The woman who changed his life for ever



HE had arrived in Hollywood a few days earlier in July 1953 and this was his first pool party.  Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons — old friends from London — had invited him, and although he seemed assured enough, Richard Burton, in Hollywood to make his first movie, didn't quite know what to expect. What he certainly didn't expect was to meet the woman who would change his life for ever. Elizabeth Taylor was sitting alone under an umbrella reading a book.

No one approached her. Standing by the pool under the shade of a palm-tree, Richard Burton couldn't take his eyes off her.

Years later he would remember: "She was the most astonishingly self-contained, remote, removed and inaccessible woman I had ever seen. She was also the most beautiful. She spoke to no one and looked at no one. She steadily read her book. Was she merely sullen? I thought not — there was no trace of sulkiness in that divine face. I just had to go up to her — I knew I shouldn't, and I didn't know what would happen. As I approached I heard her cursing and said: 'You have a remarkable command of old English.'

"She replied: 'Don't you use words like that at the Old Vic?' She told a friend years later: "Of course I knew who he was. He was smart and charming and spoke in a wonderful distinctive voice. I didn't fancy him then.

I thought he talked too much." Which was just as well — at the time Elizabeth Taylor was married to her third husband, Michael Wilding, and Richard Burton to his first wife Sybil. If a spark was ignited, it burned extremely slowly — it was eight years before their paths would cross again as co-stars of the blockbuster Cleopatra, for which Elizabeth Taylor became the first Hollywood star to earn a million dollars for a movie.

Fifty years later Cleopatra remains a movie classic, but not for all the right reasons. It nearly sank Twentieth Century Fox, it took more than two years to shoot and its budget rocketed from $2 million to an unthinkable $44 million. But most famously it left the marriages of Burton and Taylor in ashes. They fell in love on that movie and the whole world knew about it.

When filming began, Elizabeth Taylor was married to husband number four, the crooner Eddie Fisher, who had left his wife Debbie Reynolds for what Debbie called "the violet-eyed seductress."

Soon Fisher and Sybil Burton were helpless spectators. Taylor and Burton weren't just playing Antony and Cleopatra, they were living it. By the time filming moved to Rome, Fisher had packed his bags and returned to America and word of the taboo romance spread like wildfire. Journalists posed as extras to get on set and see the amorous couple for themselves. The Vatican made an official complaint to the US president about Taylor and in the US the affair even knocked John Glenn's Earth orbit off the front pages "It was probably the most chaotic time of my life," Elizabeth Taylor said, which was something of an understatement.

 "People were making threats on my life, falling madly in love... It was fun and it was dark — oceans of tears — but there were some good times, too. Director Joe Mankiewitz said: "The whole thing was a nightmare. I couldn't control the stars, the budget or the movie. It was conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion and wound up in blind panic...

"I never knew where Burton and Taylor were. They should have been shooting a scene and they were off swimming or in a hotel room. That's no way to make a picture!" In unpublished diaries only released last year, Richard Burton said that  falling in love with Elizabeth Taylor on Cleopatra changed his life.

"She could tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness. She is an ache in the stomach when I am away from her. She loves me and I shall love her for ever. We hurt a lot of people in those Cleopatra years. I will always regret it but it couldn't be helped. Loving Elizabeth Taylor is not easy, but it had to be done..." 

When Cleopatra wrapped up nearly three years after it began, Elizabeth Taylor made Richard Burton husband number five and the long tumultuous saga of Taylor and Burton was just beginning. They married in 1964, divorced in 1974 and divorced again in 1976. Richard Burton died in 1984 and Elizabeth Taylor in 2011. She was buried with Burton's last love-letter in her coffin.

Shortly before her death, Elizabeth Taylor looked back on her multi-married life and said: "I have known a lot of loving men but there's only been one real love story in my life. And that began when we made Cleopatra..." 

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