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Cannonball Read III: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger

By Samantha | Books | April 18, 2011 |

By Samantha | Books | April 18, 2011 |

In a book full of sad tales, the saddest comes from the acknowledgements section at the end. The writers, on telling a recently graduated theater major that they planned on writing a book about the world-famous Taylor-Burton relationship, received this response: “Oh, wow. I never know that Elizabeth Taylor and Tim Burton were married!” After being one-half of the most famous couple in the world, not to mention an acting giant, it’s too bad that Richard Burton is somewhat forgotten in the realm of celebrity these days. I am forced to admit that I have not, as yet, even seen a movie in which Mr. Burton appears. I promise you that there are at least 5 currently on my Netflix queue, though, and I bumped a couple up after reading this fascinating story of Hollywood’s royal couple.

Furious Love serves as sort of a dual biography, giving us a presumably abbreviated look at the lives of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton before and after tumultuous relationship, as well as the full account of their years together. Elizabeth Taylor had been a movie star from childhood, whereas Burton was the most promising of stage actors until he answered the siren call of Hollywood. She had lived a life of privilege, while he was the 12th of 13 children born to a poor Welsh miner. When they began their affair on the set of Cleopatra in 1963, they were both married to other people: Taylor to Eddie Fisher (her fourth marriage) and Burton to Sibyl, who had weathered countless affairs before. Their relationship caused a sensation; scandalizing and fascinating the world, and engendering the landscape of celebrity obsession that we see today. Throughout their affair and their subsequent marriages (the first lasting ten years, the second a matter of months) they were alternately beloved and vilified by the public. They functioned almost entirely in the public eye, allowing the world to live vicariously through their extreme decadence. They purchased fabulous jewels, paintings, yachts, planes; they ate and drank to excess; they rubbed shoulders with everyone who was anyone. Oh, and they made a whole bunch of movies, too. In the end, their life was too extreme to maintain, both in terms of their relationship, and their health. They both suffered from uncountable health problems, many brought on by alcoholism and drug abuse (mostly in Taylor’s case), and Burton died in 1984 at the age of 58.

This biography encapsulates two different stories. The first is that of Taylor and Burton’s film careers. The list of people they worked with and movies they made is truly incredible. More interesting is the way in which they commanded their world: at the height of their stardom, and even when their shine had faded somewhat, they were capable of asking nearly anything of the studios and getting away with it. Elizabeth Taylor usually had full veto rights over everything from costume design to screenwriters and directors. Despite being remembered for a certain amount of high drama and camp today, Taylor and Burton worked hard to bring challenging, literary pieces to the screen; often adaptations of plays written by friends like Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward, not to mention classics like Shakespeare and Marlowe. They were conversely the critics’ darlings or the laughingstock of the press, but they almost always did things the way they wanted to do them. The rise and fall of their Hollywood reign is a fascinating story to follow, and will certainly swell your Netflix queue beyond all reason (if it’s not there already).

Darker, and much sadder (to me) is the story of their relationship. What existed in the Taylor-Burton romance was a situation wherein two people loved each other very much, but were living in such a fantasy world of movies, parties, and riches that they were rendered incapable of dealing with reality. I often think that we, as a society, become brainwashed by the romance of media. We believe in things like meet-cutes, last-minute reconciliations in airports, and happily ever afters; and more importantly, we think that these things are all engineered by magic, rather than hard work and communication. And if the average Joe gets sucked in by all of those things, then the movie stars themselves are twice as susceptible.

Taylor and Burton are a perfect example of this. They did whatever they wanted, often suffering the consequences but usually coming out ahead because they were so popular that they were guaranteed to make money for anyone they worked with or for. They lived a life of hedonism and never seemed to truly catch on that they were paying for it with their lives. Burton suffered a wide variety of health problems due to his (never acknowledged) alcoholism, but never truly got sober for more than a few months at a time. Elizabeth, and their entourage, were so busy having a good time that they never really supported his efforts. We would look with horror on a “regular” relationship in which one partner attempted to get sober while the other continued to booze it up, but this was simply par for the course where the Burtons were involved. Depicted in this book, that was their whole life. They got sucked into the limelight, into their public personae, and they couldn’t escape. It’s not enough to say that they “weren’t allowed” a normal life or relationship—it’s more like a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, wherein they knew their life was destroying them, but they loved the poison.

This is a depressing and fascinating story of two people who only sort of existed, and of two people who weren’t allowed to truly exist. “Liz and Dick,” as opposed to Elizabeth and Richard, played out their every move for reporters. The situations and stories are presented so well here that in the end, instead of being envious of the fabulous life they lived, all you can really feel for them is a certain amount of pity. Sure, we’d all like to have enough money to casually drop 2 million on a massive diamond, but what price would we really pay? There are numerous references throughout to Faust (a role Burton played, naturally), and it’s an apt comparison. Furious Love is a book about movie stars, yes, but I think it gives us many greater things to think about. If nothing else, you’ll stop and feel grateful, at least once, for your comparatively quiet and sane existence.

For more of Samantha’s reviews, check out her blog: The Blog of Eternal Stench

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.