“Burton and Taylor”
Here Was Love
I loved Elizabeth Taylor. She was the most beautiful woman the world has ever known and she had a great heart. There is still so much about her that we do not know and we probably never will know it all. One thing for certain was that she loved Richard Burton and he loved her but they could not seem to make it work.
In this film produced for the BBC, film star Elizabeth Taylor invites her ex-husband – twice over – Richard Burton to her fiftieth birthday party where, as a recovering alcoholic, he refuses to get drunk with her. She suggests that they star in a stage revival of the Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” on Broadway and he does agree to that. As they announce the project, the press speculates on a romantic reconciliation but Burton has a new girlfriend and the prospect of playing king Lear. He was not happy with the “Private Lives” project, especially with Taylor’s pill popping and her lack of stage experience, which caused problems at rehearsal. The critics tear it apart when it opens but the audiences continue to come because they want to see Taylor and, when she is ill, numbers dwindle and the show is put on hold. After a two-month run , with a projected tour, the play closes and Taylor tells Burton she has always loved him and still does. Then a year later, Burton is dead.
This film is a look back at the magic that was Burton and Taylor. It is a snapshot of two stars as they embarked on the last project they would ever do together. Not only was “Private Lives” an artistic flop, but it was also the subject of constant gossip. The stage production was plagued by rumors of strife, backstage fighting, and lots of unnecessary drama that had little to do with Noel Coward and everything to do with its high-strung leads.
In this BBC production, we have Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West giving their best to become two icons of the glorious Hollywood studio days as do theatre. They don’t either of them truly look like Taylor and Burton, but they do commit to embracing their essence in the emotional complexity of a tortured relationship. Helena Bonham Carter was an unexpected choice to play Elizabeth Taylor, but she does capture a sense of the charming lunacy that was Elizabeth’s trademark. In truth nobody could ever live up to the legend so she fights valiantly in a battle she can never win. She simply decides to bring herself to the role more than trying to copy Taylor and that works fine.
Dominic West has an easier job playing Burton, who was simply a man’s man with a beautiful voice. He does right by Burton’s legacy making him compassionate and yet hardheaded simultaneously. Compared to the disastrous Lindsay Lohan version of Elizabeth Taylor, this is a fine film.
It covers just a brief time period in the couple’s lives and it is fun to see them square off in a theater rather than on a film set, and there’s plenty of rich folklore to draw from. No sides are taken here and both Elizabeth and Richard seem crazy about and towards each other the whole time. “They are poster children for the dangers of addictive love, and proof positive that exes are best left out of your business life once they are gone from your bedroom”. It is interesting that I felt I wanted them to marry each other again and if Burton had lived, I can only wonder if that might have happened.
Some thought that their venture into live theater was as a cheap device to gain more money and make a mockery out of talent but the crowd loved it and came back for more. We see the moral struggles that Taylor and Burton faced. Burton was irritated seeing and hearing the theatergoers laugh and act like they were seeing animals in a zoo. Burton wanted a clean show and to deliver art for those who understand and desire it but not for the masses lurking for the glamour and drama.
This is a minimalist film and it works just fine for Bonham Carter and West. They mix humor with sarcasm, sadness with hope and resignation with forgiveness. The tragedy of Hollywood’s greatest couple was the love that consumed them. They were made for each other and destined to be apart because of their temper. They were alike yet they fought to show they were not. When they were separated they sought to be back in each other’s arms and the fans loved every moment and with the media presenting their every move. Whatever they chose to do was put in second place with their life taking first place.
It was very smart to just have a movie about a very small incident in their lives but I did want more. We see turmoil, fighting and bickering. The relationship of Taylor and Burton is stripped bare and presented before our eyes and we’re no longer distant. Instead we are enlightened.
For Helena Bonham Carter this is a great role. Many felt that Lindsay Lohan had luck with her looks in landing Taylor’s part but here we see that Bonham Carter is Elizabeth Taylor even though there will be only one Dame with violent eyes and one actress who tried to give justice here—Helena Bonham Carter shows us humor and sadness, anger and mischief. She manages to get those Taylor eyes and the twitch of the lip just like Taylor. She projects adoration, sadness, desperation and acceptance when Richard Burton/Dominic West is beside her.
West embraces the role and the actor. He may not be the perfect Burton, more morose at times and less explosive but the heart is there, the sentiments and understanding of what is required of him is sensed. William Ivory wrote the script and it all works fine. What we see is only a moment in time given and it’s intimate and well balanced.
Both Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter triumph in walking a fine line between impersonation and acting, whether it’s Mr. West who looks and sounds just like Mr. Burton, erupting into a towering rage or Ms. Bonham Carter as Taylor, assuming a pose of taught dignity or throwing a wink to both the audience and the camera that is alive with the screen presence of the original. The performances remain excellent throughout. We can only see them as imagined versions of who these people might have been. Burton is always professional as theatre has always been his first love and he won’t allow anybody, especially Taylor, to make a mockery of it.
Taylor takes everything in her stride and because she’s Elizabeth Taylor, she knows that the audience will love her simply because, she’s Elizabeth Taylor. It’s quite obvious that even though both are romantically involved with other people, they still care for, and love each other, although neither will ever admit it out loud. There is also the fact that Taylor was always the one who got all of the attention and we see that here in a scene when they both decide to go out for dinner to a quiet restaurant, Ms. Taylor enters and everyone applauds her but when Mr. Burton enters, nobody seems to notice. This seemed to be fine with him because he really preferred not to be in the spotlight but I can only imagine that he was hurt.
And that’s okay with him. Mr. Burton prefers being out of the spotlight but as the evening progresses, they both remember the earlier years when they were at the height of their fame. Burton and Taylor did not seem to want to let go of each other either professionally or romantically.
By the time that the play ended its run, Burton realized that the audience didn’t like the play for what it was, rather, he felt that they had been invited into his and Ms. Taylor’s private lives instead. The movie is about many things; love, addiction, failure, rejection, getting older and having regrets.
The movie felt that it was very short. At 85-minutes, the movie remains contained within the production of the play which helps present events from becoming difficult to manage. However, once the script and characters become comfortable the movie is practically over leaving you to wonder where the time went. This is either proof of really great pacing or just a thin plot, too breezy to provide much impact. The events of the play are so lightweight, with the main focus being the fear that Burton/Taylor lived out their issues on-stage, that there’s no real analysis into it.