“Burton and Taylor” 9 tonight, BBC America
San Francisco — “Burton and Taylor” is the biographical film that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor deserve. Not only does it capture the essence of the two outsize icons of film and scandal, it also brings them in for a humanizing close-up.
The film, airing Wednesday on BBC America, stars Dominic West (“The Wire”) and Helena Bonham Carter (“The King’s Speech”). They may not look exactly like Burton and Taylor, but they’re immediately convincing in the title roles simply because they are such gifted actors.
Skillfully crafted by William Ivory (“The Invisibles”), the script homes in on what was certainly the single most ironic moment in Burton and Taylor’s tumultuous personal and professional relationship: the 1983 stage revival of “Private Lives,” Noel Coward’s masterpiece about former spouses who coincidentally end up at the same hotel while honeymooning with their current mates. To add to the obviousness of the former battling Burtons sharing the stage, the protagonist’s wife in the Coward play has the same name as Burton’s first wife.
Ivory and director Richard Laxton (“Him & Her”) are smart enough to avoid trying to milk the irony. To use an annoyingly popular phrase, it is what it is. Or, more accurately, it was what it was.
Besides, there’s no need to announce the theme of “Burton and Taylor” when it’s so perfectly realized by the actors.
Although it’s Taylor’s idea for the twice-divorced couple to bring a “Private Lives” revival to Broadway, she says, at least, that she’s never read the play when she and Burton meet for the first day of rehearsal. Soon enough, it’s clear that her real motivation is because Burton is still a huge part of her life. And she is just as important to him.
That doesn’t mean they get along all the time, however. They fight, they love, they laugh, she drinks, he tries not to. Each thinks of the other as the greater actor, and they are both right. In the film, Burton recalls their first scene together in “Cleopatra.” He had learned every line and rehearsed his delivery meticulously. She showed up on the set and didn’t seem to be acting at all, just speaking in a costume. Then he saw the dailies, and realized how brilliant Taylor could be and how he, by contrast, was noticeably “acting.” He was a trained stage actor, while she had spent her professional life playing to the camera.
Burton was unquestionably better in “Private Lives” than Taylor, but of course, the audiences were there to see her. From tryouts in Boston to the New York run, their own “private lives” have their ups and downs in the BBC film, which prompts Taylor to break character and begin mugging for the “Private Lives” audience, incurring Burton’s fury. She promptly becomes ill, far too conveniently to be believed, and the production has to be shut down because the audiences don’t want to see an understudy.
While waiting for Taylor to recover, Burton goes off to Las Vegas to marry his fourth and final wife, Sally Hay. Taylor, who has been indefatigable through the rest of the film, is momentarily broken, convincingly vulnerable, and we understand more than ever how deep their feelings were for each other.
All of this would be so much Hollywood melodrama were it not for a superb script and stunning performances by West and Carter. In some ways, West has the more difficult job, because Burton is more restrained than Taylor.
At this point in his life, Burton’s health was declining and he had not made peace with whatever secret demons had haunted him. There’s a sense of resignation about the character, the lion in winter, brought back to remembering robust youth only in the presence of Taylor.
The only mildly interesting aspect of the dreadful Lifetime movie “Liz and Dick” — names Burton and Taylor abhorred, by the way — was that Lindsay Lohan vaguely looked like Taylor if you were really, really myopic. Carter doesn’t resemble Taylor all that much, but she is Taylor, in a definitive and entirely convincing way, because she acts the hell out of the role.
There’s the voice, for one thing. Taylor had an almost childlike, girlish voice in casual conversation. But then she’d let loose that bawdy cackle and the real Elizabeth would reveal herself. Carter plays her as self-indulgent, but surprisingly, not insufferably so because getting her way and having people attend to her are all she’s ever known. She makes sure she is always the center of attention in any room, but Carter makes sure we see the vulnerability beneath the surface.
“Taylor and Burton” covers only the final chapter in the rich and often rollicking saga of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — he died the following year in Switzerland. But in many ways, it’s especially revealing, far more than the scandal in Rome, the two marriages and two divorces, the jewels, the booze, the headlines.
Private lives, after all.