DVD Review: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Film Collection

Before Brad and Angelina there was Elizabeth and Richard. If you can imagine it in today’s overexposed, multimedia, celebrity obsessed culture, the publicity surrounding Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s scandalous affair during the shooting of the 1963 excessive epic flop that was Cleopatra was even more overbearing than that surrounding the affair between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie during the filming of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

This was also around the time (early 1960s) when the Italian paparazzi made themselves household names and proved Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) right by supplying the world’s media with pictures and daily updates on the couple, who were both married to others at the time. Taylor, who was the most famous and glamorous actress in the world at the time, was no stranger to inserting herself into someone else’s marriage (she had broken up the marriage of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher and ended up marrying Fisher.) Burton, who was an established Welsh actor but not yet a movie star, had a notorious reputation as a heavy drinker and womanizer yet always returned to his wife of 14 years at the time Sybil Williams. 

Taylor became the highest paid actress ever when she accepted $1,000,000 to play the title role in what was, at the time the most expensive movie ever filmed, 20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra. Richard Burton was tagged to play Marc Antony. When the two met on the set, it was lust and love at first sight. 
From that point on their passionate, tumultuous affair and on again off again marriage (they were married and divorced twice) was used to their career advantage. They would appear in ten more films together and for the most part, audiences flocked in droves to catch a glimpse of the most famous, glamorous couple in the world. The 1960s was their decade and no one symbolized fame and notorious excess in that decade more than Taylor and Burton.

Warner Brothers has gathered up four of their most memorable collaborations when they were at their peak in the five-disk box set Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton: The Film Collection. The films included are The V.I.Ps, The Sandpiper, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Comedians.

Although Cleopatra was shot prior to The V.I.Ps, audiences first saw the scandalous couple together in this surprisingly well-acted soap opera. It was shot, edited and released in 1963 while Cleopatra was still being trimmed. Even though critics trashed it, it did well at the box office and made up for Cleopatra’s disappointing returns. From this film on, it became fairly obvious and in some ways fascinating that the couple was putting a great deal of their hot-blooded and equally hot-tempered romance on screen in their films. The film takes place largely at an English airport where an all-star cast of various V.I.P.s (very important people) is stranded after a dense fog has grounded all flights.

Amongst the pretty faces is Rod Taylor as Les Mangrum, the Australian owner of a small tractor firm who is being threatened by a hostile takeover. He has written a check without sufficient funds in order to satisfy an investor and the delayed flight might cost him his company. Mangrum is accompanied by his dutiful, devoted secretary Miss Mead (Maggie Smith) who is secretly in love with her boss. Max Buda (Orson Welles) is an internationally renowned film director who will lose one million dollars to British tax collectors if he stays on English soil past midnight.

The Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford) is on her way to the States in search of money so that she may save her beloved estate that she can no longer afford. And of course you have the main love triangle consisting of Frances Andros (Elizabeth Taylor) the beautiful, glamorous wife of cold, hardened shipping tycoon Paul Andros (Richard Burton) who has decided to leave her husband for the handsome, suave gambler and playboy Marc Champselle (Louis Jordan.) The longer the plane stays on the ground, the more time Marc has to discover his wife’s duplicity and try and stop her.
If you’re thinking, “Who cares?” then you’re absolutely right and will probably be bored to tears here. If, however, you get off on watching beautiful, rich people suffer as a result of their jet setting, exciting lives then look no further. While it isn’t a great film by any stretch, it is a classic example of an old Hollywood film using famous stars for the audiences to live vicariously through. It is a guilty pleasure but the acting is what lifts the fluffy storylines.

Welles does a hilarious, pretentious sendup of his own persona and if you are familiar at all with his history involving studio heads, there are many inside jokes that will make you chuckle. Rutherford actually won Best Supporting Actress for her humorous Duchess who has never been on an airplane before and is constantly on uppers or downers to control her nerves.

My personal favorite is the Rod Taylor/ Maggie Smith storyline that genuinely envelops you and makes you care about both in a unique way above any of the others. This would be Smith’s first major film and would introduce her remarkable talents to the world after mostly doing British television. She would go on to win Best Actress for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and Best Supporting Actress for California Suite (1978). Her Miss Mead is the most human and heart wrenching character here and you root for her ultimate happiness above anyone else’s.

Both Jordan and Burton provide strong performances as the men in Liz Taylor’s life and surprisingly, you might find yourself rooting for Jordan’s character over Burton’s.  Taylor is not given much to do except look HOT which she does to be sure and occasionally look distraught over her being torn between two handsome, dashing men. I’m sure most women out there can sympathize with her plight.
It’s no surprise that the story line of Taylor’s and Burton’s characters involved marital infidelity. They were obviously smart enough to pick the perfect project that would undeniably bring people to the cinema, thus capitalizing on their headline-changing affair. Their chemistry here and in their other films is smoldering and volcanic.

