When a towering drunken genius collides with love, sometimes it's like a human torch marrying into a wet fireman's blanket. Other times it's a human torch colliding with another of equal heat, two towers of drunken balls-out badassitude that burn each other out like two candles lit on both ends, laid across so they burn waxy holes in each other's mid-sections at the same time. That was the case with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.
Of course their life together is legend; they met on the set of CLEOPATRA (1963), their torches burning up enough money to practically bankrupt 20th Century Fox in the process (Fox had to sell off half the studio to pay for overtime).
A part of their success stems no doubt from a shared love of liquor, and this is also perhaps their demise. Booze made Liz bloated and Dick droopy-eyed, but it also made them burn twice as brightly when they were burning, as they did in films like WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, TAMING OF THE SHREW, a chunk of SANDPIPER. When they were fire blanketing each other out--as in BOOM!, THE VIPS and THE COMEDIANS--they were still sporadically worth watching. Somehow the more weary and hung-over they appeared, the more adult they became, sometimes stiflingly so. You can imagine watching THE COMEDIANS with your parents on TV as a kid and being bored into a coma, but if you're old enough, you can at least count the drinks and enjoy as Liz wafts in and out of her German accent.
A book is coming out next week that incorporates a vast trove of love letters between the two stars, and paints a sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful portrait of their relationship. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor And Richard Burton And The Marriage Of The Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (order it here). An abridged excerpt:
On July 9, Elizabeth flew to San Felipe, arriving while Burton was still shooting. She spent the afternoon with him on the set and later they returned to his hotel to make love.
All their old sexual fire came back, despite her recent surgery, the energy-sapping 115-degree heat and the fact that he had now gone 140 days without drinking. Her presence and her body lifted his Welsh gloom, and it was as if they had just met. The two of them devoured each other.
The following week, Elizabeth returned to Los Angeles and Richard pined for her all over again. She informed him she had lost one of her tooth caps and he wrote to commiserate, closing his letter with 'all my love. Never think of anything but you for very long. I fancy you a very lot, Shebes. - Rich'.
While still in San Felipe, Richard accepted a part in a low-budget thriller, Villain, to be filmed in London. Elizabeth, too, had received a film offer for Zee And Co. - an adaptation of Edna O'Brien's novel about a sexual triangle, to be made in London at the same time.
Richard urged her to accept it.
'Dear Long-wayaway-one,' he wrote, 'Very antisocial I am when I don't booze. And no fun when you're not around... I hope that girl's teeth are not hurting too much... are you going to do the film?
She accepted the role and they decided that, rather than fly, they would take the train from Los Angeles to New York, before boarding the QE2 for England. The train trip gave them a rare chance to be alone together for the first time in over a year.
They made love and Elizabeth giggled at what she called Richard's 'new technique,' which he insisted was simply the movement of the train swaying and rocking as it rolled down the track.
But the seeds of destruction were also planted on that train - for the first time in four months, Richard had a drink.
'Forgot the momentous news,' he confessed in his diary on August 2. 'I had a Jack Daniel's and soda and two glasses of Napa Valley red wine last night with dinner. Felt immensely daring and all it did was make me feel very sleepy.'
A few days later, he polished off a bottle of Burgundy and by the time they crossed the Atlantic to England and reclaimed their yacht Kalizma, Burton had slid completely off the wagon.
Elizabeth's co-star in Zee And Co. was Michael Caine, who was nervous about meeting 'a living legend' for the first time, and equally nervous about meeting Richard Burton. He had been warned that Burton's presence on the set was his way of keeping an eye on Michael, considered to be a ladies' man - a real-life Alfie - at the time.
But the truth was that Burton, drinking heavily, usually spent the afternoons sleeping on the couch in Elizabeth's dressing room. And sometimes, the tremor in his hands was so bad that, afraid of embarrassing his wife, he stayed away.
