Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a Well-Made BBC Biopic

[13 February 2014]

By Sarah Boslaugh

The greatest stunt casting of all time may have been the performances by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Noel Coward’s Private Lives for 63 performances in 1983. When Burton and Taylor played the on-again, off-again couple Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne on Broadway, audiences couldn’t help but think that perhaps they were getting some insight into the real-life squabbles of the twice-married, twice-divorced couple. This life-imitates-art-imitates-life illusion was aided by the fact that Elyot’s current wife in the play had the same name of one of Burton’s other ex-wives: Sybil, and Taylor also played up the possibilities (“Together Again”) in publicity for the show.

The BBC TV movie Burton and Taylor limits its focus to those few months in 1983 when Burton and Taylor were rehearsing for and performing in this production, and it’s the better for it. Instead of trying to tell the whole story of the relationship of Burton and Taylor, it uses a limited time frame to allude to all that came before (and what little was left to come after). It’s telling that screenwriter William Ivory originally wanted to call this movie Love is the Drug, because the general theme of Burton and Taylor is the power and destructiveness of the love between the title characters.

Audiences loved the production, which sold out before it opened, and they particularly loved Taylor. She responded by soaking in their appreciation, enjoying the experience of being a star before a live audience, and even mugging in response to a catcall in one performance (to the horror of her costar, one of the great British stage actors of the 20th century). When Taylor had to drop out due to “illness” (of the variety fueled by booze and pills and, this movie implies, at least partially fabricated in order to get revenge on Burton), so many people wanted refunds that the production had to go dark temporarily, reminding Burton who people were really paying to see.

Critics were less kind. Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, called the production “a calculated business venture” with Burton playing “a retired millionaire steeling himself for an obligatory annual visit to the accountant.” He was even more scathing of Taylor’s performance, comparing her to “a windup doll in need of a new mainstring” and noting that it was “only when she stares out into the vast reaches of the Lunt-Fontanne that her eyes reveal a hint of sparkle: what she sees then is a full house.”

I have no idea how true to life Burton and Taylor is—was Taylor really that scheming, that unprofessional, that dependent on booze and drugs? Was Burton really that passive aggressive, that clueless about the public’s interest in his and Taylor’s private lives? Did he really think it was his destiny to play King Lear, with the only possible complication being his potential inability to carry Cordelia across the stage? (The movie opens and closes with references to King Lear.) Fortunately, it doesn’t matter if what we’re seeing is true or not—this is a biopic that understands and exploits the conventions of the genre, and relies on excellent acting and production values rather than original plot twists to make it successful.

In fact, there’s not much surprising in Burton and Taylor, and you can probably predict pretty much all the important plot points even if you weren’t yet born when the real-life version was playing out. What’re really important, however, is that what we see on the screen in Burton and Taylor rings psychologically true, even if its not either original or factual.

Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West give quite credible performances as Taylor and Burton, even though neither one resembles the original (although West does an admirable imitation of Burton’s voice). Most importantly, their interactions have a psychological truth that overcomes any audience fear that they’re going to see the lives of these two acting giants exploited for cheap thrills.

Bonham Carter has the harder job. Taylor is written petty, conniving, and manipulative, as well as out of control regarding her addictions (the real Elizabeth Taylor checked into the Betty Ford clinic not long after the events portrayed in this movie, and showed her courage by being the first celebrity to publicly enter rehab). West’s Burton, on the other hand, is mostly worrying about his squandered legacy as one of England’s great stage talents, and trying hard to stay off the booze and remain true to his girlfriend, tasks complicated by his own weakness and the force of nature that is Elizabeth Taylor. There are other characters in this movie, but I’d be hard put to name any of them, so intensely does the focus remain on Taylor and Burton.
The sound and picture on the DVD version of Burton and Taylor are sharp and clear, so there’s nothing to complain about in that regard. This release really comes up short in terms of extras, however: all you get are two brief featurettes. One, “Setting the Stage”, lasts two minutes and is basically a discussion by director Richard Laxton of a pivotal restaurant scene in the movie. The other, “Love is the Drug” (ten minutes), is a more general making-of documentary with clips of the film and comments by Laxton, Bonham-Carter, West, screenwriter William Ivory, executive producer Jessica Pop, and producer Lachlan Mackinnon.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/178937-burton-and-taylor/