Elizabeth Taylor was exquisitely beautiful, but as an actress she was willing to take on unflattering roles, sometimes playing flawed, angry, complex characters. The list of her films includes daring, challenging stories, and they were scored with exceptional music. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Not only is this my pick for the best Elizabeth Taylor film score, it's also one of composer Alex North's best scores, and simply some of the best music written for films, both in and out of the context of the movie. Taylor and then-husband Richard Burton fully inhabit the bitter, bickering couple in Edward Albee's drama, and North's music contrasts the characters' sense of desperation with a tender Bach-like theme, illuminating the love that hides deep below the harsh fury the characters express.
2. Cleopatra (1963). The music for this lavish spectacle was also by Alex North, here working in quite a different style from the one he used in “...Virginia Woolf.” North brought a sense of American modernism to this tale of ancient Egypt, adding a lot of sonic color to the already-saturated widescreen epic with his use of percussion, brass, and even disturbing quarter-tone harmonies for Julius Caesar's death scene.
3. The Sandpiper (1965). “The Sandpiper” was another of the films Taylor made with Richard Burton. The score by Johnny Mandel emulates the gorgeous sound of arranger Gil Evans' collaborations with trumpeter Miles Davis. The lovely song “The Shadow of Your Smile” was written by Mandel for this film, and his score is largely a set of variations on that theme, featuring excellent trumpet work by Jack Sheldon.
4. Butterfield 8 (1960). Elizabeth Taylor won one of her two Best Actress Oscars for this film (the other was for “...Virginia Woolf”), in which she plays an “escort” searching for sincere love. (Long-time New Yorkers -- and old-timers in general -- will appreciate this movie title's reference to the old telephone exchange for Manhattan's Upper East Side.) Polish-born composer and pianist Bronislau Kaper brings the right touch to his score for the film, the music sounding at times almost like an adventurous concerto featuring piano and flute.
5. Raintree County (1957). This Civil War epic starred Montgomery Clift and Eva Marie Saint along with Elizabeth Taylor, and music for the film was by Johnny Green. Green was the head of music at M-G-M, and though he supervised and coordinated hundreds of film scores, he assigned only a few to himself. “Raintree County” displays his versatility and sensitivity, and is gracefully built on a folk-like melody.