Burton, Taylor, and the Nature of Love.

I’m always recording films and TV shows to watch and the other day I scanned through my hard drive to find that some time ago I had recorded a movie called Burton and Taylor. It’s a made for TV movie, first shown on BBC Four. I found it on the drama channel and it’s about, as if you hadn’t already guessed, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Back in 1983 when this film is set, Burton and Taylor were probably the most famous celebrity couple in the world. The only other couple of a similar status that I can think of are Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, a couple from a completely different era. Let me see who else comes to mind; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Posh and Becks. Hardly in the same class are they?

Back in the 1920’s, nearly a hundred years ago, silent movies travelled the world, unhampered by the constraints of language. Stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were as famous in Moscow and Tokyo as they were in London and New York .

Fairbanks and Pickford in a postcard from the 1920’s

Mary Pickford was known as America’s Sweetheart in part due to her work during the first World War selling Liberty Bonds. She had a Canadian background but she became a US citizen when she married Fairbanks. Douglas Fairbanks made a series of swashbuckling films like Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers and The Thief of Baghdad. The couple bought an estate on Summit Drive in Hollywood which the press dubbed ‘Pickfair’. The house became the focal point of social life in the movie capital and the Fairbanks’ invited many famous people there. As well as the film stars of the day, HG Wells visited as did F Scott Fitzgerald, Amelia Earhart, Lord Mountbatten, Noel Coward and many others.

Along with Charlie Chaplin and the silent movie director D W Griffith, the couple founded the film company United Artists, but as actors they did not fare well when talking pictures came along and they retired from the screen. In retirement, Fairbanks wanted to enjoy his love of foreign travel but Pickford hated travelling, so on many occasions Douglas travelled alone. On one trip he met an English socialite, Lady Ashley and began an affair that ultimately led to the end of his marriage . Douglas and Mary were eventually divorced in 1936.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Image courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor met on the set of the film Cleopatra in 1961, a movie that went down in history as one of the most expensive ever made. Taylor didn’t want to make the picture so decided to ask for a ridiculous amount of money, confident that 20th Century Fox would never pay it. However, pay it they did and the troubled movie went into production. The Burton/Taylor TV film however focusses on the later years of the pair when they decided to star in a stage revival of Noel Coward’s witty play, Private Lives.

In the film, Taylor is played by Helena Bonham-Carter and Burton by Dominic West. West doesn’t really look much like Burton but captures his voice and persona well. Bonham-Carter as Liz Taylor does look surprisingly like the original and together they make a good reproduction of the famous couple.

The writer seems to believe, and whether it is true or not I don’t claim to know, that Liz Taylor engineered the theatre production of Private Lives as a way of bringing her and Burton back together again. They had already been married and divorced twice and the movie reveals that Liz clearly still had feelings towards Burton. On the first day of rehearsals she is surprised that Burton will not be lunching with her but spending time with his new girlfriend, Sally. Burton in turn is shocked that on the first read through it is clear that Taylor has not previously read the play. Burton of course knows it off by heart. He is the consummate professional actor and Taylor the consummate professional movie star. During the run when Taylor calls in sick, the production is halted rather than carry on with an understudy, as it becomes clear from the public reaction that the audience are not interested in the play without superstar Liz.

Helena Bonham-Carter and Dominic West (image courtesy BBC)

Burton and Taylor were clearly in love but love must have been difficult in the face of their superstar status, just as it was for Fairbanks and Pickford. I can imagine Burton’s upbringing in a mining community and Taylor, having been a star since childhood, were not personalities that could bend much for the other.

The film is interesting, enjoyable and gives the viewer a fascinating peek into the private lives of these two superstars of the past.

In one sequence where the pair sit down and reminisce together, Burton considers the nature of love and ponders about love’s important ingredients: Is it passion? Is it sex? I’m not even sure of the answers myself. Both sex and passion are important but so are respect, humour and understanding.

William Shakespeare was a man who knew a thing or two about love and one of his most famous sonnets, Sonnet 116 provides a quintessential definition of love. Love, according to this sonnet, does not change or fade; it has no flaws and even outlasts death.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

My favourite though, has to be this one;

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I particularly like the two last lines. They tell us how the subject lives again in every reading of the sonnet which is a very wonderful thing that applies not only to this but to all other literary evocations of the past. Was the subject of this sonnet a real person or was it just an ode to wonderful women in general? It was a real woman, I suspect, although I am no Shakespeare expert but whoever she was, she lives again in this work, just as the author wished.

When I began writing this post about love, I was inspired by a distant memory, a quote, a distant few lines that seemed just out of reach in the back of my mind. When I finally brought those words into focus and tracked them down, I realised I must have read them in the Bond novel Goldfinger.

Some love is fire, some love is rust. But the finest, cleanest love is lust.” Wikipedia claims that when Ian Fleming used that line he was quoting from ‘The Wild Party’, a book length poem by Joseph Moncare March. Fleming changed the quote slightly in Goldfinger but I liked it so much myself, it inspired my own poem, Some Love.

If you enjoyed this post then why not try my book, Floating in Space? It is written in a talkative, colloquial style just like my blog posts. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

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