|Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1966 film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?|
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? either echoed or anticipated the tempestuous, all-absorbing marriage of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Burton had pushed Taylor to do it to improve her confidence and reputation as a real actor, something that had taken a beating in the reviews of their first film together, the out-of-control epic Cleopatra.
But Burton was still wrung out from having given a great performance during the difficult shoot of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. First-time director Mike Nichols — hand-picked by Taylor — said, “He was the loneliest man I had met.”
“The broken, tender yet brutally tongued man here spoke words that echoed his own life and which ricocheted off the set and into the dressing rooms, into the house,” wrote biographer Melvyn Bragg in Richard Burton: A Life. “Elizabeth went up to 155 pounds and transformed herself into what Richard often called her — in fun? — a termagant. Their rows were nasty.”
Bragg notes, nevertheless, how his performance supports hers. “The crack of the dialogue — no doubt well rehearsed by Nichols — is entirely paced by Burton. He hammocks almost every sentence she speaks and lifts what could have been mere shrillness into that damaging desperation.”
So you could read their love between the lines, and something else within the lines. “’Virginia Woolf’ took a toll,” Bragg wrote. “When they separated for the first time (years ahead), Elizabeth said that she was ‘tired of playing Martha.’ Richard in his journals admits to a nature which, and not only in drink, could be ‘picky,’ ‘twisty,’ ‘nasty,’ ‘quarrelsome’ and the film licensed that. In one scene, she had to spit in his face. Nichols demanded take after take and Elizabeth eventually cracked up, wept, couldn’t do it anymore. Again on one occasion, Burton simply could not leave his dressing room — not drunk — couldn’t find the nerve to suffer the exposure that the part brought.”
Their greatest film together, Virginia Woolf brought an Oscar for Taylor but not Burton, whose go-it-alone attitude had once alienated too many people in Hollywood.
“Must we always make films together?” Burton once groused. “We’ll end up like Laurel and Hardy.”
As quick with a quip as Martha, Taylor replied, “What’s wrong with Laurel and Hardy?”