ORLANDO – She may have been an actress – and celebrity – like no other, one who claimed two Academy Awards honoring her work on the big screen, while in later years carving out a legacy as an activist for AIDS research and awareness.
Today, social media sites are lighting up with people fondly remembering the life, work and career of Elizabeth Taylor, who died on Wednesday at the age of 79. To some, Taylor will always be remembered for her work in cinematic classics like “National Velvet,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Giant,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Taylor won the Best Actress Oscar for that last film, made in 1966, and also for “Butterfield 8” in 1960.
“On the acting side, Elizabeth Taylor was at her best,” said Paul Castaneda, executive director of the Greater Orlando Actor’s Theater. “There never was or will be anyone better. There may be actors, some would argue, who are just as talented, but I’ll fight anyone tooth and nail who says there are actors who were better than she was.”
Castaneda cited “Cleopatra” in 1963 and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1958 as being among Taylor’s best movies, although he singled out her work in the groundbreaking “Virginia Woolf,” where she co-starred with her husband Richard Burton, as being particularly memorable.
“ ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ is the one that everybody goes to as a fierce performance, just raw and incredible,” Castaneda said. “It’s a really raw performance, but she opened herself up as much as any actress has to get where she got.”
Noting that Taylor and Burton also played husband and wife in the Academy Award-winning movie, based on the play by Edward Albee, Castaneda said Taylor clearly reached deep into her own soul to capture such a vivid performance.
“It was just amazing when you understand the dynamics of who was in this movie with her and she did it anyway, and it must have been so personal to her,” he said. “That’s probably my favorite.”
Taylor had a larger than life acting style, said Laurel Clark, executive director of the Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Theatre. No matter how many different characters she played, in some ways she always ended up playing herself.
“She was in the movies for so long, her whole life,” Clark said. “It made her more of a personality actor. They don’t transform themselves. She never looked like someone else. She doesn’t morph into another person like Meryl Streep does. She’s more of a personality actor, where she brings herself into the role. She made the role about her.
Clint Eastwood is that way. Today, being the role is the style, whereas in her day, the role was you.”
John DiDonna, founder of the Empty Spaces Theatre Co. in Orlando, agreed.
“I think my favorite acting that she did was ‘Virginia Woolf,’ “ he said. “It was free of that mask of Liz Taylor. Her film version of ‘Virginia Woolf’ was pretty raw and free of herself. It was gritty and she threw herself fully into that role, and that’s why I think it was her best work.”
But Taylor was also known for the path she took after leaving behind the world of Hollywood in the late 1970s, when she embarked on a long crusade for everything from AIDS research and children’s rights.
“For me, she’s a little out of my era,” Clark said. “For people like me, who are not of that generation per se and didn’t watch movies in the 1940s and 1950s because we were too young or hadn’t been born yet, we know her more for her private life.”
And that, Clark said, is where Taylor truly shined.
“It was more memorable than her film work,” she said. “All her charity work stands out a lot. She did a lot of that in the last 20 years, and she was more of an ambassador from the Old Hollywood system. You didn’t see Joan Crawford and Betty Davis out doing charity work. Nobody did it. My biggest memories of Elizabeth Taylor would be her charity work and her being the face of Old Hollywood. Nobody else really was.”
“It’s amazing to remember someone with that amount of fierce energy and talent, both on the screen and with some of the fights that she took on for those who were woefully under-presented when she first got involved,” Castaneda said. “Simultaneously, in public appearances she could come across as so sweet and gentle and loving. I can still remember when I lived in New York, back when I was still in college. I attended Madison Square Garden for a benefit concert that her foundation put together for people with AIDS. I remember being struck when she finally took the stage and they had her come up there — just the beauty of her spirit showing through when she spoke about what she wanted to do. The human side of it is incredibly touching, and we were all very lucky to have it.”

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