Very few off-screen couples have been able to generate heat on-screen but they do it and arguably better than any other couple not named Bogart and Bacall. Overall, the V.I.P.s is Hollywood fluff but it is enjoyable fluff with some surprisingly insightful, honest dialogue and several standout scenes between Burton and Jordan as they confront each other in an airport office over Taylor and nearly every scene with Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith. Screenwriter Terence Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith pull off the rare feat of presenting the viewer with impossibly beautiful, wealthy people who suffer yet are able to make you care about them by using a group of top-notch actors and actresses and not overly dramatizing or hamming their dialogue. There are no extras on the DVD for this film.
Unfortunately, the tact taken with The V.I.P.s would be thrown out the window for their next film. Taylor and Burton would team up in 1965 for the overblown and at times, flat out awful The Sandpiper.  It’s hard to imagine that one of the biggest turkeys of all time was written by two of Hollywood’s most respected screenwriters; the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Michael Wilson (Bridge on the River Kwai, A Place in the Sun) and was directed by one of the great directors Vincente Minneli (An American in Paris, Gigi).

The critics savaged the film and blamed Taylor and Burton for the finished product. Surprisingly, even with the torrid reviews, the film did decent business further cementing Taylor and Burton as top box office draws even in inferior films. The Sandpiper has to fall under the category of so bad it’s a good type of film. The dialogue and performances are so unintentionally hilarious and campy; one can actually enjoy this film while simultaneously ridiculing it.  And to be shamelessly honest the film is noteworthy for me in that, in my opinion, Liz Taylor never looked hotter, more voluptuous or more sexual than she does here. Along with her haunting violet eyes that first garnered her notice in National Velvet (1944), every glance and physical movement here oozes sex and proves that a woman with a little meat on her is a good thing. I used to think she couldn’t get any hotter than A Place in the Sun (1951) but she is here. The real talent lies in how both she and Burton managed to keep a straight face while delivering their lines.

Taylor plays Laura Reynolds, a bohemian “free spirit” single mother who lives with her son in a picturesque beach cabin on the beach of Big Sur, California. Forget the fact that she is supposedly a “struggling artist” yet can live on one of the most beautiful parts of central California. Nevertheless, her son has just gunned down a young deer to see what being “a man” is.

Seems he’s been listening to the beatnik musings of his mother too much. So, naturally the boy and his hot mother are brought before a judge where he orders the boy to be sent to a religious academy. When he threatens to take the boy away from her, Laura realizes she has no choice. So it’s off to the boarding school where she meets and falls into instant lust with a tight-collared reverend Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton) who runs the school along with his devoted wife Claire (Eva Marie Saint).

The first half of the film is basically a tease for the two consummating their deep, illicit passion for each other while the second half acts as an extended promo for Big Sur as the two caress and fondle each other.

Of course there are forces that threaten them.  On Hewitt’s side the forces are in the form of a slimy school donor Ward Hendricks (Robert Webber) who’s been with Laura and whom she must fight off with a hatchet at one point. On Laura’s side the forces are in the form of her ridiculously chiseled artist friend Cos (Charles Bronson).

It’s highly likely that the character was meant to be a homosexual, the subtle signs are there (he can do a nude sculpture of Taylor while not laying a hand on her and constantly picks on Hewitt mentally and physically) but it’s never made clear. It is funny seeing such a legendary on-screen tough guy like Bronson playing a hippy sculptor though.  His sexual ambiguity is just one of many things that just makes you shake your head and laugh. Of course, the forbidden coupling of Laura and Dr. Hewitt is outed in public, which causes upheaval in Dr. Hewitt’s marriage and this predicates some LIFE CHANGING DECISIONS that must be made.

I suppose you could hate and detest this film just like The V.I.P.’s as a shameless self-promotion to cash in on their popularity. But, this movie is too dumb and inept to be hated. That would mean you were taking it seriously. However, it seems like everyone involved was taking it seriously, which is what makes it so much fun to ridicule. There’s a drinking game that can be adjusted to this film, I know it. Nothing makes sense here, not the characters or the cheesy dialogue.

You don’t know why Burton is so transfixed by Taylor here, aside from her body, because there is not one meaningful scene with him and his wife until he CONFESSES the affair to her. Eva Marie Saint, who also looks stunning here, has never been so criminally underused in a film. Taylor is seemingly always spouting some kind of annoying beatnik, hippy cliché, trying to show her nonconformity, or rambling about how she’s been treated like a sex object her whole life. Burton does his usual inward, brooding dramatization of his character but here when he treats his ridiculous dialogue like a Shakespearean play, he just comes off as pompous and insane.

