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Remembering Elizabeth Taylor: Five of the Star’s Films to Get Lost In

From ‘A Place in the Sun’ to her Oscar-Winning Turn in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

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To a young generation just making its way through movie history, Elizabeth Taylor is an artifact of another time. News of Taylor's death Wednesday at 79 stirred up thoughts of an older woman who married 8 times (twice to actor Richard Burton), hung with Michael Jackson and Prince, hustled perfume and jewelry, and notably fought the fight against AIDs. For twentysomethings and under, Taylor's career barely registers as a blip. "Was she ever in anything good?," I was asked today in my Rolling Stone office. My answer is a resounding, "YES!" Taylor had beauty, brains, talent and a bawdy sense of humor that was a pleasure to be around. Nearly two decades ago, I enjoyed lunch with Taylor at a Manhattan restaurant where the stares of accompanying diners would have thrown a tower of lesser strength. "They just want to see how fat I've gotten," laughed Taylor, lifting one untoned bare arm for all to see. Taylor howled at their shocked reaction. She was like that. In life for the joy of it.

But today, I think the best tribute I can pay Taylor is to suggest a handful of her films to get lost in again or for the first time. For those wondering, "Was she ever in anything good?" try these following films.

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A Place in the Sun (1951)

In George Stevens' Oscar-nominated movie, Taylor plays a rich girl so gorgeous and unattainable that poor boy Montgomery Clift considers killing the mousey girlfriend (Shelley Winters) he's just impregnated to be near her. Want to see how sizzle-hot a movie can be after 60 years? Watch Taylor's fully-clothed make-out session with Clift at a society dance. "You'll be my pickup," she whispers into his ear. "Tell mama. Tell mama all." Angelina Jolie, eat your heart out.

Video: Watch Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun

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Giant (1956)

A Texas epic, also from George Stevens, in which Taylor costarred as the socialite wife of rancher Rock Hudson. But the most memorable scenes involve Taylor with James Dean, who died — at 24 — in car crash before the film was released. Dean, as a hired hand who becomes an oil millionaire, was actually a year older than Taylor. But both of their performances display a longing and maturity far beyond their years. Oddly, Dean's legend has continued to grow while Taylor's career awaits rediscovery.

Video: Watch Elizabeth Taylor in Giant

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Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Elizabeth Taylor created an iconic figure as Maggie the Cat in the film version of the Tennessee Williams play about a marriage on the rocks. With Paul Newman in all his blue-eyed glory as the maybe gay husband Maggie can't get into bed, Taylor became Hollywood's leading symbol of beauty and sex appeal.

Video: Watch Elizabeth Taylor in Cat in a Hot Tin Roof

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Suddenly Last Summer (1959)

In her most demanding role up to that time, Taylor made even her doubters pay attention. As Catherine, a woman being forced into a lobotomy for witnessing the murder and cannibalization of her gay cousin while traveling in Spain, Taylor threw herself totally into portraying madness. Her Oscar nomination was well earned.

Video: Watch Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

A blowsy and deglammed Taylor won her second Oscar (following 1960's Butterfield 8, which even she admits was junk) for playing Martha, the verbally abusive wife of a college prof (Richard Burton) who decides he's not going to take it anymore. Edward Albee's groundbreaking play glowed under the shrewd direction of Mike Nichols and a Taylor performance that she rightly claimed as her best. Disagree? Name your own Taylor peak.  

Video: Watch Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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