Tuesday, May 03, 2011

furious love ... and ambition

Article first published as Book Review: Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger on Blogcritics.



After reading this great review of Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by husband and wife team Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger I had to check it out for myself. I thought I had a pretty good sense of who Taylor and Burton were. I've seen quite a few of the iconic actress's movies and a couple of them together. But I had no idea how much work they they had done together. Probaly my most vivid memory of the couple is seeing them seeing them on a rerun of the Here's Lucy show when I was a kid that focused on Elizabeth's love for (and Richard's purchase of) her famous jewelry.

Elizabeth and Richard were truly jet-setters. Furious Love is a little exhausting, as the authors track the Burtons from first-class hotel to hotel, city to city, country to country, yacht port-of-call to port-of-call. It is admirable that Elizabeth always wanted to keep her children close, but absolute insanity that she dragged them so frequently across the globe. And their menagerie. I may now better understand Liz's friendship with Michael Jackson. Not only did they share their "lost childhoods," but like Michael she was an animal lover to the extreme, always surrounded by multiple "dogs, cats, goldfish, tortoises, a rabbit and a bird." Through the years these animal hangers-on traveled with them, on land and sea, everywhere they went. But Elizabeth didn't stop at regular household pets. She also adopted exotic creatures. There is an amusing story where director Franco Zeffirelli related that the only way he was able to convince Elizabeth to do his movie adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew with Richard was to help rescue her bush baby from where it was hiding behind the pipes in their hotel suite's bathroom.

Their human entourage consisted of multiple handlers, including bodyguards, a tutor, governess, nurse, and of course their four children. Depending on what movie they were filming or what country's taxes they were trying to dodge they would all settle into a villa outside Rome, or live on board their yacht, or spend months at a time in a Paris or London hotel or their home(s) in Puerta Vallarta or Switzerland.

Wearing Cleopatra-style eye make-up — she truly was a goddess

But before this madcap lifestyle began to take shape the two truly rocked the world with the love affair that broke up two marriages and started when they were filming Cleopatra in Rome. Elizabeth had already created a scandal by "stealing" Eddie Fisher from wife Debbie Reynolds after the tragic death of her husband Mike Todd in an airplane crash. Fisher was Todd's best friend and was happy to console the grieving young widow. He saw history repeat itself as sparks flew on the Cleopatra set. Affairs occurring between actors making films is as old as time itself. It's more remarkable when it doesn't happen. What was different about Elizabeth and Richard was how blatant they were. They went on dates out to restaurants all over Rome, quickly becoming part of La Dolce Vita paparazzi culture.

Elizabeth was a star of such magnitude that she couldn't do anything without being photographed. And she knew it. And she didn't care. Richard may have started out just looking for another conquest, but he soon discovered the lusty, larger-than-life beauty could match him barb for barb, drink for drink. Their affair always had a sense of opera to it. There were suicide attempts when Elizabeth feared that she would have to give him up — especially disturbing considering she was so devoted to her children. But once they were together, no matter how many illnesses, bad reviews, affairs or marriages, they truly thought of each other first and foremost, above all others.

Whooping it up with what looks like V&Ts, shots, and beer chasers

Richard himself always referred to their affair as Le Scandale. His friend and mentor Laurence Olivier sent him a telegram at the height of Le Scandale asking, "Make up your mind, dear heart. Do you want to be a great actor or a household word?" Richard sent him a cable back: "Both." That is the crux of the Richard Burton dilemma. He was heralded as the greatest actor of his generation, only to have squandered his prodigious talents in sub-par movies and at the feet of Elizabeth, worshiping her and forever scooping up after their dogs. Whether that is entirely true or not is immaterial, as Richard himself believed it. Unfortunately, Furious Love brings it up ad nauseum. The book is too damn repetitive to really be considered a good read. How many times do we need to read that their relationship was a Faustian bargain, or that Richard had a great disdain for acting and felt it was un-masculine? Or that it was Elizabeth and Richard vs. Liz and Dick? There are copious notes in the endnotes, citing biographies and magazine articles consulted as sources, but the book still feels as if it is straining to fill in the blanks with repetitive prose.