Once again, infidelity plays a major role here (you starting to catch the similarities in their films they did together?) The exteriors of Big Sur are really the highlight of the film here. I think they took the film just so they could shoot a film there. That’s the only reasonable assumption when you have such classic lines like “Men have been staring at me and rubbing against me ever since I was twelve,” “Do you want me as a woman or just as a whore?” “I’ve never known anything like this. Does this happen to married people?” and my personal favorite “We made love-even in motels, God help me!” 

If you haven’t seen The Sandpiper before, seek it out and have a few drinks while you watch it. It’s better than any comedy you’ve seen lately, outside of Borat. The extras included on this disk are two vintage featurettes The Big Sur, which is narrated by Burton and A Statue for the Sandpiper, which highlights the real-life artist that carved the redwood statue of Taylor seen being created in the film by Bronson. <!–page–>

After the financial success but critical drubbing the couple took for The Sandpiper, Taylor and Burton followed it up with one of the best movies of the decade and arguably the greatest roles either of them had. Based on the play by Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, released in 1966, knocked out audiences and critics alike with its raw dialogue and performances while helping to change the outdated Hollywood ratings system.  George (Burton) is a beaten down, weary college professor of history. He’s married to the college president’s daughter, Martha (Taylor), a loud, drunken, obnoxious floozy.

Following a mixer at the college for new staff, Martha invites the handsome new biology teacher Nick (George Segal) and his mousey wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) over to their place for a few drinks. What follows is an emotionally violent, morally destructive alcohol soaked night of “fun and games” as George and Martha rip into each other with impunity and tear at old wounds. As they slowly descend into emotional hell, they take Nick and Honey with them. This originally having been a play, the plot and characters are mostly confined to interiors, which only add to the brutality and symbolism of the four characters.

This would be the peak for both Taylor and Burton as actors. They were never this good or real again. In many ways, they never recovered from the emotional violence they portrayed here.  Taylor rightfully won Best Actress for her no-holds barred performance that completely surprised everyone. She gained 30 pounds for the role and was deliberately uglied up for the part, which sees her go from an obnoxious, catty drunk of a wife that all men dread to wounded little girl that secretly hates her husband for loving her. She had never gone past her erotic physicality much in her previous work but completely and deliberately destroys it here.

Her use of vulgarities and profanity is still shocking to hear. Burton matches her every step of the way. He should have won Best Actor for his work here but instead Paul Scofield took it for A Man For All Seasons. No other film was able to showcase Burton’s strengths as an actor like this one did. He has several monologues, especially the “Bergin” speech, that will haunt you for the rest of your life. His transformation is particularly impressive as he takes George from a sad-sack who seems to have given up on everything to a vicious, seething abuser who knows that he’s the smartest one in the room and can verbally out duel anyone. If ever the word tour de force should be used, it is for both Taylor and Burton here.

Segal, who was nominated for Supporting Actor, brings just the right touch of boyishness and arrogance as Nick while Dennis, who won Best Supporting Actress for her role here, brings a heartbreaking naiveté and simplicity to Honey. This film is a cautionary tale for all marriages. Here you see as never before the damage that can be inflicted upon those you love through alcohol, lies (big and small), broken dreams and ego. Very few films portray the human soul as starkly and vividly as they are here.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman sticks to the source material closely and leaves in the more humorous moments as a way of making the shocking moments even more effective.  You’ll be emotionally exhausted and ripped up by the end but the film still stands as a landmark of cinema. This was legendary director Mike Nichols’s first time behind the lens and, having been one of the hottest Broadway directors at the time, it made perfect sense that he be the one to helm the film version of a landmark stage play.

The relationship between George and Martha is reputed to have been eerily similar to Taylor’s and Burton’s marriage at the time. They were both known as notorious drinkers and had violent spats in public and during interviews.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was also historically significant because of the effect it had on the way movies were to be made and shown to the public.  Because of the unprecedented use of profanity and sexually suggestive talk/innuendo (Hump the Hostess anyone?) this was the first film to have been given the tag by the MPAA: No one under 18 will be admitted unless accompanied by his parent.

This eventually led to a complete reworking of the outdated and restrictive 1934 Hays Production Code in 1968. The new ratings included the still present G (General Audiences), M (Mature Audiences which eventually became PG), R (No one under 16 admitted without a parent), and X (no one under 16 admitted.) This gave filmmakers an unprecedented new freedom to make movies with and helped to usher in the greatest decade of American cinema, the 1970s.  

This is the most extra-heavy and only two-disc film of the set here. The first disc contains the film in a glorious black and white remaster and has two entertaining and revealing commentaries. One is with Mike Nichols being questioned by Steven Soderbergh; the other is a commentary with legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler who lensed the film.

The second disk contains two new featurettes: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: A Daring Work of Raw Excellence and Too Shocking for its Time. There is also a vintage one-hour profile, Elizabeth Taylor – An Intimate Portrait, a 1966 interview with Mike Nichols, a wonderful screen test with Sandy Dennis reading with Roddy McDowall and a trailer gallery for all the films included in the box set.

