People who actually knew Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton never called them Liz and Dick. The late actors abhorred the tabloid shorthand. They nicknamed each other Lumpy (referring to her body) and Pockmark (referring to his face). Acquaintances addressed them as Richard and Elizabeth. Otherwise, it was Mr. Burton and Ms. Taylor, thank you.
Like its title, BBC America's new biopic Burton and Taylor is classier and closer to the truth than last year's campy Lindsay Lohan-led Lifetime pic Liz & Dick. Richard (Dominic West) and Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) don't reunite in the afterlife. Only one unlucky liquor bottle — they were notorious alcoholics, pill poppers and fighters — gets flung across a room.
"I didn't want a road crash," maintains British screenwriter William Ivory (Made in Dagenham). "I wasn't interested in saying, 'Look at these people — they're drunks, they're on drugs,' and laughing at them. They were bloody good together, and I wanted to remember that."
So he set Burton and Taylor in 1983, 21 years after the couple met on the Rome set of Cleopatra and began a scorching love affair (they were both married) that got them condemned by the Vatican for "erotic vagrancy." They'd already made 10 films together, garnering more than $200 million. They'd been married to each other for 10 years, then divorced, and then remarried before getting their final divorce in 1976. By '83, Richard had wed a model and Elizabeth a U.S. senator, but neither of those unions lasted. They were grandparents, and he still wrote to her regularly.
"It's a time in Elizabeth Taylor's life that hasn't been portrayed. It's a love story for the over-fifties," says Bonham Carter. "She was probably at her most vulnerable. She wanted Richard back, but he knew that, though he loved her, he couldn't. A classic case of can't live with, can't live without."
Elizabeth, then 50, convinced Richard, 57, to costar with her in a Broadway revival of Noel Coward's comedy Private Lives, about two exes who have a chance encounter while honeymooning with other people, dump their new spouses and give it another go. Audiences loved the similarities to the stars' private lives and wondered whether they were getting back together.
But off stage, the critical backlash crushed Taylor, while Burton stayed aloof. "So much of Richard's time was spent trying to stay sober," West says, "trying to resist booze and Elizabeth Taylor, two of his favorite things." In a little over a year, she'd be in rehab and he'd die unexpectedly in his sleep from a cerebral hemorrhage.
"When we think of Burton and Taylor, we think of them in their prime, when they're doing Cleopatra, when they were young and in love and tempestuous and romantic," says West. "This is romance in twilight, and it's about the sadness of growing old and physically weak and not being a superstar anymore. It's sad when anyone approaches death, but it's somehow more profound when they blazed so bright in their life."
Burton and Taylor airs Wednesday at 9/8c on BBC America.