Her many illnesses and the lovers' adulterous affair on the set of Cleopatra shocked the world. He was known for bedding most of his costars while saying he would never leave his wife Sybil. Taylor was sick to death of husband Eddie Fisher and couldn't wait to give him the heave-ho. The ongoing Burton-Taylor affair matched the crippling costs to 20th Century Fox and nearly closed that studio down.
The truth is that Richard Burton was dying to be the world's biggest movie star. He was one of the greatest actors but not particularly a household name and he wanted to be. She was certainly the biggest movie star in the world. She also had a penchant for men who bullied her. He would aid in turning her into a brawling, boozing, profane, diamond-craving temptress who didn't seem to care what kind of films she made as long as they made them together. She would help him in being seduced by celebrity and never reaching the professional heights that he could have. Of their 10 major theatrical pairings, one was brilliant, one was good, a few were ok and some were embarrassingly horrible. Let's review.
Cleopatra (1963) has been derided from the beginning. I am not sure if it's because of le scandale or because folks really think this is a stinky movie. It is not. I have never been particularly fond of the sand and sandal historical epics, I assure you, but there are many worse ones than Cleopatra. Its biggest shortcoming is its gargantuan length but it is beautifully mounted and the performances quite good. Playing two of the world's great lovers rather suited the randy couple.
The VIPs (1963) wasn't all that bad but that's certainly not to say it was any cinematic masterpiece... far from it. The world had not at all settled down on gnawing on any juicy tidbits it could and they wanted to see the glam duo in modern dress. It could have been called Grand Hotel at the Airport. Add a lot of other stars (Louis Jourdan, Rod Taylor, Maggie Smith, Elsa Martinelli, Orson Welles and Margaret Rutherford who won an Oscar for it) and have Taylor and Burton as a couple on the verge of divorce while waiting for planes to take off. I liked it for the reasons most folks did... seeing them and the other actors and little more.
The only good thing about The Sandpiper (1965) was its theme song, The Shadow of Your Smile. Paris stood in for Big Sur as Taylor played a single mother/artist who has an affair with a married minister. Despite being reunited with Vincente Minnelli, her Father of the Bride and Father's Little Dividend director, the script was weak, the lines oh so silly and of course it made a fortune.
Gee, I wonder what made Mike Nichols think of Burton and Taylor to play a battling, boozing couple in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) but I am oh so glad he did. This is their masterpiece working together and perhaps separately as well. Both required aging and she, of course, delighted in gaining some weight and he certainly played against type as a Casper Milquetoast. She rightly won her second Oscar (and he should have won) and made the last truly great film she would ever make. My take is he would only make two more good films (both without her) in Where Eagles Dare and Anne of the Thousand Days.
I can handle a little Shakespeare once in awhile and I quite liked The Taming of the Shrew (1967). The thought of Taylor rubbing up against the bard seemed ludicrous (is there nothing she wouldn't do for Dick?) but she pulled it off in spades. Of course, playing a shrew, particularly in her Burton years, wasn't exactly a stretch but she wanted badly to show Burton she could do it and he was, they say, impressed.
The second of their three 1967 films was Dr. Faustus. It might have seemed a good idea but it was a major failure at the box office and with critics. Most of the cast was made up of unknown students from the Oxford Dramatic Society. Taylor played Helen of Troy (gasp!) and had no dialogue. It made about $1.98 but the Burtons went roaring down the road in their silver Rolls with open containers and counting the cash.
I liked The Comedians... I think. Burton got rare top billing as a sardonic (oh?), Welsh (oh?) owner of a rundown hotel in Haiti during Papa Doc Duvalier's reign with its encroaching poverty and corruption. Taylor's small role as his galpal could have easily been eliminated. Acting honors go to the sterling supporting cast of Alec Guinness, Lillian Gish, Paul Ford, Peter Ustinov, Georg Brown and Roscoe Lee Browne. It was way too long and made little money.
|On the set of Boom with costar Noel Coward|
There are no words to aptly describe the travesty that is Boom (1968). The whole reprehensible affair should have gone boom. You know you haven't seen it. No one did. In fairness I might add that I left the theater after about a half hour, a rarity for me. She played a wealthy writer who lives with a staff of servants and nurses on some Mediterranean island while begging for injections and writing her autobiography. He plays the Angel of Death while walking around her estate wearing caftans and bellowing poetry. They both should have been put in front of a firing squad.
Under Milk Wood (1972) was based on a Dylan Thomas radio drama and there is little wonder why Welshman Burton was attracted to it since he adored Thomas. He must have known there was no chance of it being a hit and probably didn't care. It took place in a little Welsh Village called Llareggub (spell that backwards) where an omniscent narrator invites the audience to listen to the innermost thoughts and dreams of the residents. Doesn't that sound nifty? Burton, no doubt, was also attracted to working again with his good buddy Peter O'Toole (and O'Toole's wife Siân Phillips) while Burton's wife had just a small role.
Peter Ustinov directs and costars with the Burtons in 1972s Hammersmith Is Out, mercifully their last theatrical film together. Beau Bridges is engineered by a blonde Taylor as a waitress named Jimmie Jean Jackson (uh-huh) and mental patient Burton to help spring him from a hospital. The absurdity of what these people go through is simply too ridiculous to detail here. Of course, it was another bomb.
Happy New Year.