When reading Furious Love between the lines some very interesting facts manage to come through. For starters, Elizabeth was a brilliant business woman. From her negotiating for fabulous jewelry (something she enjoyed having, and also a terrific investment) as gifts from her producers upon completing a film, to getting top salaries for herself and Richard, she was always on the lookout for how to use her image to improve their lifestyle. The Burtons were always on the move — not just because they liked living large (and boy, did they), but to avoid being named full-time residents of any country and paying major taxes. They had multiple homes, but spent most of their time living in hotels. Elizabeth collected paintings (her father was an art dealer/collector). They were incredibly extravagant, but equally as generous — paying for the care of Richard's institutionalized daughter Jessica, providing financially for his very large Welsh family (he was the second-youngest of 13 children), maintaining an enormous support staff.

Furious Love briefly outlines the pair's early lives and their tempestuous affair and then the rest of the book is spent chronicling the episodic, itinerant life that they shared. As much as it details their life and work together, the book primarily tells Richard's story, which the authors say was Elizabeth's intention — to remind some and introduce others to the genius of Richard Burton. The reader will be curious to track down some of his little-seen movies, like Staircase, where he co-starred as a gay couple with his friend Rex Harrison, and Williams's The Night of the Iguana. But mostly Furious Love made me want to examine the 11 films he made with Taylor: Cleopatra (1963),  The V.I.P.s (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), The Comedians (1967), Doctor Faustus (1967), Boom! (1968), Under Milk Wood (1972), Hammersmith Is Out (1972) and Divorce His - Divorce Hers (1973). Of that long list I have only seen Cleopatra and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

What is never stated (probably to get access and permission to print so many of Richard's love letters to Elizabeth), but does come through loud and clear is that Elizabeth was well on her way to becoming an alcoholic even before she met Richard. There was an interesting story glossed over in a few sentences originating from 4th husband Eddie Fisher. While visiting her on the set of Cleopatra, he took a sip out of her cup, thinking that it was water, and was surprised to find it full of vodka. She was a secret drinker, and was starting early in the day, long before her affair with hard-drinking Richard really took hold. Once she was matched up with a legendary drinker it was no surprise that their life took on the form of one long party, or some might say, extended drunk. By the time she was able to kick the alcohol (and prescription drug) abuse, it was already too late. Not just for their romance, but for Richard. His health was shot. And he never really could quit drinking for long.

Looking every bit the glamorous jet-setters that they were

I had no idea that one of my favorite actors, John Hurt, was out carousing with Richard the night before he died. The book hints that Richard may have been in a bar fight and received a head injury which may have contributed to his dying the next day from a cerebral hemorrhage. If so, Hurt is probably as haunted by that as Richard was by his complicity in the injury and death of his older brother Ifor Jenkins. After a night of boozing with Richard, Ifor, who was staying at Richard's house in Switzerland, slipped and broke his neck. He was paralyzed from the neck down and his health deteriorated until he died five years later. Bar fight or not, Burton was a time bomb with not much time left.

Despite their incessant brawling and utter disregard for the long-term well-being of each other — they continued to booze and pill-pop to excess even when told it was life-threatening — they had an amazing bond and love and need for each other. Elizabeth was his co-dependent drinking buddy and love of his life, but she also brought out the best in his acting. Before he met her his film-acting style was showy and stiff (The Robe). After they met, they worked on films that were challenging in subject matter, with international directors, like Elizabeth's previous films Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Suddenly, Last Summer, and BUtterfield 8. Richard may have introduced Elizabeth to Shakespeare and to performing on stage, but it was Elizabeth who helped him reign in his huge delivery for film roles and introduced him to Tennessee Williams. It was also was interesting to learn how much she tried to promote Richard in his stage work — Hamlet and Dr. Faustus.

It's easy to look at their life together as tragic, as love gone wrong, and at times it was. But they are also a product of their times and milieu. They were hard drinkers, but so was everyone they associated with, actors and socialites. It would have been very difficult for Richard to fight his genetic predisposition (his father was an alcoholic) and his endless social rounds and routines. Even as a hermit, writing secluded in a garret, he probably would have become a drunk like his beloved Dylan Thomas. Richard was not just a brilliant actor, but also a very ambitious one, and I'd like to turn the old saw about his destiny on its head and venture that  he would never have achieved some of the acting heights that he did if he had never met Elizabeth Taylor.
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