’s the horse, of course, and as well as Mickey Rooney as an angry young trainer who helps the heroine prepare for the big race. But when the camera’s on Taylor, it’s as if she were revealing a secret inner life.
A Place in the Sun (1951)
Liz grows up, but that weird inner life’s still there. The first film to prove she was an actress of might and imagination, George Stevens’ adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy at first just offers Taylor up as an unattainable beauty, an upper-class debutante way out of striving Montgomery Clift’s league. As Angela Vickers comes into focus, though, the actress reveals depths nearly as profound as her overpowering sexual allure. You can even pinpoint the moment when she drops the hammer: that inflamed balcony scene where she whispers to Clift, ”Tell Mama — tell Mama all.” Nineteen years old, she was already ageless.
Raintree County (1957)
The first of Taylor’s five Oscar nominations came for her role as a mercurial southern belle in MGM’s deluxe attempt to one-up Gone With the Wind. Her Susanna Drake progresses from merely impulsive to flat-out nuts, and at times Taylor seems to be sampling Vivien Leigh as both Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois. But the performance is ultimately her own, and after mid-’50s films like Elephant Walk and Giant, it left Taylor on the doorstep of greatness. That said, she spent much of her time on set protecting costar Clift, who was almost let go after a devastating mid-production car accident.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
With her performance as Maggie the Cat, Taylor finally morphed into the Liz of legend (and picked up another Oscar nomination in the bargain). It’s a static movie — and director Richard Brooks neutered the gayness right out of Tennessee Williams’ play — but Taylor startlingly fuses tenderness and trampiness as the spurned wife of Brick Pollitt (an insanely sexy Paul Newman). The film came out just as Taylor was breaking up Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds’ marriage, losing the sympathy she received after the death of her third husband, Mike Todd, in a plane crash. If the public was unequivocally on her side, it wouldn’t be for long.
Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
Tennessee Williams done right — completely over the top. Katharine Hepburn approaches drag-queen camp as Mrs. Violet Venable, determined to have her niece Catherine (Taylor) lobotomized so the girl won’t spill the beans about the death of Violet’s son, Sebastian. (All right, he was eaten alive by Spanish boys after Catherine unwittingly helped lure men for him to sleep with; did we say this movie was over the top?) Monty Clift plays a brilliant brain surgeon and the most sane person here, which should tell you something. A third Oscar nomination for Liz — and an eighth for Hepburn. So there.
Butterfield 8 (1960)
”Mama, face it, I was the slut of all time,” says Taylor’s Gloria Wandrous: Talk about playing to audience pre-conceptions. The homewrecker-to-the-stars was cast as a promiscuous model (not a call-girl, as many think — remember, she lipsticks ”NO SALE” on that mirror in the opening scene) who might be in love with married paramour Laurence Harvey. Taylor hated the film but it finally won her an Oscar — or did she get the award for surviving pneumonia and an emergency tracheotomy a month before the ceremonies? Already real Liz was providing better drama than reel Liz.
The most expensive movie ever made (and it still may be, when the production budget is adjusted for inflation) was also the movie in which Liz met Dick and the Earth stopped its rotation to gawk. How does this four-hour dead-weight hold up today? Not too bad, really; if Richard Burton is overwrought, Rex Harrison manages to be quite affecting as Caesar. As for Taylor, she comes off as the carnal queen of all she surveys. When the lady says, ”I am worshipped by millions,” you believe it. And when she says, ”My breasts are full of love and life,” by God, you believe that too.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Taylor’s performances had always verged on the shrill and occasionally crossed the line. In Mike Nichols’ towering adaptation of Edward Albee’s play, she wields that shrillness as an emotional grenade-launcher, turning it first on Richard Burton and then on herself with harrowing, incandescent results. The movie’s scalding language put a dent in the studio censorship rules, but this portrait of a marriage undergoing thermonuclear meltdown is best remembered as the pinnacle of LizandDick — the nanomoment when the couple’s celebrity and talent were in perfect synch. Taylor gained 30 pounds, let her hair go gray, and bagged her second and most deserved Oscar.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
An adaptation of a Carson McCullers novel, this plays like Tennessee Williams on laughing gas. It’s also the last time Taylor appeared to take acting in a feature film seriously, but, then, she was up against Marlon Brando as a majorly closeted Army major at a base in the Deep South. An incredibly strange movie — one character cuts her nipples off with garden shears — and Taylor suddenly seems like the most normal person in the room. No wonder she got bored.