The Hollywood story of ‘Burton and Taylor’

Dominic West and Helena Bonham-Carter play Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a new film from BBC America titled ”Burton and Taylor.”

Imagine both the excitement and the horror of being generally considered the best looking man or woman in the world.

For many years, those honors were freely bestowed on British-born actor Elizabeth Taylor and her Welsh-born husband, Richard Burton. The two married each other twice, and divorced twice. Both made multiple marriages with others.

Both became film stars with the highest paychecks ever paid, at that time. Yet both were pursued by paparazzi who peeked through their windows, searched through their trash hoping to find liquor bottles, prescription bottles, or anything else which might embarrass them, and both were endlessly photographed by photographers, many of whom would doctor the photos to make them look fatter, more haggard, older or whatever fed the public’s hunger to pull the successful down to the common level.

On Wednesday of the past week, BBC America broadcast the first showing of a biographical film created about the famed couple. Unlike other portrayals of the two, such as the much-lamented ”Liz and Dick,” which starred Lindsay Lohan as Taylor, and which drew more comment on Lohan’s health and misbehavior than about its content, this one has spectacular production values, including direction by James Ivory, the surviving partner of the Merchant-Ivory filmmaking team. The stars are British actors Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter.

This week, I’d like to tell you a bit about the production in the hope that you can watch for it, when it is rebroadcast in future days, and perhaps to share with you what I know and what I have learned about Burton and Taylor, in researching this column. There is much to be learned.


On Feb. 27, 1932, Dame Elizabeth Rosamond Taylor was born, in a suburb of London. Her parents were both Americans, from southern Kansas, who had been convinced by an English friend to move to Britain. By the way, when a woman has ”Dame,” before her name, it has roughly the same meaning as when a man has ”Sir,” in the same location. It is the female version of a knight.

Taylor moved with her parents to Los Angeles, to avoid the German bombardment of London, which began when she was 8. Reports exist that she was such a beautiful and graceful child that film studios were competing to put her under contract, very soon after her arrival in the film capital. She made her first film at age 9, in a comedy called ”There’s One Born Every Minute.”

When she was 12, Taylor starred in the film ”National Velvet,” as a young girl who deeply loved her horse, a thoroughbred racer. She was beautiful then, and grew progressively more beautiful as she matured. Depending on the color of her clothing, her eyes were said to be violet in color, and she had a genetic mutation which caused her to have double eyelashes on both eyes. Her voice, on the other hand could be unpleasantly chirpy, and as she passed into middle age, its tone turned into more of a yammer.

Taylor married for the first time at age 18, when she married Conrad Hilton Jr., an heir to the Hilton Hotel chain, and great-uncle of future celebrity Paris Hilton. Less than a year after divorcing him, she married Michael Wilding, with whom she had two sons.

At age 21, she divorced the father of her sons, and married film producer Mike Todd, who showered her with minks and jewels and held a million dollar-plus celebration of their marriage which was televised live on network television, lasting hours. When Todd died in a plane crash, his widow was still only 26.

When I was growing up, a great many of my female classmates bore some version of the name Debbie. Many of them had been named for film star Debbie Reynolds, who had a successful career playing sweet young girls in family-oriented films. She was married to recording star Eddie Fisher, who had made his career singing emotional songs from his Jewish heritage, with his greatest hit called ”Oh, My Papa,” about a son’s reverence for his father.

When Fisher was cast in the film ”Butterfield 8,” opposite his wife’s friend, Elizabeth Taylor, not even the birth of his and Reynolds’ daughter Carrie, destined to become Princess Leia on the Star Wars Films, could keep him at home. He divorced Reynolds and married Taylor, who had won an Oscar for her performance in ”Butterfield 8.” Taylor was now 28, and on her fourth husband. During her marriage to Fisher, Taylor went through the complicated and difficult procedure to renounce her Christian faith and to be accepted as a Jew.

When Fisher wrote a detailed, tell-all autobiography, titled ”Been There, Done That,” his daughter Carrie publicly announced that she was planning on having her DNA fumigated. Eventually, years later, Taylor and Reynolds made a film together called ”Old Broads,” in which their characters often discussed a man who had been married to each of them in turn.

Not long after marrying Fisher, Taylor signed a contract for $7 million, to portray Egyptian queen Cleopatra, in one of the ”cast of thousands” extravaganzas which were so popular in the early 1960s. Rex Harrison portrayed Cleopatra’s second husband, Julius Caesar. For her third husband, Marc Antony, the filmmakers hired Welsh-born Shakespearean actor Richard Burton, who many people still believe to have had the most beautiful male speaking voice in the world. Burton was considered so ruggedly handsome that it entered popular culture to make a statement such as ”He’s not bad looking, but he’s certainly no Richard Burton.”

”Cleopatra” was the most expensive film ever made, up to that time, and the costs of making it mounted to millions of dollars above the budget because Taylor developed various health problems, including pneumonia, and had to be flown from Italy, where the filming was taking place, to hospitals in London.

In 1961, when filming of the picture began, films were made by large studios, who paid large staffs of lawyers and publicists who were usually able to either buy off any publications who claimed their stars were engaging in scandalous activities, or were able to enforce silence, by one method or another. When Taylor and Burton began to arrive at Italian seaside villages separately, but to spend long periods of time together, during breaks in the filming, so many Italian journalists had proof on film of the couple’s dalliance that it eventually destroyed the studios’ domination of the media.

