Vanity Fair and Esquire contributor Kashner and Schoenberger (Creative Writing; William and Mary; Hollywood Kryptonite, the Bulldog, the Lady, and the Death of Superman, 2006, etc.) examine the union of Hollywood actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, larger-than-life figures who inspired the fevered fascination of their public and presaged the current age of media obsession with the private lives of celebrities.
Burton and Taylor were no strangers to notoriety before their fated meeting on the notoriously troubled production of their film Cleopatra (1963). When the two married stars brazenly flouted their new romance, a scandal of international proportions was born, prompting a media obsession with the couple that endured for decades. The Burtons gave good value. Their many health crises, career reversals, jet-set milieu, fabled screaming matches, sexual provocations and indulgences in luxury provided ample grist for the gossip mill, creating a virtual cottage industry out of Burton-watching. The authors’ view of the star-crossed thespians is overly sympathetic, detecting poetic depths of tragedy in behaviors that will likely strike the average reader as grotesquely immature, selfish and gratingly repetitive. The Burtons squabbled, made conspicuous love, occasionally made indifferent or outright poor films and spent lavishly on jewels, houses, yachts and oceans of alcohol. The glamour of their lifestyle begins to pall as it becomes evident that the couple was essentially a pair of privileged toddlers, indulging whims and throwing tantrums before a raptly scandalized world audience. The book is really Burton’s story, and the authors provide solid material on his humble upbringing, large, close family and his early incandescent stage career. Also compelling are the many excerpts from Burton’s personal correspondence, revealing an intelligent, articulate man hobbled by maudlin self-loathing and weakness of character. Taylor remains the remote, regal movie star, coddled and indulged since early childhood. Her monstrous sense of entitlement is easy to understand but difficult to stomach. The Burtons made significant contributions to cinema, but this book’s focus on their romance seems misplaced. In the words of Burton’s beloved Shakespeare, their story is merely full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
A well-researched but critically toothless and ultimately depressing record of epic vulgarity and emotional incontinence.