The relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor appeared to blossom when they were both on the set of Cleopatra. The epic film was famous, not for the success of the film but more for the near bankruptcy of the studio and for the romance that blossomed between the two. Warner Brothers has recently been releasing groups of films surrounding various film icons, and this set of four titles focuses on the two acting giants.
The V.I.P.s was the first film after Cleopatra for both performers, and ironically enough they play a married couple on the downside of a marriage. Taylor plays Frances and Burton plays Paul, a wealthy businessman who treats Frances as more of a business chore than anything else, until one day Frances decides to leave Paul and for the waiting arms of Marc (Louis Jourdan, Octopussy). Marc is a gigolo but seems to have reformed for Frances. Frances and Marc are about to fly to New York until fog keeps them in, along with a few other notable individuals. Les (Rod Taylor, The Birds) is a rather convincing Australian businessman who is desperate to get to America to change a business deal that will save him financially, and his secretary Miss Mead (Maggie Smith, Clash of the Titans) will help him try to accomplish that. Max (Orson Welles, Touch of Evil) is trying to get out of England for tax purposes, and will even resort to marriage to try and do it. Margaret Rutherford (Blithe Spirit) won an Oscar in her role as the elderly Duchess.
Written by Terence Rattigan (The Browning Version) and directed by collaborator Anthony Asquith, the film goes in a different direction from the usual stories about people stuck at an airport. It’s equal parts romantic comedy and heartbreaking drama, but I was particularly disappointed in the performances. Taylor doesn’t really offer too much, Burton is a little bit better, I don’t know what the hell Welles was doing. Rutherford was fun in her role and if anything, Taylor was probably the one who tried hardest in the film. Call it about three stars overall (out of five), but Taylor and Burton married months after this film wrapped, so they’ve got the bigger keepsake than I do.
The first film that Taylor and Burton did after this was The Sandpiper, based on the story by Martin Ransohoff (Jagged Edge) and directed by Vincente Minnelli (An American in Paris). In it, Burton plays Dr. Edward Hewitt, the married minister of a private school, who has begun an undertaking to try and raise and cultivate the mind of Danny, who is portrayed by Morgan Mason, son of James. Anyway, Danny’s mother is Laura Reynolds, a very liberated free-spirit who likes partying with friends, namely Cos (Charles Bronson, The Great Escape). Edward becomes intrigued by the strength that Laura exhibits when dealing with Danny, and it begins to permeate his being and question his faith, and also doubt his marriage to his loving, supportive wife, Claire (Eva Marie Saint, Grand Prix). Soon, Edward is drawn sexually to Laura, and he also manages to see and understand more of what the beatnik crowd Laura runs with may be talking about.
I really enjoyed The Sandpiper far more than The V.I.P.s, probably because Burton’s internal struggle with his character was compelling and interesting. He managed to make it as real as possible, and any choices he made were his own. Saint’s performance as Claire is really good, making you wonder why Edward would do such a thing. But Taylor is so striking and so beautiful you begin to understand why. You might not like it, but you could certainly understand it. In between those three performances and a story that focused more on the guilt of Edward, I’d probably put this in the three and a half to four star arena.
The Comedians is the last title in the set, and another daring outing for the Burton/Taylor combination. Adapted for the screen by Graham Greene (The Quiet American) and based on his novel, the film, directed by Peter Glenville (Hotel Paradiso), the film is set in Haiti during the times of the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier. Mr. Brown (Burton) is a businessman in Haiti, who does not have an allegiance to the government, but does manage to help Americans and others with lucrative deals with the country for whatever they might need. In Martha (Taylor), Brown finds a woman he’s in love with, but whose marriage to Manuel (Peter Ustinov, Spartacus) constricts her from being more forthcoming with Brown. Brown finds out about a British Major (played by Alec Guinness, Bridge on the River Kwai) who is arrested and detained in a Haitian jail for an inordinate period of time. He finds out about this from Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Paul Ford and Lillian Gish, respectively), who find a common friend in the Major.
The film itself is interesting in the sense that Burton portrays a bit of a Haitian Rick Blaine of sorts, and Taylor puts on an accent that is a little comical. But to the film’s credit, it shows a lot of things that not many other filmmakers would have shown during that time, and it certainly does its level best to show the seedy underbelly of a Duvalier Haiti and the injustices it levied on the people. The supporting cast is quite strong, but the movie’s third act seems to fall apart on itself, which for a film of this length (two and a half hours) is a gamble that doesn’t pay off. While I admire the intent, I’d give it a two and a half or three star ranking.
