#COOL PEOPLE #RICHARD BURTON AND ELIZABETH TAYLOI
Burton and Taylor: Trailer
Hollywood’s most glamorous and tempestuous couple are brought to life by Helena Bonham Carter (‘Les Miserables,’ ‘The King’s Speech’) as Liz Taylor and Dominic West (‘The Wire,’ ‘The Hour’) as Richard Burton. Don’t miss the biopic on BBC America.
I had met Taylor before. I was 14 when she came to the Sussex seaside village of Rottingdean, where I had gone to school, to visit my friend Enid Bagnold, whose novel, National Velvet, had provided the 12-year-old Elizabeth with her first Hollywood starring role as a girl who rides her pony to victory in the Grand National.
But I had never glimpsed Burton in the flesh, and my first sight of him was to prove shockingly memorable. I was at Heathrow to watch some of the location shooting for a film, The VIPs, in which Taylor and Burton were co-starring, supported by a host of famous names including Maggie Smith, Margaret Rutherford, Louis Jourdan and Orson Welles.
Burton, wild-eyed and red in the face, was punching the air like a boxer who had lost co-ordination. My first impression was that he must be filming a drunk scene. But then several of his wild lunges landed on innocent passers-by, and I realised that he was paralytic. I discovered that he had consumed 14 Bloody Mary’s before lunch, then moved on to neat vodka in the afternoon.
Over the years, I was to meet the Burton’s – who married twice and divorced twice – on many occasions. The last time was backstage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York in May 1983, when the world’s most famous ex-lovers, who’d by then been apart for seven years, following their second divorce, forged a disastrously ill-judged reunion in Noël Coward’s comedy Private Lives, the story of an ex-husband and wife who encounter each other on their second honeymoons, staying in adjoining rooms at a hotel in the South of France.
This grisly swan song in the tempestuous saga of Liz and Dick – it was to be the last time they would perform together – is brilliantly dramatized in Monday night’s BBC Four TV biopic, Burton and Taylor, in which the legendary couple are recreated with eerie authenticity by two award-winning actors, Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West. Its writer, William Ivory, who fought a long and painful battle to conquer alcohol addiction, understands his two star protagonists very well, but says: “Burton and Taylor were addicted to more than alcohol. They were addicted to each other.”
Addiction was evident in their first encounter, a year before I witnessed Burton’s display at Heathrow, when he staggered onto the Rome set of Cleopatra, then the most costly screen epic produced, in which Taylor became the first star in Hollywood to command a salary of one million dollars. The film, now in its 50th anniversary year, has been digitally enhanced and was re-released this month in cinemas and on Blu-ray.
At his first meeting with Taylor, Burton turned up drunk. He could barely walk. His hands shook as he tried to sip hot coffee from a cup. Seeing his difficulty, Taylor helped by holding the cup to his lips. She later claimed that in that one simple gesture, a bond was forged between them, and that she found in Burton the same qualities she had loved in her third husband, millionaire producer Mike Todd, who was killed in a plane crash: power, strength, intellect, but also vulnerability.
In Cleopatra, in which Taylor had the title role, Burton played her lover, Mark Antony, a situation that was swiftly duplicated off-screen and developed into a scandal, for both were married – Burton to the former actress Sybil Williams, by whom he had two daughters, the younger of whom was autistic, and Taylor to the singer Eddie Fisher, whom she had annexed from one of America’s screen sweethearts, Debbie Reynolds, bringing widespread condemnation down on her head.
The Vatican denounced Taylor’s affair with Burton as “erotic vagrancy”, but after their marriage in 1964, they became the hottest properties in the movie world, reaching the peak of their careers with the film of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966.
As the bitter, erudite couple, George and Martha, who spend the evening trading vicious insults in front of their horrified and fascinated guests, their performances seemed uncomfortably close to their own lives. Both admitted that the film had taken its toll on their relationship, and Taylor confessed that she got “tired of playing Martha” in real life. Her performance won her a second Best Actress Oscar. Burton was nominated but did not win – one of seven nominations that failed to bring him an Oscar.
