This is a special guest post by Maegan @MaesMusings. Originally published on ‘Citizen Screenings,’ which is now defunct I am including it here in memory of Elizabeth Taylor who died on this day in 2011.
“There is a tendency among certain writers, especially the sententious, to create ‘fine’ pieces of writing about us. They are all the same. The rich couple, living their lives in a fishbowl glare of publicity, unable to take an ordinary walk in an ordinary city street, mobbed wherever we go, protected by a huge entourage. . . .” – Richard Burton, March 20, 1969
And so, not wanting to be among certain writers, I’ll refrain from dwelling on the tempting, clichéd image of those Fabulous Burtons, that rapacious Liz n’ Dick, and instead focus this piece on Elizabeth and Richard and the first five films they starred in together. From the summer of 1963 to the summer of 1967, Elizabeth and Richard reached the zenith of their professional accomplishments together and would later look back on those years fondly as some of the absolute best times in their personal lives. “They strode the world like two Colossi,” recalled their The Taming of the Shrew co-star Michael York. And yet, only twenty-three years earlier, in the Welsh mining village where he grew up, Richard, at the age of fifteen, shoveled and sold cow and horse manure for money, while Elizabeth, at the age of eight, was still unknown by the camera and the world.
Though their last six films together would fall short both with the public and critics, Elizabeth and Richard’s first five films together were all box office hits, or box office hits and critical successes. Those collaborative works resulted in Richard’s fifth Oscar nomination and Elizabeth’s second win, BAFTA Award wins and nominations for both of them, two Golden Globe nominations for Richard and one for Elizabeth, and a Donatello Award win for each of them. Beyond the critical acclaim, the box office revenue during those years contributed to the purchases of such extravagances as their yacht the Kalizma (a mash-up of their children’s names), The Grand Duchess Vladimir Suite of emeralds from Bulgari, their own jet plane, the La Peregrina pearl (previously owned by the Bonapartes, Mary Tudor, and Queen Isabel of Spain), the 33.19-carat Krupp-diamond, and the insane 69.42-carat Taylor-Burton diamond. For Elizabeth and Richard, those first four years together at the box office must have seemed like an extended honeymoon, having won the forgiveness of the public for their transgressions and having fallen “madly and powerfully in love.”
Cleopatra (Released in USA on June 12, 1963)
Cleopatra – Elizabeth Taylor
Marc Antony – Richard Burton
“[I]t is a hard thing to do, to run away from your fate. When you are in love and lust like that, you just grab it with both hands and ride out the storm.”
– Elizabeth Taylor
“Elizabeth and Burton are not just playing Antony and Cleopatra!”
– Joseph Mankiewicz, Director
Cleopatra is notorious. The film was in production for three years at a cost of around $44 million, which today equals nearly $335,000,000. Elizabeth’s famed $1,000,000 contract, thousands of extras, costumes painstakingly made and embellished, including the gold dress made of 24-karat gold, and sets so numerous and grand that there was a shortage of construction materials in Italy—just as the trailer promised, Cleopatra is “[t]he spectacle of spectacles.” Fox’s new Blu-ray release of the film is a thing of beauty. Crisp. Clear. Sprawling. After seeing the restored film, today’s CGI looks cheap and lazy. No film will ever be this real again.
In spite of its grandeur, the film was labeled a flop. It wasn’t exactly a reputation the film deserved. Cleopatra was the highest grossing film of 1963, bringing in $57 million worldwide. Twentieth-Century Fox, however, the studio who produced the film, only received about half of that revenue, failing to initially make a profit on the film until Fox licensed it to ABC three years later. But, Fox did profit and is still profiting fifty years after the fact.
When released, the film mostly received unflattering reviews. Elizabeth Taylor’s “review” is often mentioned; she reportedly threw up after seeing it. However, years later, she would feel differently.
