Thursday, April 10, 2014

Burton and Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter, Dominic West 2013)

Good afternoon!

How's everybody! Night before last, my dvd copy of the recent BBC production Burton and Taylor finally came in at the library, and I was so pleased I went ahead and watched it the same night! If you knew my library video viewing habits, I am always trying to squeeze in like four movies I've had for fourteen days in on the fourteenth day, but THIS! This is too good to pass up. I've been pining over the production since all the hubbub about it when it aired across the Atlantic, was upset I didn't have cable and BBCAmerica when it aired earlier this year, and eagerly put a hold on it when our library bought a copy or two. And lemme tell you, was worth the wait!

The preamble to this post: Every once and awhile, narrative lightning does strike twice in Filmland. 1988/1989 saw two adaptations of Les Liasions Dangereux (Milos Forman's Valmont and Stephen Frears's better Dangerous Liasions, respectively), 2005/2006 two biopics of Truman Capote (Capote and the less successful Infamous, respectively), and 2012/2013 two Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movies (the easy-to-confuse Liz and Dick and Burton and Taylor). In all three cases, there seems to be a definite "better" property...I still like to look at Colin Firth in Valmont, but he's no match for Malkovich's unforgettable portrayal of the main character in Dangerous Liasions. Tiny Toby Jones more closely resembles the author of In Cold Blood, but the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman might as well have been Capote in the movie of the same name. Similarly, you can't even compare Liz and Dick to Burton and Taylor. And I don't even say that out of some grudge-held antipathy towards poor La Lohan... she honestly didn't have a chance in the Lifetime production. There are I Can't Believe It's Not Butter commercials with better production value and dramaturgy than Liz and Dick. Speaking as someone who loves biopics with a selfless, acolytic, movie-obsessed heart, I sat through about twenty minutes of the miniseries before switching it off, shuddering with horror at the thought of how ANYONE could take as interesting a series of biographical events and utterly fail to have them come across. So, you can imagine I was holding out hope but w-o-r-r-i-e-d about how bad Burton and Taylor would be.

Spoiler alert! Worries were completely unfounded. The movie, while not perfect, is a great and above all FAIR representation of my most beloved celebrity couple in the twilight of their twenty year love affair.

Burton and Taylor stars Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter as the titular twentieth century pair, following the former couple's semi-disastrous 1983 run performing Noel Coward's Private Lives on Broadway. Why disastrous? Where to start! At the opening of the movie, Burton, married and divorce from the violet eyed movie icon twice at this point, is more interested in lucratively returning to the stage while maintaining his sobriety and relationship with personal assistant-partner Sally Hay. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is more interested in a detente if not an all out reconciliation with the great love of her life, slipping easily into the role of a kittenish, volatile flirtation with Burton. The course of true love never ran smooth, after all-- and with these larger than life characters, each with lingering feelings for the other, each with their own professional and personal egos, each battling late-stage alcohol addiction....well, it's a powder keg.

While I'm disappointed no one's tackled a major miniseries on the too-wild-to-be-true-yet-totally-true life stories of the Burtons, for the present I'll be happy with the excellent Kashner dual biography, Burton's own published diaries, and this great 90 minute soak into the relationship. I think the best choice this production made, was a) its focus on a single aspect of the couple's chronology (a few months of 1983, wisely excising the last months of touring the production did) and b) its casting of actors who can really put across a part. While neither bears more than a passing resemblance to Elizabeth and Richard, both Bonham Carter and West are exceptional in their task of making you believe they're the couple. Looking at these still photos I kept thinking, "Well, she's beautiful, but she's nothing like Elizabeth Taylor", while after the first five minutes of the movie, the thought never crossed my mind that she wasn't the woman herself. She caught the magnetism and the vulnerability of the star, along with a surprisingly approximation of the cute, Minnie-Mouse-with-a-sailor's-streak voice of hers.

Same for West, giving off alternating waves of Burton's guilt, affection, and irritation towards Taylor. The hair did a great deal towards building up his resemblance, but more than that the voice and the palpable tragedy of Burton at this point in his career-- a wistful husk of the man who won a Tony for Camelot and stormed Broadway in Hamlet twenty years earlier. I was ready to deeply dislike whatever characterization he put in for the film, and instead, fell in love. The idea of someone you can't live with but can't live without has been visited countless times in romantic dramas...but this one played out on screen as well as off, and there's a lasting bite to the sadness of Taylor and Burton not being able to work it out that really shines through the picture.

Another Liz, the gossip columnist Liz Smith, just about said everything I would have liked to have said about the movie in this article, PLUS with the benefit of personal knowledge of the couple and having been present for opening night in the Private Lives production in 1983. I love her succinct recap of the real-life situation intertwined with her praising but not fawning attitude towards the BBC movie. Which is about where I's not something I would want to watch another twenty times, but I was very impressed with both the performances of Bonham Carter and West as well as the quality of the storytelling itself.

The real deal in 1983.
To sum things up, I now want to read Burton's diaries all over again and watch a bunch of their movies, and isn't that the best compliment you can pay a biopic? The last ten minutes (complete with slow-mo last scene and ridiculous pre-credits title card codas) was a little painfully bad, but the preceding eighty minutes was thoroughly enjoyable stuff for people who can't get enough of these real-life romantic figures. Also, I would like to start teetering around on stilettos in a huge (in my case fake) silver fox fur coat and even larger sunglasses á la La Taylor in this movie. Ugh! Glamour, glamour, and glamour. We'll have to talk some day about my lasting fascination with her personal life and career, but for now, know it's safe to watch this movie and not get your little cinephilic heart broken.

How about you? Seen anything good lately? Did you watch either of the Burton Taylor biopics? What were your thoughts? What's your favorite Elizabeth Taylor movie, if you have one? Let's talk!

I have to get back to work, but will see you tomorrow for Photo Friday! Have a great Thursday. Til then!


  1. My favorite Elizabeth Taylor film, hands down, is "Giant." It's epic in every sense of the word, and extremely progressive for its time.

    I would also have problems watching an Elizabeth Taylor biopic for the same reasons you stated. But I think it might be easier for me to believe a biopic of her later life than her earlier life.

    1. Giant really is an amazing film. Love it! I do have to say my fave Liz & Dick movie is The Taming of the Shrew. I really wanted to like Cleopatra, but it's pretty disappointing.

      I generally shy away from biopics but I do love Helena Bonham Carter (and Dominic West), so I may need to check this out. Didn't even know it existed!

  2. Re: Burton and Taylor BBC: Guys, go watch it! And tell me what you think after you do!

    Re: other Taylor movies: "Giant" is REALLY good; that stark, gothic Victorian house right in the middle of nowhere is SUCH. AN ICONIC. MOMENT. in that movie and Elizabeth Taylor never looked so breathtaking. I'm a huge Rock Hudson fan, too, so I couldn't help but love it. I like her in Suddenly, Last Summer (holding her own against Katharine Hepburn is no little feat!) and of course Cat on a Hot Tin Roof...but honestly, I'll watch anything a star I like is in (which would explain why I've seen "The Sandpipers" [AWFUL] and "Boom!" [so awful it comes back around to being good). She was one in a million!



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