Liz and Dick saw heyday of star power

Hollywood's star excesses fade as tentpole excesses take hold

From its title, “FURIOUS LOVE” sounds both sudsy and soporific, but it turns out to be one of the best reads among summer books — also the best timed.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in their heyday represented vestigial symbols of the star system, and their headline-grabbing self-indulgence helped bring about its demise. In their prime, all Taylor and Burton had to do was walk on a set and budgets would start hemorrhaging.

Their love affair, and their excesses, are fascinating to review these days when movie stars are all but disappearing amid the blizzard of 3D tentpoles, sequels and franchises. With the big bucks today chasing bigger and better special effects, reading about Taylor and Burton reminds us of that moment when movie star icons, not comicbook icons, were the superheroes.

As portrayed by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, Taylor and Burton were not only beautiful and talented but seemed destined to be living soap operas. They traveled with an entourage of 40 aides and acolytes (HBO should have shot that show), hung with international aristocrats and bon vivants and joked with the press about their random extravagances (in 1968, he casually spent the equivalent of $2 million for the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond to surprise Liz).

Yet Burton used his Welsh bravado to cover up hemophilia, bouts of epilepsy and a three-bottle-a-day vodka habit, while Elizabeth chugged pills, battled weight and landed in the hospital every time she lost an argument.

Along the way they made some 11 movies together, including the infamous “Cleopatra,” which would eventually take three years to finish at a cost equivalent to $300 million in today’s dollars (the shooting script was 327 pages long.)

Their movies, ultimately, turned into self-parodies. Pauline Kael complained that “?’Doctor Faustus’ is the dullest episode yet in the great-lovers-in-history series that started with ‘Cleopatra.’ ”

I spent a weekend amid the Taylor-and-Burton circus in 1964 when they were shooting “The Sandpiper” at Big Sur, and I was prepared to be outraged by their narcissistic self-indulgences. MGM had cast Taylor as an impoverished hippie painter yet spent a fortune building her character’s glass-and-driftwood home overlooking the sea. Burton, as usual, played the tormented lover, the Rev. Dr. Hewitt, caught between duty and passion and surrendering to passion.

Kashner and Schoenberg’s book related my Big Sur visit, commenting on my surprise in encountering two delightfully charismatic characters, desperately in love, who were considerate and superbly literate and good company.

Those moments could quickly darken, however. By April, 1970, the couple returned to Los Angeles to attend the Academy Awards, with Burton banking on an Oscar for his performance in the stiff and anachronistic “Anne of a Thousand Days.”

The Hollywood they had known, however, had capsized. Suddenly the movies of the moment were “Easy Rider” and “The Graduate.” The new stars were Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino

“The world has changed,” Burton wrote in his diary. “I mean, our world. I’m afraid we are temporarily out in the cold, fallen stars. What is remarkable I suppose is that we have stayed up there for so long.”

At the Oscars, John Wayne won for “True Grit” and Taylor had to present the best picture Oscar for “Midnight Cowboy,” a movie she did not understand. To add insult to injury, her old studio, MGM, where she had actually gone to school, was on the auction block.

That night Burton swallowed Seconals and drowned himself in vodka. Taylor, surrounded by old admirers assuring her they’d voted for Richard, finally asked Liz Smith, “Then who the hell voted for Wayne?” Feeling ill, she ended up in the hospital.

Richard died at the age of 58 in 1984, Elizabeth lives on.

The end of the their legend marked the end of Hollywood’s superstar era, which was probably good news for the corporate studios of the moment. The A-Team doesn’t travel with 40 servants — just a lot of noise and ammo.

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