E saw Cleopatra last night with all the kids. I popped in at one point for about ten seconds and went away and slept for another couple of hours. No reflection on the film! As a matter of fact E said this morning that the film is not at all bad—marvellous spectacle and all that. – Richard Burton, August 15, 1971
The film’s real problem is simply that its final cut is not what its director and writer Joseph Mankiewicz envisioned. Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Fox at the time, demanded the film be edited down to around four hours, firing and then rehiring Mankiewicz to help him cut it. Elizabeth pinpointed the film’s exact problem, “[T]hey cut the film so that all you see is [Antony] drunk and shouting all the time, and you never know what in his character led up to that. He just looks like a drunken sot.” Marc Antony is all over the place in the second half of the film. Actually, the second half of the film is kind of all over the place. It’s still glorious and the scenes are powerful—Elizabeth and Richard’s chemistry bursts onto the screen, most notably in Cleopatra’s bedroom on her golden barge—but examined as a whole, the film has a gaping wound. Tragically, it doesn’t look like it will ever be mended, with numerous searches for Cleopatra’s lost footage coming up empty.
And while those searches have been unfruitful, Richard’s was not. When Richard saw Elizabeth on the set of Cleopatra in 1962, he saw in her the woman he’d been searching for his whole life. They had actually met nine years earlier at a party thrown by Stewart Granger in 1953. At twenty-eight years old, Richard was a Hollywood newcomer, but his reputation with women and drinking had already spread. Elizabeth thought he was “full of himself” and talked incessantly. But, when Richard spotted her by the pool, he nearly laughed out loud because she was “so extraordinarily beautiful.” He would later recall, “She was, in short, too bloody much, and not only that, she was totally ignoring me.” That would change.
On the set in January 1962, Burton’s first words to Elizabeth were—“Has anybody ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?” Elizabeth, married to Eddie Fisher, thought it was the dumbest line she’d ever heard, laughing at the “great lover, the great wit, the great intellectual of Wales” and his superbly stupid remark. “I will never forget that first laugh,” Richard said later. And while Richard, married to Sybil, his wife of thirteen years, boasted to his friends that he’d be in Elizabeth’s bed in no time, Elizabeth was determined that she was not going to be another “notch on his belt.” They were both wrong. Richard, for thinking he could simply have a fling with Elizabeth as he had done with so many leading ladies before, and Elizabeth, for thinking she wasn’t going to succumb to his charms.
Richard would complain to Mankiewicz that Elizabeth’s performance was flat. Having come from the stage, Richard had a lot to learn about the subtlety of film. When Mankiewicz showed what her performance looked like onscreen, Richard was awestruck at her stilled-brilliance. He learned from Elizabeth how to act in front of the camera—the quiet that is required as opposed to the theatrics he was used to on stage. He would get increasingly better at it—reaching the pinnacle of cinematic performance as the demurer George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
One night after a day of filming, Richard, Sybil, Elizabeth, Eddie, and Roddy McDowell (who shines as Octavian in the film) went to dinner. Fox was keeping Eddie on salary to make sure Elizabeth stayed sober and arrived promptly on set. When Eddie said it was time to leave, Elizabeth tried to talk him out of it to no avail. Richard butted in, asking Eddie any and every question under the sun to stall him. While Eddie started answering, Richard switched Elizabeth’s empty wine glass with his full glass while the two exchanged mischievous glances. About two hours later, their co-star Roddy McDowell put an end to the evening, but the damage was done. Elizabeth and Richard, tipsy, had to hold on to each other just to walk out of the restaurant.
The next day, Elizabeth and Richard had their first scenes together. Richard arrived hung over from the night before. With Elizabeth watching, he tried to drink a cup of coffee, but his hands were shaking. “If it had been a planned strategic campaign, Caesar couldn’t have planned it better,” she recalled. While she held the cup for him, she found him “so vulnerable and sweet and shaky and terribly giggly that with [her] heart [she] ‘cwtched’ him—that’s Welsh for ‘hug.’”
