I've long believed that actors aren't remembered for their acting, they're remembered for their movies. John Wayne was in The Searchers, Stagecoach, They Were Expendable, Red River, The Wings of Eagles, The Big Trail, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Shootist, In Harms Way, Rio Grande, Rio Bravo, The Quiet Man, and The Long Voyage Home. Laurence Olivier was not. With Rebeca, Spartacus, and a few solid, though not great films, Olivier will fade from memory while John Wayne will be remembered.
When I heard that Elizabeth Taylor had died, I realized that while I knew a lot about her personal life, I had trouble recalling anything from her movies. A quick look at her filmography and Giant jumped out at me, but I've long held the Giant's status as a classic had more to do with the James Dean death cult than any special qualities that the film had. While Taylor made a number of solid movies, most were on the over the top soap opera side.
So why was Elizabeth Taylor such a film icon? One of the things that I've observed as a film fan is that there are some people who photograph well in black & white. Greta Garbo is an excellent example. From her early silent films to Ninotchka, there was just something about the way the planes of her face reflected light and and reproduced in black & white. There are also some people who photograph well in color. Elizabeth Taylor came along right at the time when black & white was fading from the scene and color was taking over the movie screen. Those violet eyes, the pale skin, the jet black hair, and the red lipstick she almost always wore could take over the large screens of her day. She was stunningly beautiful and she was made for technicolor.