If Elizabeth was alarmed at Richard's tremors she didn't show it. Neither of them as yet considered Richard to be an 'alcoholic'. Besides, she, too, continued to drink heavily. They each needed the crutch of alcohol. The difference was that she drank to free her emotions, while he drank to numb his. (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor: The Love Letters. How drinking cocooned them from pressure of fame. Without it, they couldn't even make love)
Man, I sure can feel that pain. Booze, like Xanax, pot, or coke, gives you the world and promises more, then takes the senses away with which you would perceive that world, and instead of more offers less and less until life's just waking, baking and taking naps. While it's sharpening your wit it's dulling your speech so that poetry comes out slurs and vice versa. But who the fuck caresh? Booze and drugs make you cooler. Period. Anything that kills you makes you cool first. So long as you don't vomit on anyone or make your mom sad by dying. At least at the time their drinking was more celebrated than openly demonized. Imagine Dick in Celebrity Rehab, or wearing one of those SCRAM ankle bracelets like Lindsay Lohan, and you realize just how lame this decade really is.
And this is not to mention their casual openness with regard to sex. Burton once cut short a poolside afternoon interview, saying "excuse me gentlemen, I have to go make love to my wife." And that's a catch phrase and a half, enough to remind a million marrieds what they got into this mess for anyway. Again such frankness was common in the more enlightened age of the 60s-70s, and Dick and Liz probably did a lot to help make it so. You couldn't get all prim and judgemental like a salacious church lady over their lifestyle, they'd lay you flat with great acting in tones so mellifluous everything they said seemed true and right. A few years ago I reviewed the Burton and Taylor boxed set, and wrote of THE SANDPIPER:
Piper doesn't even have to be good when the chemistry between this pair is in full flow the way it wasn't in The VIPs and The Comedians. There's a great scene where the two are gazing into each other's eyes, emoting and talking, and the wounded sandpiper that Liz saved earlier in the film comes flying in for a landing right on Liz's head! She doesn't even flinch; she just keeps staring into Dick's eyes, and for his part, even with that sandpiper there he doesn't freak out, just stays in the scene, fixed on her gaze like a hypnotist. Then after they kiss, she reaches up and cups the bird in her hand without even looking at it, and then lets it loose, saying, "Fly away, baby, in that husky afterthought style of hers, as she waved it off into the air. Was this something they shot twenty takes of, just to get that damned bird to land on her head, or was it just a lucky accident that the pro thesps seized on? I spent the whole rest of the film just admiring the perfect nonchalant stillness with which these two lovers acted out their scene with this bird standing in Liz's wild hair. Then, when she later chases her old sugar daddy-cum-rapist out of the house with a hatchet, my heart was sealed... like a crypt. (Snap went the Dragon 12/08)
A couple as coolly debauched as Dick and Liz could probably not exist in the films today anyway. The power-suit and baseball cap-wearing "industry" people would probably have a hard time getting either actor to agree to product positioning and not smoking. Plus, these days it's tough getting insurance for any film starring notorious drunks, and audiences are far less indulgent and quicker to forget; there's no long-term loyalty. Liz and Dick made apparently dozens of Giglis and people dutifully came, ditto Martin and Lewis. Now those kind of loyal fans are gone and so are the boozy couples. The equivalent to the Dick and Liz pair bond today would probably be Courtney Love and Nick Nolte, if they were a couple, and maybe they should be. (The Case of the Mysterious Disappearing Accent, 12/08)Times have changed since I wrote the above, now of course there seems to be just Lindsay... is she all alone out there? Won't some soused actor or actress come and help that lady off her feet? Til then, the first couple of drunken gravitas-pulled thesping will always be Taylor and Burton, and if they only made a few good films together and maybe if they were soberer they could have done it better, I'd say the fault is ours. When artists go that far out on a limb for us the way Dick and Liz did, we owe them something more than enough money to choke a diamond horse, we owe them material cracked enough to be worthy of their lustre, and it just wasn't there and still isn't (aside from WOOLF, a film that still startles and makes us reel from its besotted brilliance). Since there was no other material, they made art of themselves, and if their paint hardened and their livers swole like rivers, well, that's show biz. Dick would die and Liz would go on to help make rehab centers ubiquitous in our culture. But hey, for awhile they blazed, they raged, and they showed drunken America how to burn itself up like there wasn't a wet fireman's blanket in 100 miles.