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Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century

Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger

(IT Books (HarperCollins); US: Apr 2011)

Full disclosure right up front: I didn’t choose this book to review because I’m particularly fascinated with Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton, either singly or together.


I did, however, think that most people of the previous generation were. Therefore I got a bit of a shock when I told my mom I was reviewing this book. Ordinarily my most dependable guide to mid-20th century pop phenomena, in this case she didn’t have any insight whatsoever. “Well, that’ll be boring… They got married, they got divorced, they got married again, they broke up again… I mean, they made a couple of decent movies, but other than that they never really did anything.”


Of course, there’s a bit more to the story than that. A solid handful of classic films aside, ‘Liz & Dick’s volatile relationship formed a unique bridge between the stage-managed stylisation of early media celebrity and the freewheeling, decadent reaction to same in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Besides which, their chemistry was undeniable: she was the Hollywood diva who wanted a real man; he was the Serious Actor who fell in love with the real woman.


Furious Love, their new dual biography, claims that the term ‘paparazzo’ was literally invented in their honour—it was the swarms of media surrounding the new couple on the Cleopatra set that inspired Fellini to so name a photographer character in his contemporary film La Dolce Vita. Given that the latter was released in 1960, at least a year before either Taylor or Burton even thought about donning a toga, this claim is not strictly grounded in reality… but hey, it sounds like something Liz & Dick would inspire, right?


It’s this disconnect —between celebrity belief in the malleability of their own legends and the ensuing spectacular collisions with reality—that fascinates me about these kind of stories, and certainly this one seemed like it had serious possibilities. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton… the lore speaks of two preternaturally gorgeous, obscenely wealthy, ferociously self-indulgent people who lived their lives, both personal and professional, so far over the top that they completely lost sight of the bottom. The reality of their passion is widely believed to have completely sunk their careers in fantasy. What could possibly have been going on in their private spaces?


…As usual, I should’ve listened to Mom, because the answer does in fact turn out to be: not much.  At least, not much that ultimately justifies their treatment here as the Marriage of the Century. As is the case with most supremely self-indulgent types, the Burtons were far too busy living in the moment to bother with being memorable in the long-term.


Under ordinary circumstances, of course, this wouldn’t at all be a hindrance – well, it’s probably more of one now than it would’ve been circa 1970, but the real old-school Hollywood camp has never gone out of style. There’s certainly no shortage of this Harold Robbins-esque material in Furious Love: without the drinking and pill-fueled binges, backstage bawdiness and melodramatic suicide attempts that collectively made up the relationship’s entire raison d’etre, there wouldn’t be a book in the first place. (In a nice classic touch, the authors carefully note both the colour and label – Dior, if you’re wondering – of the negligee Taylor dons to receive Burton post-attempt to kill herself over him).


All of which is nicely augmented by Burton’s vividly earthy letters which, along with exclusive access to self-censored portions of Liz’ autobiography, are the justification for revisiting their love story. As it turns out, when left to write his own dialogue, so to speak, Burton gave off bright sparks of real humour and humanity that do a lot to leaven the (also classic) banality of the authors’ attempts at psychological insight. The need for perspective becomes critical at about the 97th repetition of what they obviously consider their major dramatic hooks: ‘Elizabeth’ was strikingly beautiful and attracted to strong, hyper-masculine lovers as a counterpoint; ‘Richard’—her ‘more dignified’ name for him, it is carefully noted—was thus her ideal, besides being Welsh, the son of a miner, and alcoholic.


What it all boils down to, breathless line-by-line comparisons with their Cleopatra roles tactfully left aside, is that Liz & Dick’s private life did in fact closely parallel their movie ditto—except with belching contests and dirty jokes in place of the pretentious dialogue.


