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What a star!

Five great movies that showed Elizabeth Taylor at her best

For many actors/actresses, it's hard to pick even a couple of great movies they starred in. But Elizabeth Taylor, who died of congestive heart failure today, was no ordinary performer.

Through her long and illustrious career, from child star in the '40s to film star ever since, Taylor created so many memorable roles that she ranks seventh on the list of the American Film Institute's female acting legends.

It's difficult to whittle the list to five, but to get a sense of Taylor's on-screen greatness, you can't go wrong renting these films (or look for them on Turner Classic Movies):

1. National Velvet (1944) — Already a star because of her role in Lassie Come Home a year earlier, the 12-year-old Taylor endeared herself to audiences as a young girl who trains her horse to win the Grand National race. She remained friends with co-stars Mickey Rooney and Angela Lansbury throughout her life. Many of her lifelong back problems are traced to her fall off a horse during the filming.

2. A Place in the Sun (1951) — A heartbreaking American classic, this film marked a turning point in Taylor's career as she made the transition from child star to acclaimed dramatic actress. Taylor won praise for her role as a spoiled socialite who falls in love with a handsome man from the wrong side of the tracks (Montgomery Clift). She and Clift developed a special bond that lasted until his death in 1966.

3. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) — This watered-down version of Tennessee Williams' classic play is worth watching for the sizzling chemistry between Taylor and co-star Paul Newman, who were both in their prime. About a week after shooting began on the film, Taylor's husband Mike Todd was killed in an airplane crash.

4. Cleopatra (1963) — Taylor, the world's highest paid actress, met the love of her life, Richard Burton, during filming of this movie. They were both married to other spouses at the time and the tabloid press had a field day. (For those too young to remember, they were the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie/Jennifer Aniston of their day.) The cost of the movie spiraled out of control and nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. The movie is a bit of a clunker, but it's worth it to see Burton and Taylor together on screen for the first time. 

5. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) — Taylor won the second of two Academy Awards for her portrayal of the boozy wife of a college professor (Richard Burton) in the movie, based on the searing Edward Albee play. Taylor, who shed her glamourous image and gained 30 pounds for the role, won in part because the Academy loves actresses who play against type.

Her first Oscar, for her role as a call girl in the 1960 movie, BUtterfield 8, is not considered one of her great films (in fact, it's a bit of a camp classic). Taylor candidly admitted she won because of the sympathy vote after she nearly died in a London hospital after a bout with pneumonia and an emergency tracheotomy.

Others that could easily be on the list include Little Women (1949), Father of the Bride (1950), Suddenly Last Summer (1959), The Taming of the Shrew (1966), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) and my personal favorite, Giant (1956), based on the Edna Ferber classic and set in west Texas, in which she stars with James Dean and Rock Hudson (another close lifelong friend). Dean died in a car crash late in the film's production.

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