While filming the “everything that I want to hold or love or have or be is here with now” embrace and subsequent kiss, Richard and Elizabeth kept holding the kiss longer with each take. The final time they ignored Mankiewicz, who was repeatedly yelling cut, completely and kept right on kissing. Richard asked Elizabeth to join him for lunch that day with the rest of the cast and crew who hung out in his dressing room. There, he seemed to ignore her, but every so often he would whisper in her ear, making her laugh. When lunch was over, he put their director’s chairs together. They stayed like that until the last day of filming.
Le Scandale, Richard’s term, was born after he and Elizabeth began carousing around Rome and its neighboring cities together. Their spouses often acted oblivious to what was happening or were simply out of town. Everyone on set knew about the scandal. And the paparazzi swarmed them wherever they went. Aware of what it was doing to their spouses, Elizabeth and Richard tried to end their relationship multiple times, but it wasn’t long before Elizabeth was sitting back in Richard’s lap on set or Richard was at Bulgari buying her the first piece of The Grand Duchess Vladimir Suite, a necklace with a detachable pendant that could serve as a brooch. And then there was the exchange Hank Lustig witnessed when he was on set. A random rainstorm sent cast and crew scattering for cover. Lustig sought shelter behind a fake palace wall. The next thing he knew Elizabeth and Richard were there, too. They spotted him but didn’t seem to care. They started kissing anyway.
Elizabeth tried to commit suicide twice during the madness. The second time while she and Richard were at Porto Santo Stefano. In the middle of the night, they left Rome, hoping to evade the paparazzi and spend the weekend alone together. Instead, they were spotted in a small café by a journalist, who was there to cover another event and spread their location. Burton recalled,
We gambolled like children, scrambling down the rocks to the sea and enjoying ourselves as if it was the last holiday. We found out soon enough that every bush—and there were hundreds of them—contained a paparazzo. We were well and thoroughly trapped.
Unable to leave the villa where they were staying, they tried to busy themselves. They got drunk. They “made a desperate kind of love.” They played gin rummy. And then, Elizabeth declared she would kill herself for Richard. “With oodlings of self pity,” Richard told her no woman would do such a thing for him. She swallowed multiple sleeping pills in front of him, but he believed it was all theatrics, maybe Vitamin pills, until he couldn’t get her to wake up. He sped to the hospital, where her stomach was pumped. It was an ordeal that would haunt Richard. He would write about it in detail after he and Elizabeth visited the café again in 1971.
Having already earned public scorn for breaking up Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynold’s marriage two years earlier, the last thing Elizabeth wanted was another scandal, but she was in love with Richard, unable to “get enough of [him]” and their “incredible chemistry.” And so, Le Scandale she got. While in the Bay of Naples to film the Battle of Actium, Richard and Elizabeth were photographed kissing laid out together beneath the sun on a yacht they rented.
The photographs brought the rumors to life, making their affair an absolute fact to be discussed beneath hair dryers at beauty parlors, country club locker rooms, on front porches, and in the backs of taxi cabs. The Vatican got in on the act as well, denouncing Elizabeth’s actions and accusing her of being an unfit mother. The United States Congress followed, with two members claiming the scandal was responsible for a decline in the country’s morals and another member’s statement that Elizabeth and Richard should not be allowed to enter the country again. By April 1962, Elizabeth and Eddie’s divorce was announced, though the final divorce decree would not come for another two years.
It was at this time when the public couldn’t stop devouring stories about them, all while ridiculing them for their immorality, that Cleopatra’s grand entrance into Rome was filmed. Elizabeth sits, wearing the $6,500 golden dress, atop a golden chair placed on a giant sphinx. Before her, there are archers shooting colorful ribbons, yellow and red smoke, dancers galore, doves, trumpets, and horses. And then, of course, there are 6,000 Italian extras, there to either welcome her or send her back where she came from. Elizabeth was terrified. People in the streets had started shouting insults at her when she and Richard were in public, and the day they were set to film the grand entrance there was a bomb threat. Police were brought in and disguised as extras as a caution. Richard, must’ve been worried as well, since he’d had the dagger he carried sharpened. “I don’t know what he thought he could do, but he looked ready to sell his life dearly,” Elizabeth recalled. Richard didn’t have to. When the sphinx made its way in, the crowd’s cheers of “Cleopatra!” slowly morphed into chants of “Liz!” On the Blu-ray, it’s quite noticeable, capturing a moment neither Richard nor Elizabeth would ever forget. Richard had never seen that kind of tribute paid to anyone, and it shows in his face as Antony takes in the spectacle. Genuine reverence. While Richard was mesmerized by the scene, the crowd’s reaction quelled Elizabeth’s fears that the public had deserted her because of her affair with Richard. She was elated, yelling, “Grazie,” to them from a bullhorn after the scene was shot.
