Burton and Taylor (2013 TV Movie)
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It has a couple of good performances in a rather bland telling of a minor part of these icons' turbulent love affair. It's the writing and probably the directing that let this down. It plays more like a Lifetime TV movie. It doesn't have the bite. There is a great opportunity to add other characters into their relationship. This is begging to include Burton's girlfriend. There is great drama here but the movie doesn't take full advantage.
The setting for this one off film is 1983, a year before Burton's death untimely death. Richard Burton (Dominic West) and Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter) after their second divorce are reuniting in London for a theatrical play of Noel Coward's Private Lives and enter another spiral of turbulence, bickering, despair and affection. The press announcement creates a storm of interest and speculation in the media as to if they will get back together for a third time.
Taylor still carries a torch for Burton whilst Burton, a man with a reputation as a great stage actor is frustrated by Taylor's histrionics and her unwillingness to rehearse the play properly.
Bonham Carter captures the essence and cattiness of Taylor remarkably well although West seems to struggle with his Burton. Maybe it was a misstep by concentrating in this period of their relationship when there is a more interesting story to be told about this pair as to how they fell in love in the early 1960s and their roller coaster relationship over the next 20 years.
The venture in question was a theatrical production in New York of Noel Coward's play "Private Lives", a production advertised under the slogan "Together Again!" On the one level, that slogan could be taken as a reference to Coward's principal characters Elyot and Amanda, a former husband and wife who meet several years after their divorce and realise that they still love one another. The theatre management obviously realised, however, that their advertisement could also be taken as referring to Burton and Taylor themselves, another former husband and wife meeting several years after their divorce. The production was not a great hit with the critics, but was very popular with the theatre-going public who loved the parallels between Elyot and Amanda and the actors portraying them. There was even a curious coincidence in the fact that Elyot's new wife in the play is named Sybil- the same name as Burton's first wife whom he left for Taylor
The fictitious Elyot and Amanda might end by rediscovering their love, but this does not quite happen to their real-life equivalents. Certainly, the film implies that Elizabeth Taylor was still very much in love with her ex-husband and was hoping to marry him for the third time. (If a second marriage can be described as the triumph of hope over experience, what does that say about a third marriage, especially a third marriage to the same party?) Burton, however, was less keen, partly because he had fallen in love with Sally Hay, who became his fourth wife (and does not appear in this film), and partly because the reunion with Taylor reminded him forcibly of just why they split up. By this stage of his life Burton, once one of Hollywood's most notorious hellraisers, was now recovering from alcoholism, whereas Taylor was still drinking as heavily as ever. The two clash repeatedly during the production, largely because Burton believes that Taylor is not taking the play seriously, deliberately overacting and playing to the gallery.
Making filmed biographies of the great actresses of the past, particularly those who were famed for their beauty, can often be a thankless task because of the difficulty of finding a modern actress who bears sufficient resemblance to the woman she is portraying. Helena Bonham Carter, although a very attractive woman, would probably not rank very highly in an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike contest. Her voice, mannerisms and gestures, however, are sufficient to convey an impression of Taylor's personality, an impression convincing enough to persuade us to overlook the lack of any real resemblance. (Michelle Williams was able to perform a similar feat with her impersonation of Marilyn Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn").
Dominic West, however, is unable to do the same for Richard Burton. Part of the reason is that he looks far too young. It is not just the disparity in their chronological ages; West is 44, whereas Burton would have been 58 in 1983. By this stage in his life Burton was ageing and in poor health, looking older than his 58 years. He may have fought gallantly to overcome his alcoholism, but years of excess had taken their toll, and he only had another year to live. (He was to die in August 1984). There is no real hint of this in West's performance, and he comes across as a healthy, vigorous and youthful-looking man in early middle age (despite a few grey hairs). It also does not help that he looks very different from Burton and lacks his deep, mellifluous voice.
I felt that "Burton & Taylor" would have been more interesting if it had tried to tell the whole Burton/Taylor story, using the "Private Lives" production as a framework and relating the story of their life together in a series of flashbacks. Perhaps BBC4 (a fairly small network) lacked the resources to try something so ambitious. The film we actually have, telling no more than a small postscript to that story, is too static and dominated by talk. The sight of Bonham Carter and West getting into yet another blazing argument may occasionally be entertaining, but we are left with the feeling that there must have been more to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor than that. 5/10
The scope of the story, with the exception of one flashback, is wisely limited to several months in 1983 when the famous twice-married, twice-divorced couple reunited to play the leads in Noel Coward's "Private Lives" on Broadway. They were both too old for their parts and Taylor was not remotely adept at stage acting but superficially at least, their own relationship resembled that of the tempestuous couple at the heart of Coward's play. And that was enough for star-struck Broadway audiences to guarantee a financially successful – if artistically disastrous - production. Highlights of this extended public embarrassment – from early rehearsals through closing night – are interspersed with peaks and valleys in the Burton-Taylor personal drama.