Burton’s lavish gifts of jewelry to Taylor – the Krupp Diamond, which she wore daily; the pear-shaped Taylor-Burton diamond; and the 50‑carat La Peregrina Pearl – kept the gilded couple in the headlines, but both began to drink more heavily, and to argue increasingly, and no one was very surprised when, after 10 years of marriage, they were divorced in 1974.
If they couldn’t live together, however, it seemed as if they couldn’t live apart. Less than 16 months later, they were remarried, but it lasted only a matter of months before they separated again and there was a second divorce.
In 1983, when Taylor and Burton announced their plan to co-star in a stage revival of Private Lives, both were involved with other people. Burton was with the television production assistant Sally Hay, and Taylor with a Mexican lawyer, Victor Luna – but neither was legally attached, which hugely increased media speculation that they might marry for the third time. The theme of Private Lives – the reunion of divorced partners – added to this impression.
Taylor appeared not even to have read Coward’s play when they began work on it, and came to rehearsals drunk and also clearly the worse for prescription drugs. A staggering $2 million of seats were sold in advance, but both Taylor and Burton, at 51 and 57 respectively, were years too old for the leading roles. The reviews were devastating. One critic compared Taylor’s acting to “the Hitler diaries – you don’t believe it, but you gotta look!”
On the night I saw the play in New York, the audience was dominated by camp contingents of Taylor’s movie fans, who screamed approval of everything she did, causing her frequently to ad-lib and step out of character.
Backstage, Burton seemed depressed and anxious. He told me the decision to work with Taylor again had been “a mistake… it’s been a bloody fiasco”.
Taylor began missing performances. During one of her many absences, Burton and Sally Hay took off for Las Vegas and got married there. Taylor responded by announcing her engagement to Victor Luna, whom she never married. She then collapsed with a respiratory infection and was absent from the production again.
One of Burton’s theatrical mentors, the Shakespearean actor and director Sir Anthony Quayle, was convinced that the strain imposed on Burton by the reunion with Taylor destroyed his failing health. He died from a brain hemorrhage eight months later. When Taylor was informed of his death, she fainted.
Elizabeth Taylor was created a Dame of the British Empire in 2000. After the dissolution of her eighth and final marriage to Larry Fortensky, whom she had met in rehab at the Betty Ford Centre, Taylor did not marry again, although she described her last partner, Jason Winters, as “one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever known”.
The last time I saw her, a year before her death, she was in a wheelchair, but still mentally alert, although she had become reclusive and an element of paranoia had crept into her outlook.
I mentioned her second husband, the English actor Michael Wilding, father of her two sons, who had been a friend of mine. She said sharply: “Please don’t talk about him. He is haunting me.”
“Well, I am sure he would be a friendly ghost,” I replied. “Michael was always a very kind man.”
“I was a fool to marry so often,” she said. “If I had my time over again, I would never do that. The truth is I now don’t give a damn about most of those men. Richard is the only one I truly loved and still care about. I shall miss him until the day I die.”
Snapshot: 24 Photos of Richard Burton and Elizabeth
Richard Burton (Dominic West) says to ex-wife Dame Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter) in the film Burton and Taylor, “We’re addicts Elizabeth, you and I.” She coyly responds, “Love is not a drug.”
However you want to interpret this line, the two couldn’t stay away from each other, tackling 12 films together, diving head first into two consecutive marriages, resulting in two divorces and still drawn to each other after all of that, taking on one last project.
The made-for-TV film, premiering on BBC America on Wednesday, October 16 at 9/8c, puts a spotlight on the couples’ last performance together in the NYC stage presentation of Private Lives. Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, the play portrays a divorced couple who have lingering feelings.
This snapshot of 24 photos walks you through their romantic entanglement: