For anyone that reckons film stars are “just like us”, Furious Love provides definitive proof that that is just not so. Chronicling the notorious love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (the authors, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, claim they were inspired to write the book after a young theatre graduate, on hearing of the Burton-Taylor relationship, exclaimed he had no idea that Elizabeth Taylor had been married to Tim Burton), it leaves you in no doubt that, were they around today, Liz n’ Dick would never be off the front pages of Heat magazine.
The book’s title, as the narrative very quickly establishes, could not be more apt – theirs was a love that could not have burned more furiously if it tried. Events kick off on the set of 1961’s sprawling epic Cleopatra, where the already-married actors ignited their passionate affair, with outrageous, flamboyant and basically insane anecdotes peppering every page. The on-screen kiss that got longer with every take, until the director was reduced to finally shouting ‘Does it interest you that it is time for lunch?’ The love letter Burton writes to Taylor describing ‘your divine little money-box… your baby bottom and the half-hostile look in your eyes when you’re deep in rut with your little Welsh stallion’. Taylor’s then husband, Eddie Fisher, telephoning their villa only to be answered by Burton who, when asked what he was doing there, proclaimed ‘What do you think I’m doing? I’m fucking your wife!’ How Burton didn’t believe Elizabeth’s claims that she would kill herself for him, prompting her to stuff herself with sleeping pills to his face and ending up in hospital having her stomach pumped. Taylor waking up one night to find Eddie Fisher pointing a gun at her head saying, ‘Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. You’re too beautiful’.
This is all just the first chapter.
This tumultuous account of ‘Le Scandale’ (which had them denounced by the Vatican no less) gets things off to such a rollickingly compulsive start that the rest of Furious Love barely has time to catch its breath in response. The couple’s rise and fall follows in a mostly chronological order, taking in their various films together and apart, their travels around the globe, the gross extravagance, their omnipresence in the press (probably responsible for the state of celebrity-culture as we know it), their alcohol-fuelled fights and sweary trade of insults, their energetic love-making and unquenchable lust for each other, Burton’s declining heath, Taylor’s declining career, their break-up, re-marriage and re-break-up and finally Burton’s death. Despite the fact that Taylor is still alive some thirty years on, the book pretty much peters to an end from there – it is a history of their relationship together and simply not interested in whatever they may have done apart.
The major boon for Kashner & Schoenberger is that Furious Love was written with Taylor’s approval, allowing them exclusive access to her previously-unseen love letters from Burton (hence the ‘divine little money-box’ earlier). As a result, the book is a little too in awe of Elizabeth – not a chapter passes where we aren’t reminded of her flawless beauty, how she was even more stunning without make-up and most importantly, that she was never ever ever fat, whatever anyone else may (frequently) say. It’s a shame, then, that the few pictures within fail to properly convey Taylor’s beauty and especially annoying when the authors make protracted reference to specific photos, only for them never to appear. Similarly, the narrative falls short of criticising Taylor for continuing to drink when Burton was trying to remain sober (an obvious contributing factor in his repeatedly failing to do so) and spends too long justifying her love for jewels (apparently she’s a custodian of their beauty rather than their owner although she expected a ‘present’ from every director she worked under).
However, the inclusion of Burton’s letters (though Taylor never seems to write any back) makes up for this. There’s really no need for the authors to bang on too much about his love of language as the vitality, vividness and inventiveness of his writing shines through, evident even in his casual conversation. Able to switch from lyrical eroticism one minute to x-rated banalities the next, here he compares her to a pen:
‘You are heavy like the pen – your ass, your tits… Pendulumed like an infinitely desirable clock… And since we’re talking of pens and you, how [to] watch the ink splurge out of the pen… reach[ing] out from the depth of the divine body. Will you, incidentally, permit me to fuck you this afternoon?’
Don’t worry, it’s not all vaguely pornographic – he’s just as enthralling when signing off with ‘I love you ghastily and terribly and horribly’, fashioning another bizarre nickname for her (Lumps, Twit-Twaddle, Shebes) or scrawling dreamy poetry on the back of her photo (‘She is like the tide, she comes and goes… In my poor and tormented youth, I had always dreamed of this woman. And now, this dream occasionally returns… If you have not met or known her, you have lost much in life’). This was a man who could make probably make drinking a cup of tea sound riveting.
What Kashner & Schoenberger do capture is the uncomfortable disconnect between Liz n’ Dick – their extravagant public persona, laden in jewels and extolling each others virtues on the front pages of magazines – and Elizabeth and Richard, who just wanted to have barbeques in their backyard, drinks in the pub and escape to Wales. As Furious Love progresses, it becomes clear that these two constructs were irreconcilable, even destructive, and that no one was more aware of it than the pair themselves. They are also keen to stress the parallels between art and life, sometimes too tenuously as they exactingly recite portions of scripts to compare the films Taylor and Burton made together with events in their private life. However, it becomes increasingly clear that the movies really were no match for the drama of real-life.
It’s all told in an easy and highly readable manner, yet one that happily stops short of tabloid sensationalism. It’s utterly compulsive stuff as each chapter drips in glorious ridiculous anecdotes that make Brangelina’s clan look like The Brady Bunch. There’s the couple’s yacht, decked out with Picasso paintings and Burton’s thousand-strong library, which served as the ‘world’s most expensive kennel’ to prevent their menagerie of pets having to do quarantine (Taylor had to spend $1000 every 6 months refurbishing the carpets as none were house-trained). There’s room service ordered not just from whole other countries, but whole other continents (sausages and bacon from Fortnum & Masons, since you ask). There’s Elizabeth wondering what one of her Pekingese puppies is chewing on, to discover it was the La Peregrina pearl, given to Mary Tudor in 1554 and acquired for $37000 as a gift from Burton. There’s the couple’s on-set trailer crashing onto the cliffs below to horrified gasps at the blood oozing out of it; turns out it was just the copious amount of tomato juice they had on hand for their daily (morning!) Bloody Marys. There’s Elizabeth making an impromptu appearance on stage during Richard’s rendition of Under Milk Wood to declare ‘I love you’ in Welsh. And all backed by a motley crew of cameos from stars more than worthy of their own biographies – Wallis Simpson, Grace Kelly, Princess Margaret, Aristotle Onassis, Montgomery Clift (and an amazing appearance from Rex Harrison’s wife, who drunkenly masturbates her own dog) – plus an ever-present mob of fans, paparazzi and a coterie of offspring, animals and hangers-on.
Despite clocking in at 400 pages plus and spanning over twenty years, Furious Love tornadoes past at a frantic speed and seems over far too soon; you’ll probably be left panting for breath by the end. Overall, Furious Love may not be the finest, most accurate or best-written tribute to either Taylor or Burton’s lives or careers but what it does entirely capture is the spirit of their mad, bad and dangerous passion. The lasting impression is of a love that was too intense, too tempestuous and too all-consuming for even the most rich, famous and beautiful couple in the world. “Just like us”? I think not… and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton & The Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner & Schoenberger, JR Books, 2010