Burton emerges as a skilled and erudite artist waylaid by dependency on drugs (alcohol and cigarettes); Taylor as an intelligent but spoiled, pill-popping, self-absorbed star monster, the kind only Hollywood could create; the pair as mutually dependent devourers and enablers of each other—in short, a mythic representation and exaggeration of average couples in general, which indeed was part of their mass appeal.
There are so many revelatory truths scattered amidst the dross of the TV-movie-style mise- en-scene that one can only surmise that the creative personnel behind this effort actually cared about and emotionally connected with their subjects. A few examples: the startling scene backstage when Taylor in mid-conversation with Burton suddenly slugs him in the face for having spoken rudely to her staff moments earlier; the close-up on their hands clasped together and then separating during a curtain call, pointing up the unstable unity-disunity of their relationship as expressed by the failure-success of their play; the dynamic of their on- stage interactions as Taylor, thanks to her sheer star power, gets away with running roughshod over Noel Coward's verbal architecture while Burton, the trained stage veteran, struggles to anchor the proceedings with actorly skill; Burton's frequent quoting from Shakespeare to express powerful feelings, reflective of his early absorption of and inner devotion to the classics of literature which not only fueled his youthful rise to success but sustained him through subsequent decades of personal and artistic dissolution.
This is the second biopic about this pair in the last year, the previous one being the forgettable quickie starring Lindsay Lohan. "Burton and Taylor" manages to obliterate its predecessor.
Partly, as a chance to catch a slowed-down glimpse into just one period of their lives.
Mostly, though, to experience Helena Bonham Carter's sublime performance as well as that of Dominic West. Their voices and mannerisms were spot-on.
I read that Helena was terrified to play the part of Elizabeth Taylor (understandable). But it seems then that fear is her muse because she was, quite simply, remarkable.
I wonder if Hollywood could tap her again for another Liz movie. There's certainly enough material for a series...
Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter) invites her ex-husband - twice married, twice divorced in one of the last century's most tempestuous and media focused couplings - Richard Burton (Dominic West) to her fiftieth birthday party where, as a recovering alcoholic, he refuses to get drunk with her. She obviously still retains her obsession and passion for him and suggests that they star in a stage revival of Noël Coward's play Private Lives that Liz is to produce. The agreement and announcement causes gossip with the press who speculate a possible romantic reconciliation. With a new girlfriend and the prospect of playing King Lear, Burton is not happy with the project, especially with Taylor's pill-popping and her lack of stage experience, which causes problems at rehearsals: Taylor has not even read the play before day 1 of the rehearsals. The play opens to a critical trashing but is extremely popular with audiences because they want to see Liz 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 curtain comes down and Taylor tells Burton she has always loved him and still does. Richard and Elizabeth go their separate ways, but they did sort out their differences and remain friends, and apparently they only communicated by telephone and letter, until his death in 1984. Taylor died in 2011.
The supporting cast, especially Lenora Crichlow as Liz' dresser Chen Sam and Stanley Townsend as the play's director Milton Katselas, is strong for the small amount of time they are on screen. The spectacle is the obsessive relationship between two very strong characters and fortunately both actors give excellent impersonations and recreations. We are allowed to see and understand their differences and frustrations.
1983, Elizabeth Taylor(Helena Bonham Carter) invites her twice ex-husband Richard Burton(Dominic West) to her fiftieth birthday party where he considers her proposal that they star in a new stage adaptation of Noel Coward's play "Private Lives".
When the news is announced to the press, there's speculation that the couple may get back together again. Elizabeth hopes for this but Burton(although he still loves her)has moved on from their life together and has a new girlfriend(later his last wife)Sally. Burton's also frail physically as a lifetime of hard drinking takes it toll on him. He's worried that he won't be able to play the role of King Lear after this play because it will too demanding for him, Elizabeth assures him he's just being silly.
When the play opens it becomes clear to both of them that the audience are just there to see Burton/Taylor and it's almost as if the play becomes about their life together. As the couple argue off stage Elizabeth takes it out on Burton on stage, physically hitting him(in real life he was very, very frail during the run and she did hurt him when she did that)and playing up to audience, talking directly to them on several occasions and acknowledging their cheers mid performance!
This is very poignant film looking at the last act in the Taylor/Burton love story. The two loved each other very much and after their divorces Burton still wrote to Taylor and they phoned each other a lot. He couldn't take Taylor's drinking and pill popping though nor her entourage who seemed to be around all the time. They couldn't be together but they couldn't be apart either. Dominic does an excellent job as the weary Burton however he doesn't look nearly as old or frail as Burton was during the plays run. Burton was only in his early fifties but looked seventy and although they mention his nerve pain and frailness it doesn't register just how ill he actually was.
Onto Burton's voice and the performances, Dominic gives it a good go but never captures Burton's iconic voice perfectly(the only person I've ever heard do an accurate impression is Frank Gorshin during a comedy roast)but you believe he is Richard so it doesn't really matter. He captures the emotional torment of the man perfectly. Likewise with Helena she portrays the boozy, depressed Elizabeth very well and you believe it's Taylor you're watching.
Those little complaints about the portrayal of Burton's health aside this is a very well made BBC4 film about the couple and is moving, funny and brilliantly acted. Well worth a watch especially for fans of the couple.