PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


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

Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West capture the emotional truth of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's relationship in the BBC biopic, Burton and Taylor.

Burton and Taylor

Distributor: Warner
Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Dominic West
TV show: Burton and Taylor
Network: BBC
Release date: 2014-02-14

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.