When Elizabeth finished her final scene for the film—Cleopatra arriving in Tarsus on her magnificent barge—she felt an enormous sense of relief and yet, as she described it, a “curiously sad sort of aching, empty feeling.” She spent ten months of her life playing Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and had fallen completely in love with Richard. Still, knowing the pain they were causing so many people, especially Sybil, Elizabeth ended the relationship. When they left Rome, they went their separate ways. But in a stroke of geography and chance that would’ve thrilled F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elizabeth went to her chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland on the east side of Lake Geneva, while Richard returned to his wife in Celigny on the west side of the lake. They lived that way for four months. Not a word spoken between them. Out of each other’s sight. With only a two hour drive separating them.
The V.I.P.s (Released in USA on September 19, 1963)
Frances Andros – Elizabeth Taylor
Paul Andros – Richard Burton
“I loved Richard so much that for the first time it was an unselfish love. I didn’t want him to be unhappy.”
– Elizabeth Taylor
“I think they had fights for the glory of making up. It was foreplay to them.”
– Rod Taylor, Co-star
Working for MGM, producer Anatole de Grunwald had already decided on casting Richard in his picture The V.I.P.s, about a group of passengers who are delayed at the airport because of fog. As the story goes, Frances Andros is ready to leave her superrich husband Paul to run off with Marc, a gambler and womanizer, but fog delays their flight long enough for Paul to read Frances’s letter and try to stop her. The lead characters’ plotline is supposedly loosely based on something that happened between Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier. Originally, de Grunwald wanted Sophia Loren to play Frances to Richard’s Paul in the film, but when Elizabeth heard about it, she asked to star alongside Richard. Later she would say, “It was just an excuse for us to be together.” Not a fool, de Grunwald cast her, acquiring the two most talked about actors in the business at that time in a film about two rich people caught up in a scandalous drama. With art reflecting life and with the film premiering before Cleopatra, it was sure to be a box office hit.
The film only cost around $3,000,000 and finished as the United States’ sixteenth highest grossing film of 1963, grossing over four times its cost worldwide. The cast includes Orson Welles, Louis Jourdan (who plays the “gigolo” who tries to run away with Elizabeth’s character), Rod Taylor, Maggie Smith, and Margaret Rutherford. Rutherford would win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as a down on her luck but filled with “pep-up” pills Duchess. However, critics weren’t impressed with Richard and Elizabeth’s portrayals of Frances and Paul. Viewing it now, the plot itself seems forced onto the characters—particularly the character of Frances, who goes to the airport to run away with her not-yet-lover Marc Champselle. Maybe it’s because Elizabeth and Richard’s chemistry is so effortless, but whatever the reason, it seems preposterous that Frances would leave Paul for Marc. Marc is a conman, and it’s difficult to believe that Frances is too stupid to see it or naïve to care. It’s also somewhat disturbing the way Marc tells her what to do. For instance, when Paul’s final letter reaches her Marc snatches it, tells her when she can see it, and refuses to give it to her until he’s good and ready for her to know its contents. Complete tool.
Meanwhile, it seems that Frances’s main problem with Paul is that he doesn’t need her enough. So, when the two argue in her hotel room over Marc and the problems in their marriage—brace yourselves for reams of expositional dialogue here—Paul’s sudden outburst where he grabs her arm and ends up smashing it against the mirror seems to have occurred just to show the audience that Paul really does need her. After all, he’s willing to cut her wrist accidentally. Need? And when Paul is unable to go on living without her, threatening to kill himself, that’s the suicidal-need that breaks the gigolo’s back so to speak. Frances ditches Marc and returns to Paul. The times have certainly changed since Terence Rattigan wrote the screenplay, and maybe his attempts to show Paul’s need and love faired much better with audiences in 1963 than they do with me today.
