If I asked you what you thought of Burton and Taylor you would be forgiven for imagining a rather smart bespoken gentlemen’s clothiers off Chelsea’s fashionable King’s Road. Put those two surnames together though and what you get is arguably the most explosive, most romantic and, ultimately, most tragic love affair of the century just passed.
Writing in The Telegraph, Michael Thornton, who got to know both Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton well, reviewed the new BBC biopic Burton and Taylor, with Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West in the titular roles, and says that it “brilliantly recreates the turbulent relationship of the glittering Hollywood couple”.
“Turbulent”, “destructive”, “diabolical”, “furious”, these are the adjectives thrown like palmfuls of mud at a couple who simply made the rest of the world look very ordinary.
Thornton describes his first encounter with Burton, on location for the film The VIPs: “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 realized that he was paralytic. I discovered that he had consumed 14 Bloody Marys before lunch, then moved on to neat vodka in the afternoon.”
Liz made a valiant attempt to keep up with him in their extended drinking bouts, but William Ivory, writer of the 90-minute film, who himself has struggled with the demon drink, claims: “Burton and Taylor were addicted to more than alcohol. They were addicted to each other.”
In one of his letters (included in a collection Furious Love compiled by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger) Burton confides to his diary his recollection of first seeing Ms Taylor. “A girl sitting on the other side of the pool lowered her book, took off her sunglasses and looked at me.” Burton was 28. “She was lavish. She was a dark, unyielding largesse. She was, in sort, too bloody much, and not only that: she was ignoring me.”
In true movie fashion let us cut to nine years later and they are starring in the epic Cleopatra. And – after much mutual volcanic smouldering (both married, remember) – one sizzling on-set kiss (which lasted way after everyone else had gone to lunch) was enough to trigger an off-on-on-off love affair that would last decades, during which it could be argued that they had a fairly balanced relationship: they married twice and divorced twice.
That bookworm girl from the poolside was a distant memory. As one half of the world’s most famous couple, he later wrote: “She is a wildly exciting love-mistress, she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography. And I’ll love her till I die.”
That they had begun their acting collaboration in a drama that Shakespeare was drawn to was perhaps an augur that the Fates would deal them a few bad decks. In 1968, Taylor had to undergo a hysterectomy. “A child with Richard. I would have wanted that above everything in the world,” she later said.
Romance of this sort can bring wild mood swings. He once told her: “I do not wish to touch your hands. They are large and ugly and red and masculine.” To make amends, he shelled out $1.1 million for a Cartier diamond ring. And they were actors 24/7 after all: the competition was always – rightly so – fierce. Harking back to their debut, he said: “I was acting Antony… she was Cleopatra.”
In 1973, when Burton had an affair with co-star Nathalie Delon, on the set of Divorce His, Divorce Hers, Taylor called off the marriage. “Maybe we loved each other too much,” she said.
In later years, when they came together once more in Private Lives (ironic titles appeared to hound them), 51-year-old Taylor’s performance was lambasted as “perfectly terrible… a caricature of Coward’s heroine, inside a caricature of an actress, inside a caricature of Elizabeth Taylor”. But the American public loved them all the same – you had to kill for a seat. It wasn’t Noel Coward, it was the Liz and Dick Show.
Few people under thirty will get the point of all of this and how could they? You had to see the films close to those times, close to their context, when movies were allowed languorous scenes that allowed intense, heated drama to develop with the help of something called dialogue – and extraordinary creatures masquerading as actors.
I was quite young when first I saw The Taming of the Shrew (we had to do read it at school) but I couldn’t care less about the fact that the words were mostly gibberish: here, the Bard Bill’s story was being told without the need for his clever rhyming couplets – it was unfolding in action, in pure animal energy. You could turn the volume down and still get the point of it all. When Liz hurled stuff at him, you felt like ducking.
To watch them together – even in flops – still brings goose bumps because there’s a fathomless passion there and also, lest we get caught up all in all the sex and violence, intelligence and a rare kind of symbiotic grandeur. It’s a dangerous cocktail, sure, but it was a train crash that we couldn’t take our eyes off as we watched the couplers of their extraordinary, shared life snap and the carriages list into the ditch.
In the summer of 1984, Burton sat in the library and wrote Taylor a love letter. The following day, he went out on a binge with his friends, got in a fight and hit his head on the floor. He suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, dying on the operating table. He was 58 years old.
Taylor got back home after he was laid to rest and discovered the letter, postmarked the day before his untimely death. He wrote: “Home was where Elizabeth was.” He wanted to come home, and she kept that letter by her bedside until her death in 2011.
And surely that’s a fine ending to this romantic episode in the hearts of any man or woman. Except…
Today, fifty years on from that first spark of their courting, a letter – discovered inside a book left behind at a house in Oroville, California, that Burton and Taylor rented while he was filming The Klansman – went up for auction. It was written by Taylor to Burton on the eve of their quarrel-ridden 10th wedding anniversary. It’s a wonder it survived: from the content you would expect the writing paper to combust and wither in flames.
Not many married people would compose a missive like this a decade into their union: “I wish I could tell you of my love for you, of my fear, my delight, my pure animal pleasure of you – my jealousy, my pride, my anger at you, at times. Most of all my love for you, and whatever love you can dole out to me – I wish I could write about it but I can’t.
“I can only ‘boil and bubble’ inside and hope you understand how I really feel. Anyway I lust thee,
“Your (still) Wife.”
Read it and weep, as the old saying goes…