The undisputed jewel of the set is a new edition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Adapted from Edward Albee’s play by Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest) and directed by then-rookie director Mike Nichols (Working Girl), Burton and Taylor play George and Martha, a longtime married couple who trade barbs at each other with regularity. George is a college professor, and Martha is the daughter of the university professor. One night, Martha invites a much younger married couple over to their house, a science professor named Nick (George Segal, The Cable Guy) and Honey (Sandy Dennis, Sweet November). Over the course of their night, which stretches into morning, as Nick and Honey watch George and Martha’s relationship disintegrate, and it slowly permeates into their marriage.
The film itself is a showcase of amazing performances and rightly so, each member of the cast received an Oscar nomination for their work and Taylor, who gained 30 pounds for the role, won her second. George and Martha are a couple who are well-aware of the venom they spew at one another, but they almost seem to take pleasure in seeing the faults in other previously-assumed good relationships. When Martha crosses a line of discretion that her and George shared, George decides to scorch the earth of civility of the night, listening to secrets that Nick confides in him about Honey and her family, and cuts to the quick of Martha whenever possible, both before and after she decides to sleep with Nick.
All in all, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains an excellent film, not only for the dialogue that’s communicated, but by those doing the communicating. All of the performances are perfect and is an exceptional snapshot into the portrayal of a doomed relationship. The film is probably a four and a half or five star piece of virtuoso acting.
The V.I.P.s arrives in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen that shows quite a bit of its age. The image isn’t too clear in parts, and there’s a cut of some sort that’s very sudden around the 59:30 mark. There’s not a lot of color in the film, so don’t sweat too much here. Such is the case for its follow-up The Sandpiper. There’s some more color in this 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, with a little more edge enhancement than on the first disc, but the colors stay fairly vivid during the film without any excessive bleed. The Comedians arrives in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation as well, and everything looks pretty sharp consistently. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes alive in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Though it’s the only one in black and white, it’s pretty consistent throughout, though there are a couple of times during the film where the image clarity drops. I’d say this is as good as it’s going to look.
The V.I.P.s gets mono treatment, which is no real surprise here. Everything is either dialogue or music and sounds fine, so don’t worry about how this almost 45 year old movie sounds. The Sandpiper is mono as well and sounds a little bit better, but nothing worth cheering about. Ditto for The Comedians and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The early films don’t really have too much to speak of. In fact, The V.I.P.s doesn’t have anything on it, while The Sandpiper has two dated featurettes; one focusing on the big redwood statue that was created in Taylor’s likeness, and the other is on the Big Sur in California, the location used in the film, and a piece narrated by Burton, talking about the beauty of the area. The Comedians features a piece on the film’s location shoot, and that’s about it.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is far and away the one title that sports the most extras. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s commentary is retained from the first film, which provides a pretty good wealth of information, but in a new twist, Nichols and director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) join forces for a discussion where Nichols talks about the film. On the second disc, there’s an hour-long look at Taylor that was made sometime in the early to mid ’70s, hosted by Peter Lawford and featuring interviews with Minnelli, Rock Hudson, Taylor’s mother and several others. It’s not really too biographical and is more appreciative, so it can be skipped. After that are two looks at the film itself. The first is called “A Daring Work of Raw Excellence”, and includes interviews with Albee, Richard Schickel and others as they discuss how the film was realized from the play, and other production stories like how Nichols came to the film, replacing John Frankenheimer, and the fight to keep as much of the play intact as possible.
“Too Shocking for Its Time” discusses the dialogue that was incorporated in the film, and how shocking it was for the day, and MPAA President Jack Valenti throws in his two cents on why the film was important. There’s some dated interview footage with Nichols, and there’s a screen test with Dennis and Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes), who read as Nick for the five or ten minutes of footage that’s here.
The Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton Collection features four films from the most charismatic and talented actor and actress combination of all time. The four films that are included in the set are fairly compelling films that tell daring stories, and almost all of the performances from the pair are outstanding, including one of the best acted films ever. For film fans, these are absolutely worth checking out and perhaps adding to your collection.