Still, Elizabeth is absolutely breathtaking in the film. Her costumes are relatively flawless. She even wears a copy of the emerald-and-diamond brooch Richard bought for her in Rome. Richard’s voice is true splendor, and there are moments when you think he just can’t get any more dapper looking. Their chemistry is their most valuable co-star, present in every scene. As for the rest of the cast, their stories are all enjoyable, most notably Rod Taylor (Les Mangrum) and Maggie Smith’s (Miss Mead) story about a tractor mogul and his dutiful secretary. The way each story intersects is delightful. One of the film’s best scenes and one of Richard’s best moments in the film occurs when Miss Mead approaches Paul Andros to tell him all about the virtues of Mangrum Tractors. Paul, in turn, tells her his own story about falling in love with his wife.
Indeed, during the filming of The V.I.P.s, Richard continued to fall in love with Elizabeth. After four months apart in Switzerland, Richard was unable to go on without her. He called her on the phone. They met at an ancient castle on the lake that separated them. When they saw each other, they both exclaimed, “You look marvelous!” They had lunch, talked about their children, and how beautiful the lake was. Richard drove her home. They didn’t even kiss, just agreed to meet again. Their luncheons became a regular occurrence every other week, but they kept it platonic.
Then, in December, they went to London to begin filming and checked into adjacent suits at the Dorchester Hotel. They resumed their affair—finding each other completely irresistible.
Meanwhile, Sybil stayed in Hampstead with her and Richard’s daughters and Richard’s eldest brother and his wife. When Richard wasn’t working, he went to Hampstead. Otherwise, he stayed in London with Elizabeth. Some days Sybil would come on set consulting with wardrobe over what Richard should wear. Then, when Sybil was gone, Elizabeth would countermand all of Sybil’s choices. Richard’s family, having loved and accepted Sybil as one of their own, sided with her. It devastated Richard, and he and his oldest brother got into terrible fights about his affair with Elizabeth. The tension drove Richard to drink stupefying amounts of alcohol. Near the end of the shoot, as he was walking back to the Dorchester, he was attacked by a group of thugs. His neck and back were injured, and he was forced to wear an eye patch for a while. But his weary look toward the end of the film fit Paul’s own defeated mood.
Tortured by what was going on in his personal life and filled with liquor, Richard was sometimes difficult to work with. The film’s director Anthony Asquith was often the recipient of Richard’s anger. Finally, Asquith just stopped directing Richard and Elizabeth. As long as they were in frame, Asquith left them alone. Though Asquith hating seeing Richard’s temper flare up, it excited Elizabeth. “Richard loses his temper with true enjoyment. It’s beautiful to watch. Our fights are delightful screaming matches, and Richard is rather like a small atom bomb going off,” she said. Richard must’ve enjoyed their battles just as much as Elizabeth. A month after resuming their affair, in January 1963, he decided to divorce Sybil—finally moving them all out of limbo. But the move was not without loss. For the next two years, he did not see his daughters, and Sybil, his wife of fourteen years, never spoke to him again.
The Sandpiper (Released in USA on June 23, 1965)
Laura Reynolds – Elizabeth Taylor
Dr. Edward Hewitt – Richard Burton
“I have been inordinately lucky all my life but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth. . . . She is a prospectus that can never be entirely catalogued, an almanac for Poor Richard. And I’ll love her ‘till I die.”
– Richard Burton
“I love not being me, not being Elizabeth Taylor, but being Richard Burton’s wife.”
