Friday, October 28, 2011

Book Review - "Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century"

I'd been engaged in some pretty serious reading as of late, so I thought I would take a retreat into a frothy celebrity bio.  Saying that is not a knock on frothy celebrity biographies.  Many of them are quite worthwhile and occasionally they are a lovely diversion from reading massive tomes on the lives of such consequential people as George Washington, Diedrich Bonhoeffer and Abraham Lincoln.

When Borders was closing down this past summer I ended up spending more money on the closeout sale than I had originally bargained for.  I have long been a book buyer (and eventual donor of many of those books) and of course I'm a voracious visitor to the local public library, but I spent a significant amount buying up marked down books, including "Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century."  The authors of the book are Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. Taylor cooperated with the authors before her death and she even gave them access to her love letters. She told them she didn't care how she came off, but she wanted Richard to be honored.  The authors listened, because Richard Burton comes off in a much more sympathetic light than Elizabeth Taylor does.   

Taylor and Burton in a scene from "Cleopatra" (20th Century Fox)

Keep in mind I was more than convinced that I was getting myself into some mindless foray on the lives of two establishment divas from a bygone era, but hold on, that is not what I got myself deeply embedded into.  I read the book over the course of five weeknights.  I'd lie on the couch deeply engaged in the troubled, dysfunctional lives of two of the most famous people in the Western World during the mid to latter part of the 20th century.  I went to bed each night slightly depressed and deeply troubled by the extreme sadness of those two lives.

Burton was a gifted actor with a voice like no other.  The only other actor in film history to match that commanding and authoritative vocal presence was the underrated Richard Harris.  Ironically enough (or maybe not so ironically), they would both play King Arthur in "Camelot" and they both had long embattled histories with alcohol.  Burton was a strikingly strong presence on screen, but clearly in spite of the talent, the voice, the commanding style, the wealth and the ability to woo and keep the ultimate diva wife he was burdened down by a multiple number of insecurities.  Burton needed to find God!  I do not say that superficially. Finding God is never a superficial experience.  Clearly, he was a man looking for peace of mind and joy of heart.  As I write this, I am still pained by his eventual physical, emotional and spiritual breakdown caused from years of alcohol intake. Burton died at the age of 58 back in 1984 and to see photos from his final years he easily could have passed for a man of 75 years of age. 

Taylor has long been one of my favorite film actresses.  She was a far more talented actress than often given credit for (in spite of two Academy Award wins and other critical honors);  and of course she was blessed with one of the most beautiful faces in the history of the cinema.  Very few actresses can come close to that face. Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Jacqueline Bisset and Julie Christie were or are all symmetrically stunning women as well, but Taylor's downright flawless bone structure, porcelain skin and violet blue eyes will remain memorable in the annals of cinematic history for many years to come.

The book doesn't delve much into the early lives of the two obstacle courses known as Liz and Dick (monikers which they loathed), but it does do a fully developed breakdown of their personal relationship from the first meeting during the shoot of "Cleopatra" and it takes us through the final years where they were not together as a couple, but clearly still very much devoted to one another. The obvious love they poured forth is evident on almost every page of this book, particularly on the Burton side, but the big question and the one that troubles me is Taylor's non-assistance with Burton's burdens.  Clearly, he had an addiction to alcohol before he ever embarked on his infamous relationship with Elizabeth Taylor; and his desire for alcohol never waned.  Ironically, there were periods in his life where he was capable of staying off the bottle, but then he returned to the booze with a vengeance.

Back in that period of history, people thought people that drank were cool, although many emotionally immature people still think that way.  They were often the butt of jokes, but more often they were lifted up to a higher loft of our celebrity existence.  Needless to say, the definitive cool member of an already cool "Rat Pack" was the effortless entertainer, Dean Martin.  I have vivid memories of Martin's weekly NBC variety show and Martin was inevitably seen holding a "glass" in hand.  It was later revealed that Martin wasn't much of a drinker (thank God), but much of his celebrity (in spite of his dominant talent) was linked to his ability to down it with the best of them. 

I contend that if Taylor so loved Burton (I actually don't doubt their great love) the unselfish and giving thing to have done would have been to help him overcome his alcoholism.  Instead of that, she drank up a storm and encouraged his drinking.  At one point, (and one can be certain this happened many times) she accused him of being a bore without the booze.  Great wife? Great life?  Ultimately, one must be as objective as possible considering what is on the page.  

Burton was obsessed with Taylor, so the infatuation period was far beyond their initial stages of romance. He loved her deeply.  After reading through some of his more than intimate letters and diary notes he was a man devoted to his woman.  They were together for ten years, which by Hollywood standards is a lifetime.  Sad, but ultimately somewhat true.  Exceptions to the rule exist, of course.  Notable long-haul star marriages include Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and for all of the hoopla surrounding their eventual demise, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz did survive nearly 20 years of a wedded connection.  

Taylor should have forced the issue of a no alcohol policy and perhaps their relationship would have lasted through the end of their natural lives.  She was a loud, spoiled and bawdy woman, but as we saw with the final 25 years of her life she also was clearly a compassionate, loyal and honorable human being. Unfortunately, this all came too late for the Taylor/Burton love story.

As Albert Camus once wrote "there are only two or three great love stories in a century, the rest is vanity or boredom."  I used that line when I delivered the eulogy at my father's memorial service.  I meant it about my parents.  They loved, liked and respected each other.  My dad was a man who basically never looked at another woman.  I feel comfortable and honest saying this since I know their devotion to their marriage. Their life took precedence over any thoughts about others outside of their God and their family. They weren't self contained, but then again they were. 

"Furious Love" is one of the best celebrity bios I've ever spent my time with.  Few books centered around entertainment personalities could rival this breakdown of the two lives in the title.  Only Errol Flynn's self-penned slice of life in "My Wicked, Wicked Ways" and Candice Bergen's self portrait in "Knock Wood" come close to this level of a life explored, although I'd also throw kudos to Lauren Bacall's in your face biography. 

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who was a fan of either or both parties or for any serious minded lover of the arts.  Keep in mind, there are moments that will bore with the enormous number of times we have to be reminded of Taylor's physical beauty. Her face is not arguable. The authors must have had a bet as to how many words they could use to describe her face.  It's the only time when you feel poked by silliness. 

In spite of the pure tragedy set before us in the book, one can't help but feel sorry for these two people who were absolutely miserable.  They are the perfect examples of no matter how much money, talent or appeal you have, it won't necessarily make you happy.  Furious love indeed.  Who in their right mind would want to fight, argue, get wasted and be burdened down by self-loathing.  For all of their talents, skills and abilities you finish this book being thankful you aren't either one of them, but on the other hand you end up being stifled by the pity you feel for two wealthy, famous, physically beautiful people.

Copyright 2011 Read On Read Now