Taylor and Burton followed up the success of Virginia Woolf with The Comedians, released in 1967. Based on the novel by Graham Greene, who also wrote the screenplay, The Comedians is set in the Haiti of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The story follows a cynical white hotel owner Brown (Burton) who has just returned to Haiti after unsuccessfully looking for a buyer in New York. He’s been having a recurring affair (there’s that adultery again) with Martha Pineda (Elizabeth Taylor), the wife of foreign ambassador Manuel Pineda (Peter Ustinov). 

Also traveling back to Haiti with Brown is Mr. Jones (Alec Guinness), a morally corrupt, blowhard military figure with shady business to attend to. There is also an ex-Presidential Candidate of the U.S. Smith (Paul Ford) along with his feisty wife Mrs. Smith (Lillian Gish) who seeks to promote peace and vegetarianism in Haiti. James Earl Jones appears in one of his earliest film roles as the sympathetic and conscientious Dr. Magiot and Georg Stanford Brown, in his screen debut, is Henri Philipot, a passionate artist who wants to be a revolutionary and fight the dictatorship of Duvalier represented by the vicious Tontons which are led by Michel (Zakes Mokae) and by a sadistic police captain Concasseur (Raymond St. Jaques). The plot becomes very complicated and treacherous as the film progresses.
This was the first film of Taylor and Burton’s that was a failure at the box office and was a sign that their appeal was beginning to wane as the 60s came to a close. First of all, it is exceedingly long; the running time is a little over two and a half hours. Second, it takes nearly 45 minutes for the film to get started and find a brief rhythm. There’s nothing wrong with a long film that moves at a deliberate pace but one that is slow and long can frequently become overbearing.

Third, and most importantly, you end up being frustrated, because the film has several wonderful scenes in it but since there is no flow or consistency, the film feels choppy and uneven. It is a noble attempt by all involved. The subject matter was relevant and historical at the time and there is a frightening, dread-filled, nightmarish atmosphere that is created by director Peter Glenville and does give one an idea of what it is to live in fear. 

Taylor and her troubling German accent is seen sparingly here. This film is all about the men and thankfully they do not disappoint. Of course when you have such legendary actors of Burton, Guinness and Ustinov’s stature, you expect nothing less. All three bring a unique insight, depth and humor to their characters especially Guinness who is at his best here. His Jones is probably the most fascinating character here as he alternates from helpless to arrogant to moral ambiguity and ultimately deception. His final scene with Burton in a cemetery towards the end of the film where he reveals his true character is the standout moment of the film. 

Ustinov is also seen somewhat sparingly but he immediately brings an authority and intelligence to his part. His wife and Brown may think him of as a cuckold but he’s fully aware of what’s going on. Burton carries the film mostly with his alienated, isolated facial expressions that perfectly portray a man at odds with himself and his world. There are some moments where it seems like he’s genuinely lost in his thoughts. Reports were that his alcoholism and gone into overdrive at this time so that may have taken a toll on him.  The on-screen affair that he has with Taylor is actually the least interesting aspect of the story and seemingly only brings him torment, misery and insane jealousy throughout. 

The heat and passion is still there but here it seems irrelevant and included only to satisfy those who went to see the film JUST to see Burton and Taylor together.
The politics espoused in the film are heavily geared towards the left, which also explains why in 1967, it did not find a receptive audience amongst Taylor and Burton’s core audience. Graham Greene was not exactly shy about promoting his leftist leanings and agendas in his literature and his screenplay for The Comedians is no different. How one ultimately responds to it is a matter of one’s own beliefs and morality. 

Viewing the film today, it is admirable what all involved were getting at; it’s just a very slow and morose film that could have been better with 20 minutes less. The only extra included on the disc is a brief featurette The Comedians in Africa, which highlights the shooting of the film and why it was shot in Africa rather than on location in Haiti.
Of all the films only Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a bonafied classic. It is also the only title of the set that is being sold separately. Your opinions will vary with the other titles but they are all enjoyable and fascinating to watch in their own way if for no other reason than to see what real on-screen heat looks like and to get a glimpse into what the complicated, passionate inner workings was like for arguably, the most famous Hollywood couple of all time. They should be admired and respected for daring to put their private lives on screen.

In the end, that is what made the majority of their films together successful; the fact that everyone could relate to their relationship in one way or another even though they were Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Their flaws and demons were ours as well.

Overall, I would highly recommend the Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton Film Collection for anyone who is a fan of either actor and who wants to see what real movie stars were capable of. Brad and Angelina can only wish they were that good.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Film Collection is now available at Amazon. As of yet, there is not a release date for the UK. Visit the DVD database for more information.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.