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Elizabeth Taylor: Before Brangelina, There Was Liz and Dick

Although she went on to become an early AIDS activist, Taylor and Burton were the hottest — and most explosive — couple of their day

By Leah Rozen

Get ready. Lindsay Lohan, the troubled starlet, has signed on to play the title role in Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story, a TV movie for the Lifetime channel about the violet-eyed film star’s tempestuous romance with fellow actor Richard Burton.


For anyone under the age of 30, much of what will happen on screen will come as news. Was Taylor really that beautiful? Was Burton that dashing? Did the news media and paparazzi go that completely crazy over the two? And was Cleopatra (1963) as giant a gobbler as it looks to have been?


Yes, youngsters, to all of the above.


It will come as a surprise to them because, for anyone born after 1980, Elizabeth Taylor was pretty much a punch line. “How fat is Liz Taylor?” Joan Rivers would ask, and then answer, “So fat, her thighs are going condo.”


To most members of Generation Y, Elizabeth Taylor was until her death a year ago simply a much-married one-time movie star who now palled around with Michael Jackson, hawked a signature perfume and raised money for AIDS. As for Richard Burton, forget about it. He’d been dead since 1984.


Here, for those who weren't there to witness it, is the easiest explanation for the unending fascination with Dick and Liz: They were the Brad and Angelina (as in Pitt and Jolie) of their day. They would have been dubbed Diz if they were carrying on today, or maybe Rizbeth or Lizard.


Whatever they were called, fans and the press couldn’t get enough of them back in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was a case of opposites attracting and going kaboom.

Taylor was already an Oscar-winning, four-times-married star when she met Burton. She had become a Hollywood A-lister at age 12, when she rode a horse to fame in National Velvet (1944). Throughout the 1950s, her sultry beauty shone on screen in such major films as Father of the Bride, A Place in the Sun, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Butterfield 8, for which she won an Oscar as Best Actress in 1960.


Along the way, she had wed four times: to hotel heir Conrad Hilton Jr. and British actor Michael Wilding, both of whom she divorced; to producer Mike Todd, who died in a plane crash; and to crooner Eddie Fisher, who left wife Debbie Reynolds to console Taylor.


That was her situation in 1962 when she began filming her scenes for Cleopatra in Rome with Burton, the handsome, golden-throated Welshman who had once been considered the heir to Laurence Oliver as England’s greatest acting talent. Burton had made his name in plays by Shakespeare and others on the British stage, become a movie star in The Robe (1953), and wowed Broadway as King Arthur in Camelot (1960).



He was cast as Mark Anthony to Taylor’s Cleopatra (Rex Harrison was playing Julius Caesar) in an epic biopic about the ancient Egyptian queen. Though at the time each was wed to someone else — Taylor to Fisher and Burton to actress Sybil Burton — the attraction between the two was immediate and obvious. They embarked on a flagrantly public affair, and the press went wild, taking sides (Team Liz or Team Sybil?), and their mugs were slapped on magazine covers week after week.


It went downhill from there. The two exchanged rings in 1964, drank and fought prodigiously, costarred in a few good movies (most notably Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966) and a host of lousy ones (remember Boom!?), divorced in 1974, reconciled and remarried a year later (“Liz Gets Dick Back,” I wrote in a smutty headline in my college newspaper at the time, thinking I was being clever) and then divorced for good in 1976.


Taylor went on to marry twice more, as did Burton. Both continued to star separately in mediocre movies for several more years and appeared together on Broadway in 1983 in Private Lives, Noel Coward’s sophisticated comedy about — wink, wink — a divorced couple who rekindle their romance upon discovering that they (and their new partners) have adjacent hotel rooms.


What did the Taylor and Burton phenomenon all mean? Not much, really. Every generation has their reel-to-real version of Liz and Dick. Before Liz and Dick, there was Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, Janet Lee and Tony Curtis, and — one of the few star couples to go the distance — Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Since Liz and Dick, there have been plenty more, including Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, Beatty and Diane Keaton, Beatty and Madonna, and Beatty and Annette Bening. And don’t forget Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (the start of the combine-the-names trend, with Benifer) and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.


Movie stars fall in love. Movie stars break up. Movie stars sell magazines. Movie stars plus bad behavior drive traffic on the web. The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Don’t believe me? Joan Rivers is recycling her old Liz Taylor jokes, only now she substitutes Kirstie Alley or one of the Kardashian sisters as the punch line. The question remains what she'll do with her old Lindsay Lohan jokes: “I was just reading about the new Lindsay Lohan diet, which is all liquid — 80 proof.” And “Lindsay Lohan said she wouldn't mind being under oath because she thought Oath was a Norweigian ski instructor.”)

Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade. Read More
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