Burton and Taylor, the second TV movie this year about the tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, airs on BBC America Wednesday night. The previous dramatization, Lifetime’s Liz & Dick, starred Lindsay Lohan as Taylor and risibly chronicled the pair’s entire relationship, beginning with their toga meet-cute on the set of Cleopatra. The melancholic Burton and Taylor stars Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West, and it focuses specifically on a few weeks in 1983 when the two, divorced and in their 50s, reunited professionally to star in Noel Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway. Sometimes the near simultaneous release of two movies of a similar subject undermines them both—think Armageddon and Deep Impact, or the dueling Prefontaine films—but any comparison between Liz & Dick and Burton and Taylor immediately glorifies Burton and Taylor, a relatively restrained, non-campy duet that does not feature Lindsay Lohan in a fright wig, just Bonham Carter nailing Taylor’s helium-inflected but bawdily down-to-earth cadences. (In this movie, as with most of Bonham Carter’s work, I am reminded that her initials alone make her a HBIC.
Eschewing the height of Le Scandale, Burton and Taylor focuses on a quieter, less-sexy, less-triumphant moment in the pair’s love story. They are middle-aged, dancing to disco, not sleeping together, in relationships with other people, ensconced in various addictions, and, as celebrities, well into the trashy phase of their fame, a state of being the staging of Private Lives did nothing to remediate. (Here’s a New York magazine story about Taylor at the time that highlights just how gossipy the production was.) Private Lives is a comedy about a divorced couple, newly married to other people, who passionately, dysfunctionally fall back into bed together, a tale that, obviously, tracked closely with the real story of Burton and Taylor. (In the play, as in life, the woman Burton left for Taylor was named Sybil.)
In Burton and Taylor, Burton is frustrated by the parallels: He insists that Taylor not play to the crowd, not winkingly acknowledge that the audience is there to see Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, not their characters, in bed. But Taylor takes the opposite view, arguing that if that’s what the audience wants to see, then that’s what the audience should get. Simply by existing, Burton and Taylor takes Taylor’s side of the argument: What, after all, is the appeal of a movie like Burton and Taylor except as front row seat to Liz and Dick’s private lives?
If, however, you are not already interested in Burton and Taylor’s private lives, Burton and Taylor may feel extremely wan and floppy: a series of scenes in which two people behave badly toward each other while stutter-stepping toward nothing more than an emotionally honest conversation. The performances, Bonham Carter’s in particular, are very fine, but the dramatic stakes are very low. As with last year’s My Week with Marilyn, Burton and Taylor avoids retreading familiar material by picking a relatively quiet, unexplored interlude in a celebrity’s life—the stuff of tasteful restraint, but not exactly scintillating story. And it only scans as tasteful restraint if the audience can fill in all the salacious history for themselves.
For those who can, Burton and Taylor is much more effective. The movie accentuates the increasingly salient feature of their famous romance, which was not its glamour, but its tragedy. Their love affair, passionate as it was, established them forever in our collective memory as lovers, not thespians. Burton, one of the greatest stage actors of his generation, threw his talent into largely mediocre movies and Elizabeth. Taylor, capable of extraordinary work, by the last decades of her life was better known for her multiple marriages than her films. The two are the poster couple for the way fame warps one’s life and work. Burton and Taylor is the poster.