– Elizabeth Taylor
Between 1963 and 1964, Elizabeth and Richard were granted divorces from their respective spouses, profits from their earlier films rolled in, Richard starred in a number of successful films and in a critically acclaimed stage production of Hamlet, and they were finally married on March 15, 1964. They travelled everywhere together, even to the stage for a poetry reading that marked Elizabeth’s theatrical debut. But after putting her career on hold for over a year, Elizabeth needed to do another film. She and Richard searched for a project that would suit them both. They decided on The Sandpiper, an MGM-Filmways Studio movie. The story was designed for Kim Novak, who was known not only as an actress but as a bohemian artist; however, a disagreement arose between Novak and the film’s producer Martin Ransohoff, so he offered the part to Elizabeth. She would play the free-spirited artist Laura Reynolds and Richard would play the Reverend Doctor Edward Hewitt. Eva Marie Saint joined them, playing the part of Edward’s wife. Again, art was capitalizing on life, and this time it seemed like Richard and Elizabeth realized just how ripe for pecuniary exploitation Le Scandale still was. MGM & Filmways didn’t even bother making a trailer that explained what the film was about. Instead, the trailer is just a mash-up of the film’s most hyper-real, meta-textual moments. Richard’s character’s priesthood goes unmentioned, and Elizabeth’s character’s son, who is integral to the whole plot, is not even shown. It is hilarious.
The film’s interiors were shot in Paris, but its exteriors were shot near Big Sur, California. The setting and cinematography are beautiful. Johnny Mandel wrote the film’s melodramatic, haunting score as well as the song “The Shadow of Your Smile.” He won an Oscar for the song, which plays during the closing credits. Along with Eva Marie Saint, other notables in the cast are Charles Bronson, who plays this jealous, sculptor-guy with a smart mouth, and Morgan Mason, who plays Elizabeth’s illegitimate son that can recite The Canterbury Tales and draw weird pictures with decapitated animals. Oh, and there is the sandpiper, whose wing Laura mends, just as she mends Edward. While the sandpiper analogy is way too blatant, the really interesting thing about the film is that Edward, corrupted by years of pleasing trustees and gathering funds, finds redemption through his adulterous relationship with Laura, which in the eyes of the church corrupts him just the same. While Edward’s transformation and the circumstances surrounding it are interesting, the only evidence that Laura gets anything from the relationship occurs when after frolicking with Edward all afternoon, she decides that married love must be wonderful, implying that Laura’s affair with this married man has endeared her to the institution of marriage.
Laura’s epiphany makes about as much sense as Elizabeth’s wardrobe changes in the film. The problem seemed to stem from the fact that Laura was supposed to be a bohemian artist, and Elizabeth wanted to look movie-star-good. Not that bohemian artists can’t or don’t typically look great, but Elizabeth’s most flattering outfit was and is definitely not that red poncho. And yet, she goes from wearing that poncho to tight purple pants to a cute white beach outfit to a yellow Sunday chapel dress. Of course, there’s also that famous wooden sculpture of a bare-chested Elizabeth that occasionally has a sheet thrown over it, but most of the time doesn’t wear anything other than a big invisible sign that reads: Look at me, Edward!
Though I’m joking about it, the film really is worth seeing. It’s melodramatic in the tradition of Douglas Sirk, heartfelt, and incredibly entertaining. Critics didn’t see it that way when it opened in 1965, but audiences came in droves. The film grossed nearly three times its estimated cost. Elizabeth’s return to film was a success with the public even if it had left critics wanting. Never one to disappoint, Elizabeth would follow a year later with a superb performance that would leave even the most spiteful critic unable to dismiss it.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Released in USA on June 22, 1966)
Martha – Elizabeth Taylor
George – Richard Burton
“I said the only thing we had in common was Yahtsee [sic]. I forgot some other things.”
– Richard Burton
“It was very cathartic because we could get all our shouting and bawling out on the set and go home and cuddle. . . . I never had a better time in my life.”
