Sunday, August 15, 2010

Before Brangelina: Dick and Liz

My friend Cathy told me once that she didn't understand her mother's crush on Richard Burton until she grew up, and then she really, really got itMy mom was never a fan, so I didn't see his movies at all until I was grown. Nor, even the poorer for this, did I know about Dick Cavett.  Then I stumbled upon Cavett's marvelous blog and watched some extraordinary interviews with Richard the Great.

If you haven't heard or read about any of this and are a young person, by which I mean younger than fifty, you may be rather surprised to learn people what a scandalous time back in the sixties. This post from Cavett's blog includes possibly the best story I've ever encountered about justification for a doomed relationship, related to Cavett by the late Jerry Orbach.  (A nineteen-year old Susan Strasberg, involved with Burton, two and a half decades older, married and alcoholic, is being given a dressing down by a group os older women. Then her lover intercedes.) And the interviews, if you've time to watch, are from a time before everything had to be crammed into a sound byte.  Cavett asks careful questions and waits for thoughtful answers.  I actually sat and enjoyed the conversation--I didn't realize, or had forgotten, how good it is to watch interesting people talk.

Last month I received an issue of Vanity Fair from a friend who is dedicated to recycling and so passes her magazines to me. The article, an excerpt from Furious Love, a book by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger is about Richard Burton's love affair with Elizabeth Taylor and is replete with stories--and some fantastic photos of Liz with her 69.42 carat necklace and some va-voom seventies outfits that only a woman with extremely high self-esteem would wear--of what Brangelina would be if they weren't trying so hard to be taken seriously.  Dick and Liz were way too into each other to worry about world affairs, it soon becomes clear.  When Richard met Elizabeth beside a pool on a booze-soaked Sunday morning in Hollywood in 1952, he was a goner, and knew it right away.  It wasn't until ten years later that he actually got the chance to speak to her, and she was cool to him, knowing him to be nortorious adulterer who was used to having his cake and then some. But then they they had a kissing scene in Cleopatra.  The rest is history, to say the least.

The Burtons set the tabloid world, not to mention one another, afire. Their relationship was, as the magazine's July 2010 byline asserts, a pretty torrid and public thing, though both were married to others at the time: "From scandalous beginning to tormented end, theirs was the most epic love story in Hollywood history: a blaze of headlines, booze, jewels, brawls and private jets."  Eddie Fisher, Liz's husband at the time (he'd left Debbie Reynolds for her) nearly lost his mind and put a gun to her head.  She decamped to a friend's poolhouse with her children, the story goes. Once married to Dick--famously, not just once but twice--life was equally difficult. Though he tried to deny his Welsh coalminer roots, he still drank as though he was coming home from the pits each day.  Eventually, he quit (his interview with Cavett on this subject is eloquent and extremely touching) but it was too late for him and his Cleopatra.  And she was, in his defense, a piece of work, though she betwitched him completely. He never really gave up hope of winning her back. 

The smoking gun is the letter written and posted by Burton the night before he died at the age of 58 from a brain anueryism.  He was by then married to yet another woman. But in the letter, according to Elizabeth Taylor and by account of the authors (though they have no authorization to print it, they have read it and confirm its contents) he professed his undying passion for her and wonders if perhaps they might not give it one more try.  By the time she received it in the mail, she'd returned to Los Angeles from London, where she'd attended his funeral service.  Liz reads the letter every night before she sleeps.

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