Ms. Taylor’s life offered a mesmerizing series of sagas to rival any movie plot, and they were chronicled by the media since her boost to fame as the enchanting 12-year-old star of “National Velvet” (1944).
By her mid-20s, she had been a screen goddess, teenage bride, mother, divorcee and widow. She endured near-death traumas, and many declared her a symbol of survival — with which she agreed. “I've been through it all, baby,” she once said. “I'm Mother Courage.”
News about her love affairs, jewelry collection, weight fluctuations and socializing in rich and royal circles were followed by millions of people. More than for any film role, she became famous for being famous, setting a media template for later generations of entertainers, models and all variety of semi-somebodies. She was the “archetypal star goddess,” biographer Diana Maddox once wrote.
It helped that Ms. Taylor was eminently quotable. Distraught after her showman husband, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash in 1958, she sought the company of married entertainer Eddie Fisher, whom she later wed. “Well, Mike is dead and I'm alive,” she said. “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?”
Onscreen, she was presented as one of the age’s greatest saints or sinners. Her roles often intertwined with circumstances in her own life to create an enduring image as victim or vamp.
She made more than 60 films and twice won the Oscar for best actress: as a call girl who meets with tragedy in “BUtterfield 8” (1960), based on the John O’Hara novella; and as the braying, slovenly wife of a professor in “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), adapted from Edward Albee’s play about marital warfare.
“Virginia Woolf” was a rare critical triumph for Ms. Taylor, whom reviewers often found insubstantial or overwrought.
Widespread respect for her acting and humanitarian work came much later in her career with a slew of lifetime achievement awards. Her media exposure, on which she built her star status, might have kept her from being taken seriously in her heyday.
“No actress ever had a more difficult job in getting critics to accept her onscreen as someone other than Elizabeth Taylor,” film historian Jeanine Basinger said. “Her persona ate her alive.”
As a young woman, she was called “Luscious Liz” for her sensual figure, bright eyes with long dark lashes, ruby lips and mane of raven hair. She appeared on the cover of Life magazine 14 times, more than any other film star, and on People magazine’s cover more than 25 times.
In the 1960s, pop artist Andy Warhol used photography and silk-screening techniques to depict Ms. Taylor's face as a totem of beauty and fame in what became a much-reproduced piece.