Which is, it must be said, an interesting, and sometimes even appealing, phenomenon in and of itself. The Taylor-Burton axis was just shrewd enough, sexy enough and talented enough that had they kept their heads—the ones other than those Burton was writing about, that is—one suspects they could easily have built something that that actually justified a 400+ page paean two generations later.  As it stands, however, what the reader ends up with is a perfectly decent drugstore paperback padded out to an epic Romance For the Ages almost solely via authorial – delusion, seems like a close enough word.


Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, it is made clear in the acknowledgements, are unabashed fans of ‘Dame Elizabeth’ (albeit their connection with her, or for that matter each other, is never otherwise specified) and thus truly appreciated her deep concern that the Burton legacy might be forgotten. To them, it’s terribly important that ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Richard’ are memorialized not only as icons but as real people. Real people who just happened to obsess over diamonds and think a ‘comic retelling of the Faust legend’ (aka, Hammersmith is Out) would somehow be a smart career move. Hey, it wasn’t easy, losing all those Oscars, you know!


Not that the fond tribute doesn’t have just as much currency within the genre as the hatchet job, and is much easier on a reviewer’s self-respect besides; the trouble is that even readers who genuinely agree that Liz & Dick were the couple of the century might have problems investing them with the capital-S seriousness that sets the tone here. Furious Love—as a Shakespearean reference from USA Today on the cover makes clear—is intended as no less than Literature.


The authors are wholly sincere, almost wide-eyed, about the celebrity experience in exactly the combination one would expect from a Vanity Fair contributor and a part-time PBS producer/Creative Writing teacher. (Sample phrasing: “Her love of jewelry – diamonds especially – would be a leitmotif running throughout her life, apotheosized in the publication of Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair With Jewelry, a coffee-table book replete with vivid photographs of her most famous jewels and the circumstances surrounding them.”) As far as I can tell, the only humor – let alone satirical edge – allowed in these pages is that expressed by our two leads themselves, and thank goodness Burton at least was quick with the bon mots, otherwise it would be quite a slog for the even slightly skeptical. 


To their credit, Kashner and Schoenberger avoid open bias in Liz & Dick’s favour. They do contrive to excuse them an awful lot, though, in that half-nostalgic, half-admiring way you do with reprehensible old friends, or for that matter old stars. Where Dame Liz is concerned, it would appear to be a case of both. So that Burton manages to come off as much the more interesting of the two, not necessarily because he was (although the reader can’t help developing strong suspicions in that direction) but because the authors were that much more willing to question his assertions and admit his flaws. Poor bastard from the mining village just didn’t know what hit him, is the best they can come up with. And probably it was true.


Meanwhile, everyone who disliked them is themselves dislikeable (poor Joseph Mankiewicz, Cleopatra‘s director, gets this in a particularly egregious attempt to distract from the trouble the duo’s new affaire was causing him), every one of their notorious flops wasn’t really that bad, every negative critic is ‘grousing’ or ‘sniping’ or just generally unfairly piling on, etc., etc. In an example I particularly like, Taylor’s notable weight gain in the ‘60s is qualified by how terribly hard she found it to find clothes to suit her figure. Look, authors, basic rule of celebrity: either ‘there was no-one else like [her] and there never would be’ or she was buying off the rack.


Also, she was either trying hard to do the honourable thing re: not destroying Burton’s marriage or she was peppering him at home with demanding phone calls. Even as measured by the situational ethics of the standard paperback celeb bio, this all gets to be a bit much.


Ah well.  The ‘New York Times Bestseller’ banner, also on the cover, means that anything I could say at this point is moot, anyway. If you love Liz’n'Dick, diamonds and drugstore paperbacks, in whatever order, go nuts. Otherwise… enter at your own risk.

Rating:

Kerrie Mills is a Canadian cultural critic and writer who has been exploring the Technicolour waters of pop-culture to online laughs and acclaim since 2002. She recently added significant print acclaim to her resume as the author of the PopMatters article Bob & Ray: The Two and Only, reprinted as liner notes in a recent CD retrospective.


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