Saturday, March 26, 2011

Last Tango in Los Angeles: Burton, Taylor and Virginia Woolf.

Last Tango in Los Angeles: Burton, Taylor and Virginia Woolf.: "I take particular joy in introducing my wife to old films she's never gotten around to watching. On the Waterfront, Come Back, Little Sheba..."

Burton, Taylor and Virginia Woolf.

I take particular joy in introducing my wife to old films she's never gotten around to watching. On the Waterfront, Come Back, Little Sheba, and last night, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in homage to the recent passing of Elizabeth Taylor. She loved it.

Taylor won an Oscar for the role, as well as a number of other awards, and there's no getting around that she's especially good in this film, arguably her finest screen performance. But it is Burton that dazzles me. This guy had some chops. I mean, I've always known that. Most don't remember or realize that in the late fifties and early sixties he was generally considered the guy that would succeed Olivier as THE English actor of his generation. Olivier thought so. Gielgud thought so. His contemporaries (O'Toole, Guiness, Redgrave, Finney, Courtney, Harris, Bates, Hopkins, Scofield) thought so. And then two remarkable stage performances, nearly back to back, Camelot and Hamlet on the NY stage, and he was set to claim the mantle from the aging Olivier. Alas, it was not to be.

Two things happened to Burton around this time. Booze and Elizabeth Taylor. But neither can be seriously blamed for Burton's drift away from the stage. For one thing Burton had always been a hard drinker and, according to his diaries, it wasn't until the late sixties that drinking really started to intrude upon his work. And by all accounts Taylor always encouraged him to return to the stage. But Burton, like Anthony Hopkins, chose film as his medium. He didn't settle for it, as is often thought, he chose it. He wanted to be rich. He wanted to be a movie stah. He chose film. And by the time Virginia Woolf rolled around, he was, indeed, a full-fledged movie star. And, in my opinion anyway, he gives one of the five or ten finest performances ever captured on film in it.

His diaires, published in the eighties after his death, are fascinating. If you're an actor and haven't read them, I highly recommend them. He was entirely cognizant of his choices. Peter O'Toole, another actor that chose the screen over the stage, was probably his best 'actor' friend and Burton never stopped comparing himself to O'Toole. They were the British equivalent to Brando and Clift a decade earlier in America. They competed on a very high level. Not overtly so, perhaps, but they did. O'Toole always admired Burton's ability to be 'absolutely still' and, in his diaries, Burton admired O'Toole's 'vocal prowess.'

In fact, there is an oft-repeated story of the two, legendary drinkers both, having a long snort in the early sixties and deciding to do separate versions of Hamlet. One would do it in London and one would do it in NY. They actually flipped a coin (according to Burton they did this in the fabled Lion's Pub in New York - O'Toole, oddly, claims it never happened). Burton won the toss and chose New York. Then they flipped again for director. O'Toole is said to have won the second toss and chose Olivier to direct, Burton settled for Gielgud. Subsequently Laurence Olivier directed Peter O'Toole in the inaugural production of The National Theater in London and Burton was directed by John Gielgud and opened on Broadway. The Burton Hamlet was a smash, famous even today among Shakespeare-philes. O'Toole's Hamlet is equally famous for all the opposite reasons. It was apparently terrible. Olivier chose to do the full, four-hour text and stage a labourious and ultimately nearly unwatchable version. Gielgud cut the text to the bare bones, did it on a blank stage in rehearsal clothing and Burton's Hamlet still holds the record today as the longest running Hamlet on Broadway.

But I digress. All of this brings us to Edward Albee's remarkable piece of writing, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It was a surprise stage hit and Taylor and Burton actually saw it there as members of the audience. Taylor very much wanted the film to be made and back then, Liz Taylor had a considerable amount of clout in the Hollywood community. What Liz wanted, she usually got. She not only got the project green-lighted, she also demanded it be directed by a young nobody with no film credits named Mike Nichols. I have had the great privilege to sit and talk with Mike Nichols about that film. Some years back I picked his brain for several hours about that film and a few others he directed. He has mostly fond memories of it. For one thing, he told me, he was very clearly under the protective umbrella of Elizabeth Taylor so the studio didn't mess with him too much. They were too afraid of Dame Liz. He also claims Burton was beyond good. He showed up on day one letter-perfect, the entire script memorized and ready to go. He said Burton told him on the first day of shooting he had 'given up the drink' for the duration of the shoot. Burton, even then, was acutely aware of his own alcoholism. He also said the 'bergen and water' speech Burton gives halfway through the movie, sitting on the tree swing with a very young George Segal, is perhaps the best piece of film acting he's ever seen. He said Burton, being a trained stage actor, nailed it all on the first take and simply walked off set as though nothing had happened immediately following it, leaving Nichols and dozens of crew members standing there in awe. He also said that at one point a few 'suits' from Warner Brothers were standing around on set, generally getting in everyone's way, occasionally offering unsolicited advice, suddenly found themselves in the path of Liz Taylor's legendary temper. She told them she would not say one more word in front of a camera unless they immediately vacated the set to never return. She also, according to Nichols, told them she would personally see to it they never 'got near a movie studio again' if they sent one more 'memo' to Mike Nichols suggesting ways to direct the film. It apparently worked because Nichols said he never saw them again and never recieved another 'memo' from the studio.

Taylor, generally regarded as not so much a great actress as a great movie star, had the amazing ability to notch up her game when working opposite an actor of greater natural ability. She did it with Clift in A Place in the Sun, she did it with Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she did it with Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye and she, most famously, does it with Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She matches his work every step of the way. And that ain't no small thing. There are moments in this film in which Richard Burton is so good it's sort of paralyzing to watch him (if you're an actor and really 'get' what he's doing). And there, right along side him, is Liz Taylor, blowing the roof off. Taylor, despite a whole plethora of laughable performances later in her career, could stand toe to toe with the best in the business back in those days.

Buton and Taylor, booze fueled and overexposed, eventually self-destructed in an all-too-public way as nearly everyone now knows. They divorced, remarried, divorced again and eventually collapsed from their own self-indulgence. Burton never again gave the kind of performance he gives in Virginia Woolf. It was Taylor's swan song, too, I think. She was and always will remain "Elizabeth Taylor" but I really think that was her last great effort as an bonafide actress. Burton returned to the stage in the late seventies in Equus and recieved one of my favorite reviews for that play from a very famous and legendarily caustic NY critic: "Richard Burton may be the most promising middle-aged actor on the planet." That always made me chuckle.

It's hard to comprehend they are both now gone. Burton died way too young from drink and incomprehensibly hard living. Taylor, the ultimate survivor, finally succumbed a few days ago. I read an interview with her a few years ago, can't remember the magazine, but one of the quotes made me smile. She said, when asked about her many marriages, 'There was Richard. And then there were all the others."

I just love that.

See you tomorrow.