“I’m a lady who likes to fight, and I think women would go into the trenches tomorrow if they could.” –Elizabeth Taylor
In 1947, 15-year-old Elizabeth Taylor told off her boss, MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer, arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood, for being mean to her mother. She left the mogul’s office crying, fully convinced she was going to get fired. It turned out she was wrong and after a few weeks the young actress recognized that she was a valuable commodity and by fighting she could get often get her way.
Early on Elizabeth realized her looks let her get away with a lot. In her twenties she delighted in belching loudly in public knowing that others would think that there was no way such an uncouth noise could come from someone that beautiful. Another weapon in her arsenal washer use of maladies both real and imagined. After playing a sickly teenager in the drama Cynthia (1947), people around her noticed if she found working conditions unfavorable she would become incapacitated. She came down with abdominal pains after her co-star James Dean shockingly died in a car crash during the filming of the western Giant (1955) and was hospitalized for two weeks.
Likewise when her lover and leading man Richard Burton announced he was reconciling with his long suffering wife Sybil while making Cleopatra (1963) Elizabeth reportedly took an overdose of sleeping pills. Her bosses fumed, production was shut down, and then she recovered and eventually landed her man. Elizabeth had little sympathy for studio executives; after charging Jack Warner $1,000,000 for starring in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), she nearly fired her agent for agreeing to a contract that required her to show up at work before 10am (it was renegotiated to her liking), and then asked the startled Warner for an expensive diamond brooch on top of her salary (he found her request brazen and unwarranted but eventually complied).
Her skirmishes were often played out for the benefit of others. Debbie Reynolds once was shocked to see Elizabeth being belted by her third husband Mike Todd, when Reynolds tried to help, Elizabeth told her not interfere, then the diminutive brunette hit her spouse right back. The Todds enjoyed physical altercations; sometimes they were a prelude to lovemaking. Elizabeth later made fun of Debbie for being a square. Another shouting match with Todd in 1957 at an airport was witnessed by writer/producer Ernest Lehman, he remembered it nine years later when he hired Elizabeth to play against type as the foul-mouthed, husband-loathing Martha in Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Her real-life public brawls with her fifth husband and frequent co-star Richard Burton became notorious, yet Burton insisted they never fought while they were alone. (Comedian Benny Hill skewered both Burton and Taylor in a parody about Virginia Woolf):
Alcohol was another arrow in the Taylor quiver; even Richard Burton couldn’t keep up with her when it came to imbibing. Getting her womanizing husband inebriated was a way to prevent him from making passes at his leading ladies such as Ava Gardner in Night of the Iguana(1964). Other times she’d want Burton to stop boozing and became frustrated when would-be drinking champions would test him; like an old gunslinger he couldn’t refuse. After the filming of Beckett in 1964, Elizabeth accompanied Richard to a pub with Peter O’Toole. It hurt O’Toole’s Irish pride that the Welsh-born Burton had the bigger reputation as a boozer, the contest was on. Burton insisted his friend go first; O’Toole consumed an entire large bottle of very potent whiskey. “Your turn, dear Richard.”
Before the challenge could be met, Peter collapsed unconscious on the floor. Burton then stepped over him, ordered a drink, smiled at Elizabeth and said,” Another victory by default.”
Elizabeth did not win all her battles. After her dear friend Rock Hudson died of the HIV virus in 1985 she tried to find a cure. Though her parents were staunch Republicans she mostly supported Democrats, presuming that they would spend more federal dollars on aids research. She once stated she believed President Bush 41 couldn’t spell AIDS. Elizabeth, who was hugely driven by the profit motive in her personal life, probably would have dismissed the notion that research companies involved with the government had no financial incentive to come up with an antidote, lest their grants dry up. In 1960, Taylor-stated flatly there was no way any amount of money could get her to star in the drama Butterfield 8; she hated her part — a call girl character — and thought the movie pornographic. Her MGM contract legally forced her to override herself and she ended up winning her first Oscar.
Elizabeth was willing to fight for both loved ones and causes. In 1956 her friend Montgomery Clift was in a near fatal car accident; Elizabeth reached her hand down his throat to pull out his dislodged teeth which saved him from choking. She then later insisted producers hire the troubled actor if they wanted her to star in their films. In 1976, the Israel-loving Liz very quietly offered to exchange herself as a hostage in order to free the 248 passengers who had been hi-jacked on an Air France plane by Palestinian terrorists. And she risked the wrath of the Hollywood community when she chose not to not to show up to receive her Virginia Woolf Oscar, instead staying with Burton in France when it became apparent that she was going to win and he wasn’t. As usual Elizabeth showed shrewdness; backstage at the Academy Awards host Bob Hope quipped,” Leaving Burton alone on the Riviera is like locking Jackie Gleason in a delicatessen.”
During a 1970 interview with Sixty Minutes Burton and Taylor were asked about the peace symbols they wore around their necks,”They seem to be working, we haven’t had a quarrel in nearly forty-eight hours.” Richard said.
His wife responded with a laugh and added,” Stick around.”