– Elizabeth Taylor
While Elizabeth was still filming The Sandpiper, Ernest Lehman offered her the role of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s play. After Elizabeth insisted on Richard playing her husband, George, Lehman gave Richard a screen-test but thought he looked too masculine. Still, Lehman decided to go ahead and cast them in the lead roles. They would just have to make Richard look the part—giving him a dumpy outfit, glasses, and mussed up hair. Elizabeth also had to change to play Martha. She gained around twenty pounds, donned a short graying wig, and had makeup applied to make her look older. When it came time to choose a director, Elizabeth and Richard suggested Mike Nichols, who had only directed stage plays but would prove himself more than capable to direct films. Sandy Dennis and George Segal joined the Burtons, playing Nick and Honey, roles they completely owned.
The closed-set shoot lasted from July to December of 1965. For the most part, it was wonderful. By day, as George and Martha, Richard and Elizabeth fought verbally and physically without damaging their real relationship and without worrying about going too far they were able to satisfy their thirst for drama both personally and professionally. At night, they were able to relax with their kids and enjoy each other’s company, essentially getting to go straight to the “make up” stage after George and Martha’s fights. Things were not so wonderful when Marlene Dietrich visited the set and started flattering Richard, assuring him he’d win an Oscar. Reportedly, she said to Elizabeth, “Darling, everyone is so fantastic! You have a lot of guts to perform with real actors.” Smiling, Elizabeth replied, “Yes, I do. And when I get home, Marlene, Richard and I are going to f*** like bunnies.”
Because of its crude language and sexual content, when the film premiered on June 22, 1966, it was given a new rating—only people over eighteen were admitted unless they were with a parent. The new rating didn’t stop the crowds. The film grossed around three times its estimated budget of $7,500,000, making it the third highest grossing film in the United States for 1966. While audiences loved it, the critics loved the film even more. George and Martha’s wit-infused insults are just as funny as they are tragic.
At the film’s core is a throbbing love, raw and trapped beneath failed expectations, beautifully captured by Haskell Wexler’s black and white cinematography. It’s that tenderness that drives the film, even as George refers to Martha as a Cyclops and Martha calls George a “great big flop.”
By the end of the film, you sympathize with Nick, confused by the game, by truth and illusion and the difference between them. George Segal and Sandy Dennis churn out powerful performances, supporting Elizabeth and Richard perfectly. Unquestionably, George and Martha were Richard and Elizabeth’s greatest roles, resulting in the most powerful performances of their careers. When it came time for the Oscars, with the film garnering thirteen nominations, it looked like Richard was finally going to get his award. Nervous about the outcome, they didn’t attend the ceremony. Elizabeth won her second Oscar that night. Richard did not. Paul Scofield beat him, winning for A Man for All Seasons. Who on earth were those voters?! Having conquered ticket sales and having nearly conquered the critics, Elizabeth and Richard turned their attentions to a new challenger—Shakespeare.
The Taming of the Shrew (Released in USA on March 8, 1967)
Katharina – Elizabeth Taylor
Petruchio– Richard Burton
“I said, Richard, I’m scared witless. I’ve never done Shakespeare before.”
– Elizabeth Taylor
“I am very proud of her.”
– Richard Burton
Franco Zeffirelli offered the roles of Katharina and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew to Elizabeth and Richard after hearing from a mutual source that Richard wanted to tackle another Shakespearian piece. During that initial meeting between Richard and Zefferelli, Elizabeth interrupted them, yelling that she needed some help with her newly acquired primate. Burton yelled back at her, “Will you please stop this bloody nonsense with that horrendous little monster and come and talk to this man? He’s a superb Shakespearean director and you might be lucky enough to work with him one day. Can’t you be more pleasant to him?” “I don’t care what he thinks of me. All I want is some help for my bush baby,” she yelled back. After Zeffirelli got the animal to let go of the pipes in the bathroom, Elizabeth warmed up to doing the adaptation.
In March of 1966, they returned to Rome, where they had met four years earlier, to shoot the film. This time the paparazzo, who had chased them and hunted them down every waking moment during Le Scandale, were much calmer. Elizabeth and Richard co-produced the film with Zeffirelli; consequently, they did not take salaries. With their own money invested in the film, both were hoping to shoot it as efficiently as possible. The cast and crew recalled how Richard and Elizabeth threw them a cookout consisting of hamburgers and hotdogs creating good will amongst the group. On another occasion, Elizabeth volunteered to help apply makeup on some fifty extras at five thirty in the morning in order to start filming earlier in the day. They were determined that this would not be Cleopatra: Part Deux.
