Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s big fruitcake of a book, Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century from HarperCollins, is hard to take too seriously. The grand sweep of the fabled Burton unions is here, from first contact to final disillusionment, but the authors, copy editors, and fact checkers did not complete their assignments to satisfaction. It’s a perfectly decent beach book, but one tempered by the reminder that “quality writing” and “compulsive reading” are not always partnered. There are enough lapses in literary and editorial judgment, and boldfaced factual errors, to bring out my latent churlish schoolmarm.
Kashner and Schoenberger repeatedly inflate 1960s dollars to illustrate the Burtons’ gross expenditures of jewels, yachts, hotel suites, private jets, furs, nannies, booze, booze, and more booze. The point is made to distraction. Taylor possesses “overripe beauty” and “ripe beauty” in the same paragraph. There are clichés until the cows come home , “she could drink him under the table,” “the writing was on the wall,” etc. There is the overuse of “truly” when “literally” would be just as bad. Taylor and Burton “are, truly, comets unleashed” in Cleopatra, which is “truly a feast for the senses.” Wrongful Academy Awards data light up these pages like a busy switchboard. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? netted Burton his fifth nomination, not his sixth. It was Taylor’s fifth, not her fourth. Darling won Oscars in 1966, not 1963. (Off by three years?) Butterfield 8, which contains Taylor’s first Best Actress performance, was released in 1960, not ’61. And director Mike Nichols did not lose his Virginia Woolf nomination to Fred Zinnemann. He kept his nomination, thank you very much, but lost the Oscar.
One develops the suspicion that Kashner and Schoenberg made stuff up. They claim that Cleopatra has grown in stature, and while some of us agree it has been wrongly maligned all these years, there is little evidence of said growth. The authors also declare a bit of box-office mud wrestling between “rivals” Debbie Reynolds (Mrs. Eddie Fisher #1) in The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Taylor (Mrs. Eddie Fisher #2) in The Sandpiper. But reality must intrude; their release dates are separated by fifty-three weeks. In noting Taylor’s “partial nudity” in that film, the authors write that by 1965 “actresses were beginning to bare their breasts on camera in mainstream films.” Technically true, but not without the scandale d’estime accompanying microseconds of toplessness in The Pawnbroker. Furthermore, Burton’s 1969 Where Eagles Dare had not “overtaken every other film that year” as claimed. Variety lists it as thirteenth in rentals, topped by such favorites as The Love Bug, I Am Curious (Yellow), and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The authors’ overall critical reaping of the Burtons’ films yields little bounty. In summation, there is the glib note that select plot points and dialogue in The V.I.P.s, The Taming of the Shrew, Hammersmith Is Out, et. al. paralleled the Burtons’ lives. (I suspect any film, from The Battleship Potempin to Black Devil Doll from Hell, could somehow parallel the Burtons’ lives.)
I was ambivalent on even reading this book. I feared my adoration of Taylor the actress and humanitarian, and my respect for Burton at his best, would be challenged by so much unflattering confessions. There was no need to worry. It is the private marriage (“Elizabeth and Richard”), rather than the public media monster (“Liz and Dick”), that saves the book from its many self-made moments of “D’oh!” Kashner and Schoenberger had unprecedented access to a large stash of private letters, and through them the Burtons’ Olympian love affair, kindled on the Cleopatra set and sustained through two marriages and two divorces, is revealed, seemingly for the first time. At its best, Furious Love achieves an “Elizabeth and Richard are in the room” immediacy as it shares rare time with their blended family, or bouts of drunken cruelties followed by kiss-&-make-up sex. Burton’s accounts of his wife’s eroticism are frankly softcore, but privacy was a rare commodity. Life was lived under a media magnifying glass, with constant travel organized like military campaigns. We get to know a possessive yet restless woman married to an insecure, self-destructive man. Is either any wonder? He grew up poor in Wales, she in the regimented, gilded confines of L. B. Mayer’s MGM. He came to their affair a prestigious stage actor whose voice could bring gravitas to a grocery list. She had become the biggest of movie stars, her intuitive acting in National Velvet, A Place in the Sun, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof upstaged by a beauty so improbable that Burton almost laughed out loud on first sight of her.
For a time after Cleopatra they were box-office magnets, but audiences grew disinclined after 1967’s The Taming of the Shrew. Suddenly they couldn’t buy a hit. Doctor Faustus is well-nigh unwatchable, despite the presence of a varnished, tinseled, pouting Taylor as Helen of Troy. The Comedians, Boom!, Under Milk Wood, and Hammersmith Is Out were met with scorn, indifference, or unintended laughs. But while the Burtons’ pictures got small, some very small, their celebrity did not. If they appeared to crave the flashbulbs over good work, it was pure illusion. The pain of so much career deceleration took a horrible toll, and exacerbated the toxic blend of alcohol, ill health, and verbal abuse. Burton was seriously ill and nearly fatal in his drinking, but the press fixed its glare on the couples’ ostentatious displays of the high life. Or Taylor’s precarious health. Every pill she swallowed made the tabloids, yet Burton’s epilepsy and hemophilia evaded widespread notice. And while few went to their movies anymore, their tiffs, split-ups, and reunions were banner headlines. Their second wedding, held beside the Chobe River in Botswana and witnessed by two hippos, was premium paparazzi catnip.
After “Liz and Dick” redivorced in 1976, Taylor married Virginia Senator John Warner, and medicated her misery with too much eating and drinking. When the ex-Burtons did Private Lives on stage, they made hash out of Noel Coward’s comedy, their Godzilla-sized celebrity too big to ignore. He was palsied by drink and she was careening toward camp. John Belushi did Taylor in drag, and Joan Rivers told ET fat jokes. Haunted by the notion that acting was “faintly ridiculous” as a profession, Burton died of a cerebral hemorrhage at fifty-eight in 1984.
Taylor approved this book out of concern that his legacy was slipping away , someone had mistaken Tim Burton for Richard Burton! His memory doesn’t command half the attention of her life and work, but it’s not a fair comparison. Taylor makes great copy single or coupled, and most gloriously, her nobility of character and good humor have dominated her public image these last few decades. Since the days of Liz and Dick, she co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and has raised and donated millions. She has lived through a brain tumor, spots on General Hospital and The Simpsons, a wildly successful perfume business, friendship with Michael Jackson, and marriage (and divorce) to Larry Fortensky, a construction worker she met at the Betty Ford Center. She has received the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, Lifetime Achievement Awards from the AFI and SAG, and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The decadent years that comprise the bulk of Furious Love are compelling in their surreal excesses, but they seem rather silly and far away next to her subsequent reinventions, accomplishments, and honors. No one is laughing at Elizabeth Taylor anymore.