"Burton and Taylor," the new TV movie that aired Wednesday evening on BBC America, dissects the famous couple's infamous 1983 reunion when they decided to star in a revival production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives."
Playing a divorced couple whose contentious relationship was not far removed from their own, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor received some of the worst reviews of their careers. The production opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York in the spring of 1983 and then toured the country, with a stop in Beverly Hills at the Wilshire Theatre (now the Saban Theatre).
Tickets for the Liz and Dick Show were listed at between $13.50 and $38.50 in L.A. (This was 30 years ago.)
A review of "Private Lives" in The Times called it a "flat but acceptable pass at Coward's comedy." The show was produced by Taylor's short-lived theatrical producing company, which was intended to mount revivals of classic plays as vehicles for the actress.
The play's poor reception wasn't the only setback that Taylor experienced during "Private Lives." Burton ran off to Vegas during the show's run to marry wife No. 5, Sally Hay.
Ironically, "Burton and Taylor," which starts Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter, has been getting more raves than "Private Lives" did. Times critic Mary McNamara called it "a surprisingly thoughtful excavation of a love that is both undeniable and untenable."
Here's the full review of "Private Lives," by former Times theater critic Dan Sullivan, from 1983:
Noel Coward once said that he'd travel first-class, and he'd travel third-class, but he'd be damned if he'd travel second-class.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's version of "Private Lives" at the Wilshire Theatre is not, God knows, first-class.
Put it somewhere between second-class and third. In some scenes it's a flat but acceptable pass at Coward's comedy. In other scenes it's Liz and Dick crassly spoofing themselves in public. It's part "Private Lives" and part private joke.
The TV commercials for this show are no lie. For as little as $13.50 a seat (or as much as $38.50), you get to see the twice-married Burtons acting together in a play. And doing a better job of it, I must say, than they did on Broadway.
That's not to say a good job of it. We only see Coward's runaway lovers, Elyot and Amanda, now and then -- signaling through the fog, as it were. That is, we see Elyot, whom Burton is perfectly qualified (in fact, overqualified) to play. Amanda? No way. But Liz brazens her out more amusingly than before, and when she and Burton get into a shoving match in Act II, I must admit, I laughed.
That's because -- and there's no nice way to say this -- Taylor at her present weight (well up from what it was on Broadway) looks like a Big Tank McGurk in pink lounging pajamas and a black wig. She looks perfectly capable of bumping the gingerly Burton clear out of the ring. Later, she hits him smack on the head with a breakaway vase. Oof! Bang! Ouch! Do you suppose they really used to fight like that?
As for the reset of the show, a modicum of good taste has crept in. On her "Marriage… scares me, really" line, Liz no longer looks at the audience and counts to 50, not only inviting, but demanding, a laugh at the comical thought of her many weddings. Now she only counts to 25, looks at Burton, and they both solemnly nod.
But the restraint doesn't go too far. Burton still gives Taylor's bosom a chummy passing squeeze -- you wouldn't get that with Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford. In general, Burton seems more relaxed and happier than he did in New York. Where his Elyot once seemed on the verge of announcing the death of an extremely close relative, there is now at least the ghost of a twinkle. "Fishwife!" is read with relish, as is "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs."
Liz still reads Amanda's lines with a mechanical sarcasm more appropriate to Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," a role she ought to try on the stage if she intends to keep up with this new career. Most actresses find a vulnerability under Amanda's cheekiness. Taylor is all cheek. The crowd loves it.
Let's have a word for the actors supporting these two lions. As in New York, John Cullum makes Amanda's new husband, Victor, a funny, earnest man whose shoes seem too big for him. Charlotte Moore is new to the show and a vast improvement over the actress who played Elyot's new wife on Broadway -- not a dodo-bird, but a sensible woman wrongly confident of her ability to supplant the fascinating Amanda. Helena Carroll is good as the maid, too.
If seeing Coward's play doesn't particularly interest you, but seeing Liz and Dick in person does, there is a way to do this on a budget. Some New York friends split the cost of the tickets with two other couples each seeing one act apiece -- which was enough to get the general impression. They met for dinner later and compared notes. At the preview I attended, Act I began about 8:35, Act II about 9:30 and Act III about 10:10, with about 20 minutes between intermissions.