‘Erotic vagrancy’ or: When Elizabeth met Richard

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So many books have been written about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — and the most important movies they made together — that you would think the well ran dry on “Liz & Dick” fodder many years ago.

But Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger take a new approach — and unearth lots of new material — in “Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century,” which Harper is publishing next month.

Kashner and Schoenberger were given access to a cache of never before published love letters from Burton to Taylor — provided by Dame Elizabeth — offering us new insights into the intense relationship between the stars (even after they were divorced – twice!).

The writers do a good job of showing how Taylor and Burton helped to launch the sexual revolution of the 1960s with their flagrant extra-marital affair on the set of “Cleopatra” in Rome in 1962.

It wasn’t that Taylor and Burton were the first celebrities to cheat on their spouses, but they were probably the first movie stars to receive career boosts from an international scandal, proving that things were much different in the early 1960s than they had been just a few years earlier.

The Vatican newspaper denounced the couple for what it termed “erotic vagrancy” but they went on to become the highest paid and most talked-about couple of the decade.

The Burtons also had the power to push Hollywood to grow up with their landmark film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (below) in 1966. Based on an Edward Albee play containing foul language never before uttered in a movie, the film led to the creation of the movie rating system which in turn enabled filmmakers to produce late 1960s strictly adult fare such as “Midnight Cowboy.”

Burton gave Taylor more credibility as a dramatic actress and she in turn made it possible for the stage star to become one of the most popular and most respected film stars of the 1960s. The book reminds us of the extraordinary run Burton had during his Taylor years — from “Becket” to “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” to “Virginia Woolf” to “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Together, the couple dominated the mid-1960s with a series of big box-office movies that included such soapy nonsense as “The V.I.P.s” and “The Sandpiper” as well as the Albee and Shakespeare hits.

Ironically, the couple saw their movie fortunes change quickly with the changing pop culture of the mid-to-late ’60s.

Taylor, in particular, suffered from the emergence of a new sort of female star (and body type). Even though she won her second Oscar, for “Virginia Woolf,” in the spring of 1967, the star’s days were already numbered:

“…Elizabeth was being bested by younger, slimmer, trendier stars such as Vanessa Redgrave and Anouk Aimee, whom she vanquished for the Academy Award, but who embodied the new, bony, androgynous look that Elizabeth would never have. The voluptuous woman as the ultimate film goddess was on her way out.”

Offscreen, the excesses of their relationship also caught up with Burton and Taylor by the end of the decade — years of drinking too much and drugging too much took their toll and by the early 1970s both stars were viewed as icons of another era.

Taylor and Burton might be largely forgotten by today’s core moviegoing audience, but the scandal template they created almost 50 years ago — with their notoriety as hedonists often overwhelming the work they did as actors — is still being used by the supermarket tabloids and the Internet gossip sites.

Joe Meyers

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  1. This book sounds great, Joe! As always, you put every novel, memoir play, and movie in a social, political, and cultural context and enlighten all of us!!! Love you, L xoxo