Even so, the production was plagued with two main problems. First, Zeffirelli and Irene Sharaff, who was hired to create the film’s costumes, butted heads over the designs. Eventually, Richard and Elizabeth negotiated a compromise, with Sharaff designing for Elizabeth and Danilo Donati designing for Richard. It paid off. The oversized sleeves Zeffirelli wanted for Petruchio do the character, the source material, and the film justice. Meanwhile, Sharaff shows Katharina’s beauty, a culmination of her intelligence and strong-will, through her dress designs. The second problem that plagued the film was, in Richard’s opinion, Zeffirelli, who he had once considered a “superb Shakespearian director.” Richard decided Zeffirelli was a “coward.” During production, he wrote, “Snapshot [Elizabeth] is fine, and I think I’m alright, but I worry about the other performers almost all of whom are brilliant but ill-served by the director.” He must have been relieved when Zeffirelli had to leave to work on another project when they filmed the last scene in the film.
In that final scene, Katharina delivers a speech about how wives—cared for and protected by their husbands—should reward their men with reverence and honor. Richard directed Elizabeth in the scene. Speaking the lines with sincerity, rather than the usual sarcasm given them by other actresses, she moved the room. Richard reportedly said, “All right, my girl, I wish you’d put that into practice.” “I can’t say it in words like that,” Elizabeth replied, “but my heart is there.” Her sincerity doesn’t hurt the film. Instead, it just makes Katharina look like a marvelous actress as she slips out the door, making Petruchio follow after her.
The film was released in February in the United Kingdom and a month later in the United States. Some critics noted how much of Shakespeare’s dialogue was cut, but most found it to be a fine adaptation, having captured the essence of the play. The film is both hilarious and tragic. Elizabeth thrives in Katharina’s theatrics and her subtleties (i.e. the impatient finger tapping at the altar), and Richard brings a comically unfazed stubbornness to Petruchio (i.e. the chase sequence in Katharina’s father’s house).
Audiences loved it. The film grossed twice its budget in the United States. Their risk paid off, and Shakespeare was conquered. Their next films together would all be risks of varying degree, but their days of conquest were coming to an end.
Near the end of his life, Richard would ask, “Did I really do all that? Did I really do the jewelry, the yacht, the plane? Did I do that?” At times their lives were more myth than reality, the personas of Liz and Dick dwarfing their real selves. In 1970, after several disappointments at the box office, Richard would write, “I’m afraid we are temporarily . . . out in the cold and fallen stars. . . . What is remarkable is that we’ve stayed up there so long.” Over the course of their first four years together, Elizabeth and Richard’s five collaborations pleased audiences and some even pleased the critics. Though the last six films they starred in together would fall short in both areas, no one could erase their previous accomplishments or the memories they accumulated rising to those heights together. They would end up divorcing in 1974, only to remarry a year later and then divorce for the second time in 1976. In the years after, they would both remarry and both divorce their new partners—keeping in touch with each other by telephone all along.
In 1982, they appeared to reconcile for a while before starring together on the stage in Private Lives, but by the end of the play’s run they had gone their separate ways again, though the lines of communication between them always remained open. A year later, Richard admitted to his brother, “We’ve never really split up, and I guess we never will.” Richard wrote his last love letter to Elizabeth a mere three days before his death in 1984. She kept the letter beside her bed until her death in 2011 when per her wishes it was buried alongside her. The previous year, she wrote to biographers Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, stating, “In my heart, I will always believe we would have been married a third and final time. . . .from those first moments in Rome we were always madly and powerfully in love. We had more time but not enough.”
Furious Love, Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger
The Richard Burton Diaries, ed. Chris Williams
Elizabeth, J. Randy Taraborrelli