Elizabeth Taylor and her husband Richard Burton apparently rented three suites when they checked into hotels—one above and another below their own. That way, the couple reasoned, they could somewhat contain the aural havoc wrought by their legendary screaming matches. They needn’t have bothered. Thousands of fans would have paid to be a suite away from “Liz and Dick” at the nadir of their marriage.
Followers of such matters will know that Taylor and Burton married and divorced twice. In what must be the most highly anticipated celebrity biography of the season, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger have taken on the redoubtable task of capturing the wild, untamable spirit of Taylor and Burton’s union, which endured (against incredible odds) for over a decade. “Furious Love” is a smashing good read, a heartfelt tribute to a marriage in extremis that will resonate with anyone who knows how difficult love can be.
They were, in certain key respects, an unlikely couple. Taylor—an American raised in London—enjoyed a comfortable childhood as the daughter of a successful art dealer and actress. At the age of twelve, in 1944, she starred in “National Velvet.” The rest, of course, is history. In later years, Taylor would mourn the youth that early fame had stolen from her. Separated from her peers and spared the usual adolescent rites de passage, Taylor grew up too fast. The tiresome escapades of Lindsay Lohan bear ghastly witness to the perils of childhood stardom—the emotional labiality, the strong drink, the bad men, and so on. Lohan is no Liz Taylor. But then, who is?
From the first, Taylor demonstrated a kind of constitutional sturdiness that distinguished her from other Hollywood stars. Certainly she relished her fame and vocation in ways that eluded Burton—for whom acting was, deep down, a powerful source of shame. The twelfth of thirteen children, Burton came of age in a world unlike any Taylor had known as a girl, a fiercely un-American world that held the theater in contempt as the province of homosexuals, among other undesirables. He had none of Taylor’s good fortune, but he made his own. Talent and drive took him from a bleak mining village in Wales to the stage and ultimately to Hollywood, where, at first, he was a qualified success. At heart he was a Shakespearean actor. Like a number of brilliant British actors after him—Anthony Hopkins, for example—he yearned for the money and acclaim that only the big screen can provide.
If not for Taylor, Burton may not have had either, at least not on the grand scale. Burton had a solid reputation, but Taylor had the Midas touch. When Dick met Liz, he took off. The two became intimately acquainted, magically enough, while filming “Cleopatra.” Burton, of course, played Marc Antony; Taylor received a jaw-dropping $1 million to play the movie’s title role. Both were married at the time, Burton to his first wife and Taylor to her fourth husband. By 1964, they had divorced their spouses. And so began “the marriage of the century” that gives “Furious Love” its dramatic subtitle.
Taylor and Burton were both “mad to live,” in Jack Kerouac’s phrase. They loved to drink, to spend, to travel. Money may not but happiness, but it can’t hurt. Over the course of their marriage, they would make tens of millions co-starring in films. It may be hard now, in these days of inflated Hollywood salaries, to be impressed by the kind of money that Taylor and Burton made in the 1960s and ’70s. But you should be impressed. Taylor and Burton spent with the vulgar panache of Greek shipping magnates. Incredibly, they also worked maniacally hard. For Burton, though, there was little joy in it. “I have never quite got over the fact that I thought and I’m afraid I still do think, that ‘acting’ for a man—a really proper man—is sissified and faintly ridiculous,” Burton once wrote to Taylor. “I will do this film . . . out of sheer cupidity—desire for money. I will unquestionably do many more. But my heart, unlike yours, is not in it.”
There is, inevitably, a lot of drinking and carrying on in “Furious Love.” But the book never reads as a catalogue of hangovers and rows. The authors prudently resist the no doubt overwhelming temptation to diagnose the couple. Taylor’s ability to outperform Burton at the bar speaks for itself. As in any marriage, there were good times as well as bad. It’s the bad times that stay with you when you put “Furious Love” down. Kashner and Schoenberger are at their best when writing about serious trouble, such as Burton’s agonizing struggle to quit drinking or to woo Taylor back after a particularly awful fight. Taylor took a lot of abuse, to be sure. Burton, though, truly suffered. Friends always said that Taylor was tougher than Burton. Probably so. But it’s tough to deny that Burton’s waters ran deeper than Taylor’s.
Taylor and Burton divorced in 1974, remarried in ’75, and divorced again in ’76. That was it. But neither stopped loving the other, or stopped trying to make sense of what drew them together and apart—again and again. “I find it equally difficult, because of my innate arrogance, to believe in the idea of love,” Burton once wrote to Taylor. “There is no such thing, I say to myself. There is lust, of course, and usage, and jealousy, and desire and spent powers, but no such thing as the idiocy of love.”
Burton wasn’t being honest with himself or with Taylor. If anything, he found himself at a loss to explain—to himself—the ferocity and depth of his love for her. But sometimes love isn’t enough, no matter how rhapsodic the sex. If you’ve seen Burton and Taylor as George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” you’ll take my point.