Burton And Taylor Recap: You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry, You’ll Take Pills, You’ll Drink Tab
Oh wow, this thing is about end stage Burton and Taylor, not peak of career Burton and Taylor. Yessssss. It begins right as Liz and Dick decide they’re going to do Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” as a touring play. What could go wrong?
Richard Burton (played all sexy dissolute silver fox style by Dominic West) looks like he’d rather be anywhere in the world than at this press conference announcing the play. They are not getting back together. DID YOU HEAR ME THEY ARE NOT GETTING BACK TOGETHER.
Oh, Helena Bonham Carter looks fantastic as Taylor, doesn’t she? Really inhabits the role. And such a great actress.
What on earth possessed the BBC to give this thing a weird synth song for the title sequence? I know it is set in the 1980s, but I didn’t think Liz and Dick were bumping a lot of Howard Jones during this time.
Sexy 50th birthday party for Liz! Burton is wearing a mink. Taylor is wearing what appears to be a dressing gown but is probably a really expensive dress. She’s bullying Burton into drinking but he has given that up, thank you, and would like a Tab. Yes, a Tab. Also, too, Liz Taylor is now going to dance to Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” I can’t tell if I’m thrilled or terrified it might be the 17 minute version where there are like 20 orgasms.
Also, also too, Liz is incredibly drunk and Burton is not going to just drink Tab, no he isn’t, he’s going to pound several large glasses of whiskey at the bar while no one is watching, and then we’re all going to dance to Sylvester.
He’s still wearing the mink. West is literally chewing every last piece of scenery off of this set, and I love it. He’s Shakespearean, he’s plummy, he’s ragged, he’s aggressively taciturn.
The first read-through is … not going to go well, because Liz has apparently never ever read the play. She makes a point never to read things until she is starring in them because it “keeps it fresh.” God I love her. She should have lived forever.
Burton is the consummate professional, but his body is breaking down. He wants to do Lear, but that is THREE HOURS onstage and he has to carry Cordelia at the end.
Rehearsals are going terribly. Burton knows the play so well already that he’s doing his first read through without a script, whereas Elizabeth actually didn’t even manage to pick up a conveniently bound paper copy of the script and is flipping through the hardback play hopelessly. Why? BECAUSE SHE IS HIGH HIGH HIGH on every last pill imaginable. And she’s wistful for what might have been, what could still be. Also, she’s high. Ten days out, she still doesn’t know the thing, and this is her pivot to manipulating Burton into spending time with her and telling her how great she is. She has a near-infinite collection of semi-sexy daily loungewear to hang about in.
OPENING NIGHT. Liz shows up absurdly late with a dog AND a parrot in tow, and seems still utterly unready to do this thing, but people are losing their shit just to have her and Burton come on stage.
It makes me wonder if there’s any couple with a tortured history we’d be that thrilled to see on stage together again after years. Bieber and Gomez? Angelina and Billy Bob Thorton? Bennifer?
Burton gets that people are there to watch Burton and Taylor the doomed love interests, not Burton and Taylor the actors. Burton also gets that Taylor is trying to use this play as a vehicle to … not sure what. To get back together? To stave off her loneliness? Both perhaps. In the public eye, in the professional preparations, Burton is so much more put together. In private, he’s an absolute wreck, haggard, deeply sad. Liz, on the other hand, is the public wreck, pills falling out of the purse, weepy in public.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are now reading the reviews of opening night, which are … “mixed” is likely too polite. However, it gives us the best exchange in this show:
Liz: Well, they all like your voice.
Burton: Of course they do. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a big cock. Everyone likes it. Doesn’t make you a great lover per se, does it?
Burton points out that they could just bail on the whole tour because they suck, but that is so not going to happen.
As the run goes on, Liz hams it up more, Burton likes it less and BOOM, there it is. The first fight! Liz follows Burton out into the hallway and wallops him and then reminds him that he can’t hit her – WHICH IS TRUE BUT SHE IS STILL BEING TERRIBLE.
Time to have makeup dinner, where the entire restaurant applauds as Liz walks in. I want this to happen every time I dine out. Dinner is intimate and awkward, as Liz would like to talk about their relationship, and Burton is giving her acting notes. Liz storms dramatically out, and has the final word by just no-showing for the play the next evening, because she can.
Is Dominic West’s hair really thinning? It looks like it is thinning, but I’m hoping it is some sort of deliberate silver fox Burton thing. DO NOT LOSE YOUR HAIR DOMINIC WEST.
Burton goes off and has secret Vegas wedding mid-run and is in for some serious ice-queening from Liz, because you do not just go get secret married, Richard Burton.
Oh my god this play! Noel Coward is custom designed to let Liz vamp. She brings a fucking PARROT on stage in one scene. She also punches Burton so hard he falls into a chair. She’s also completely high. HIGH SO HIGH.
Liz really is breaking down, and Carter is a great enough actress that she takes real-life over the top source material — Taylor’s 1980s slide into full-blown pills and complete inability to work well enough to play well with others — and turns it into a nuanced sadness. Richard Burton sits around trying not to drink and quoting great plays to himself, and West is killing me literally dead because it is SO. DRAMATIC. Don’t get me wrong — it is totally supposed to be that way. He’s a great man whose greatness is slipping away — his fame, his strength, all dimming.
The end of the play’s run is as sad as you think it will be, especially when you remember that Burton dies unexpectedly soon after. Liz is going off to the end-of-run party, and Burton packs up his dressing room alone, flashing back to better times 10 years ago. His wistfulness leads him to go to the party, but Liz hasn’t, and he finds her alone in an empty dressing room back at the theater. Is there anything sadder than these empty dressing room shots? NOPE.
They still love each other, but they’re so weary. Richard tells her that he loves her, he always will, he took the job because he loves her, but he can’t be with her. And holy fuck is theirs still a goddamn love for the ages, you guys. No lie.
Burton: I’m sorry for that. For not measuring up as a man.
Liz: Oh, Richard Burton. You’re every man there ever was. I know. I have known, for a while. I just didn’t want to admit it.
Their whole lives, clanging together, falling apart. The whole film, shadowed by the sadness that Burton is going to fucking die soon and all of this is for naught. We end with Liz in his arms, being carried to her couch so that Burton can practice up for carrying Cordelia at the end of Lear.
Fade out. Reminder that Liz goes to Betty Ford right after this run and that she’s the first big celeb to ever do that, which seems so quaint now. Reminder that Burton only lives 9 more months and never plays Lear, which is a fucking tragedy because god, he’d have been brilliant.