Sam Mendes sure likes to keep busy. Attached to direct both The Voyeurs Motel and James and The Giant Peach, he is now going to produce, and possibly direct, Beautiful Ruins, an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Jess Walter. The novel, named after a description of Richard Burton in the New Yorker as a 'Beautiful Ruin', never directly portrays Elizabeth Taylor, although she remains a destructive presence throughout. Richard Burton however, makes a brief, amusing, cameo. It centres around the production of Cleopatra — check out the trailer below:
Using the production of Cleopatra — with all its delays, flights of fancy and impossible dreams — as a metaphor for its fictional characters, the novel had reviewer Janet Maslin "wondering how “Beautiful Ruins” would work as a straightforward narrative." Nevertheless, if anyone knows anything about telling tragic love stories, who better than Sam Mendes, whose adaptation of Revolutionary Road saw Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet combine to tell a heartbreaking tale of love throughout the ages?
But what is the true story behind Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and the love affair that is arguably unequalled in Hollywood history? Let's take a look. Here is Burton and Taylor: a timeline.
How They Met
As the novel mentions, the two met on the set of Cleopatra, a film Life magazine dubbed the "Most Talked About Movie Ever Made". The final budget totalled over $62 million dollars, which adjusted for inflation, ranks it as the 21st most expensive movie ever made — the only film from before 1978 even in the top 50. The production was a complete mess, riddled with illnesses, directors changing, sets that had to be rebuilt, and a lack of a shooting script. Nevertheless with Burton, Taylor had found a love affair as epic as her star vehicle's ambition. Apparently when they kissed on-screen they wouldn't stop even after the director yelled cut.
The second youngest in a family of thirteen children, Burton came from a small Welsh mining town, pure ambition and skill driving him to be one of the most acclaimed Shakespearean actors. She was born in a life of relative luxury, the daughter of an actress and an art dealer. When they met she was already in her fourth marriage, and he was married to Welsh actress Sybil Williams. A year later, they both got divorced to their respective spouses and married each other.
A Turbulent Love
"Richard and I had an incredible chemistry together. We couldn’t get enough of each other" — Elizabeth Taylor
The original Kimye, Taylor and Burton starred in a total of thirteen films together, including The V.I.Ps, The Taming of The Shrew and Under Milk Wood. Together they made an estimated $88 million, an astronomical figure for actors in the 60s. The money they earned, they spent, living the high-life: yachting, partying, staying in Five Star hotel suites, and buying each other extravagant gifts. Burton even bought Taylor a million dollar diamond.
Nevertheless, their relationship was anything but smooth sailing. The rumor goes that when they booked into hotels, they would rent the room above and below them so that no one could hear them arguing. Abetted by copious amounts of alcohol, the arguments would last long into the night. Their best film together, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, works so convincingly as they brought their tensions from their marriage onto the screen.
Divorce and Marriage and Divorce Again
Taylor had finally had enough of Burton when it emerged he had an affair with a younger co-star. Thus after filming the appropriately named Divorce His, Divorce Hers, they got divorced from each other in 1974. Nevertheless, a mere eighteen months later, after meeting up to discuss their finances they fell back together and got married again. But they fought and fought before Burton fell for another woman, Suzy Hunt, and divorced Taylor for good in 1976 to marry her. It simply couldn't work between them.
As Burton once said:
"You can’t keep clapping a couple of sticks of dynamite together without expecting them to blow up"
Third Time Lucky?
1983. Neither were married, but semi-involved with other people. The event was a revival of Noël Coward's insanely popular Private Lives. It tells the story of two people, who upon honeymooning with their respective spouses, rediscover their eternal love for the other. Expertly mirroring the Taylor and Burton saga, some newspapers speculated that they may ditch their respective lovers and get married for a third time.
It wasn't to be. Additionally, the performance wasn't a success, with reports of Taylor turning up drunk and criticisms that both of them were too old to convincingly play their roles. One critic wrote that it was like:
“the Hitler diaries – you don’t believe it, but you gotta look!”
This woeful reception was believed by some to adversely affect Burton's health. He died a mere eight months later of a brain haemorrhage. But their love for one another never died, it just didn't work. Taylor, a year before her death, expressed her regrets:
“I was a fool to marry so often. If I had my time over again, I would never do that. The truth is I now don’t give a damn about most of those men. Richard is the only one I truly loved and still care about. I shall miss him until the day I die.”
With such a love to inspire the film Beautiful Ruins, and with Mendes hopefully to direct, this film may have the potential to equal his best work. Maybe then we can forgive him for Spectre!