The pair divorced their previous spouses and they married in 1964. During their 10 years of marriage, Burton adopted his wife’s two daughters: Liza, who was biologically the daughter of Mike Todd and Maria, whom Taylor had adopted while married to Fisher. During their marriage, the two led a notoriously expensive lifestyle, with yachts, lavish homes, and frequent gifts of huge jewels from Burton to Taylor, eventually involving a 69-carat diamond which is still known as the Burton-Taylor Diamond. Their joint stage and screen appearances — including one as themselves, on ”I Love Lucy,” — earned more than $200 million dollars, and for a while, projects in which one or both of them appeared made up more than half the films being made.

The two made numerous films and stage appearances together, culminating in the 1966 film version of the Edward Albee, award-winning play ”Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” In it, they played a married couple who both loved and depended upon each other, but who also hated and felt contempt for each other. Both screamed and cursed a great deal. News reports often claimed the characters were very close to their actual relationship.

In preparation for that film, both Taylor and Burton gained a lot of weight. Although she was only 34 years old, she allowed herself to be made up as older than her real age, and purposely strained and stressed her already weak voice to a quality of screeching. Increasingly, the public began to forsake their support of the pair, seeing them as no longer glamorous, and listening to the accusations that their wealth and fame were products of the wages of sin. They increasingly quarreled in public and appeared at events separately, even at the Academy Awards, where ”Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was one of only two films in history to be nominated in every possible category. It won five Oscars, including Best Actress for Taylor, while the men in the cast were all shut out by Paul Schofield’s film, ”A Man for All Seasons.”

In 1974, the pair separated and divorced, but after only a few months apart, they reunited and were remarried. The second marriage lasted less than two years. By now, both had damaged their careers. Burton married his third wife, a model named Susan Hunt. Taylor married a U.S. Senator from Virginia, John Warner. Both of these marriages ended in 1982. That same year, they decided to capitalize on the public’s interest in seeing them in person, by planning to appear together in Noel Coward’s play, ”Private Lives,” which is the story of a couple who have divorced and married others, but whose love for one another keeps drawing them back together, despite fierce and frequent battles.

The BBC America film deals with the choosing of that play, the staging and touring the country which they did together, on this tour, which began on Broadway and toured across the U.S. Many suspected that they would marry each other for a third time, but they did not. Burton married a fourth time, to Sally Hay and Elizabeth married and divorced a construction worker named Larry Fortensky, who was her seventh husband. Burton died of cerebral hematoma in 1984, and Taylor died of congestive heart failure, in 2012, at age 79.

In their latter years, both actors did a great deal of work, raising money for charities. Taylor formed a personal friendship with Michael Jackson and often visited his ranch and attended events as his guest. She, especially, raised millions of dollars for charity, most importantly to fight the disease AIDS. The income from her perfume and jewelry lines were largely devoted to the AIDS cause. At her death, her jewelry collection was estimated to be worth more than $150 million.

The ”Burton and Taylor” film has not yet been publicly shown, at the time of this writing, though it will have been by the time you read this. But if it comes close to living up to the drama of its subjects, it should be spectacular.


Helena Bonham Carter was born, like the character she plays in this film, in the suburbs of London, although she was born in 1966. She is a direct descendant of H.H. Asquith, Earl of Oxford, who was Prime Minister of England during much of World War I. She is distantly related to Queen Elizabeth II.

Personally, she is known for an eccentric sense of fashion which has placed her on both ”best dressed” lists and ”worst dressed” lists. In her roles, however, she has usually portrayed strongly internalized, shy or modest women. She played the weak, sheltered Lady Jane Grey in ”Lady Jane,” Lucy Honeychurch in ”A Room with a View,” and Kate Croy, in ”Wings of the Dove.” On the more eccentric side, she has played the cannibalistic Mrs. Lovett, opposite Johnny Depp, in ”Sweeney Todd,” and the child persecutor Madame Thenardier in the 2012 film of ”Les Miserables,” opposite Sascha Baron Cohen.

Many young people know her as Bellatrix Lestrange in several of the Harry Potter films, and others perhaps remember her best as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who encouraged her tongue-tied husband to seek treatment for his speech impediment, in ”The King’s Speech.”

Since 2001, she has shared her life with her partner, director Tim Burton, with whom she has two children. She has commented that she has gotten many fan letters connected to her role in ”Burton and Taylor,” in which the writer has hopelessly confused the late Richard Burton with the director Tim Burton, with whom she shares her life.

She once told an interviewer, ”I believe that when people in the industry see that a role in their film involves wearing a tight, rigid corset, they have no other response than ‘Let’s seek out the Bonham Carter girl.”’

Dominic West was born in 1969, in Sheffield, England. He was trained as a classical actor, but his 29 feature films have ranged from the Earl of Richmond in a film of ”Richard III,” to a villain in the zombie classic ”28 Days Later.” Other well known portrayals have included Demetrius on ”A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a Spartan warrior in ”300,” and an Italian professor with a hankering for his young, female students, in ”Mona Lisa Smile,”

His stage roles have included Konstantin in ”The Seagull,” the title role in ”Butley,” Iago in ”Othello,” and Henry Higgins, in ”My Fair Lady.”

Both actors have told interviewers that Burton and Taylor are still so well known that it was intimidating to begin portraying them on film, but as the film has progressed, they believe they have done their characters justice and have enjoyed the filming, despite their worries.

If you can get the BBC America channel, watch for ”Burton and Taylor,” which will be shown, off and on, in the coming days?