Le Scandale

When Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson last year, the media worked themselves into a frenzy. It was just like the scandal back in 2005 after Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie, when Jolie was characterised as a heartless homewrecker. But this was nothing to the treatment meted out to Elizabeth Taylor fifty years ago when she dared to have an affair with Richard Burton on the set of the movie Cleopatra.

Burton was known for sleeping with his leading ladies while his wife Sybil turned a blind eye. No harm done. He was only doing what actors have been doing since time immemorial. But the public still hadn’t quite forgiven Elizabeth Taylor for stealing husband number three from American sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. She had form.

Elizabeth Taylor's trailer on the set of Cleopatra.

Elizabeth Taylor’s trailer on the set of Cleopatra.

Once news of the Burton-Taylor affair became public, paparazzi followed everywhere, leaping in front of them to explode flashbulbs in their faces and besieging them in their homes on location in Rome. Taylor was condemned by the Vatican cardinals, no less, who called her “an erotic vagrant” and an unfit mother. An American congresswoman, Iris Blitch, tried to pass a motion banning her from ever returning to the United States because her behaviour “lowered the prestige of American women abroad” and “damaged foreign relations with Italy”. And after filming was over, Twentieth Century Fox sued her and Burton for $50 million, claiming Cleopatra would earn less money because the public were so horrified by their antics.

All bets were that Burton would have his fun, while bumping up his price per picture through association with the most famous woman in the world, then he would return to Sybil as he always had in the past. They had the same Welsh roots. They had two daughters together, one of whom was autistic. All their friends and his extended family were on Sybil’s side.

But that’s not how it panned out. His affair with Taylor was tempestuous and dangerously addictive. He gave her a black eye; she made him buy her fabulous jewels. He turned up drunk at a dinner party at her villa and in front of guests made her choose between him and then husband, singer Eddie Fisher. She chose Burton, thus ending her fourth marriage when she was still only thirty years old. Over the next year, she gradually lured Richard away from Sybil with a combination of porn-star bedroom techniques, witty repartee, occasional suicide attempts, and a capacity for alcohol matched only by his own.

After much toing and froing, by Cleopatra’s premiere in June 1963, Richard had finally told Sybil their marriage was over. He lost everything in the divorce – his family, his money, his friends in the English theatrical world and, some said, his credibility as an actor. In return he got the woman he called his “wildly exciting lover-mistress”.

I couldn’t resist writing about events on the film set in my new novel, The Affair, which comes out in May. Of course, all shoots have their problems, but the Cleopatra one was exceptional: it had a budget that started out at $2million but ended up more than twenty times that (adjusted for inflation it’s still the third most expensive film ever made); a star who demanded bowls of chilli to be flown in from Chasen’s in Los Angeles and insisted she needed days off when she was menstruating (or had a hangover); and a huge cast hired for a ten-week shoot who ended up staying for ten months, most having the time of their lives.

Against the backdrop of ancient Rome, Burton and Taylor were creating their own mythology. It’s easy now to characterise them as ego-driven alcoholics who collided and hurt others in the collateral damage; they were original couple who were famous for being famous. But that would ignore the body of exceptional work they created both together and individually: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Under Milk Wood, Where Eagles Dare, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Burton’s theatre work was legendary. Taylor’s charity work, especially for AIDS, was hugely influential.

As the 50th anniversary of the Cleopatra premiere approaches, and Richard Burton’s star has finally been laid next to Elizabeth Taylor’s in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, maybe it’s time to remember them as actors who achieved great things, as well as entertaining the world with what they themselves referred to as Le Scandale.

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Celebrities in Love

If you struggle to maintain a healthy relationship spare a thought for poor celebrities, who have the odds stacked against them when it comes to love.

First of all, there are four people in a celebrity relationship: him, her, his public image and hers. We all want someone who makes us feel better about ourselves, but celebs want someone who makes them feel good on a personal level and who enhances their public image at the same time. Agents and publicists often get involved in matchmaking celebrity clients, choosing partners who will generate the most favourable column inches. They don’t want their client to be with a man who makes her look needy or unloveable; if things go wrong, she has to be the one to leave because it’s not sexy to be left. It’s an arranged marriage based on the worst possible criteria.

Celebrities are narcissistic. Their egos are fed so much by the press and fans and their big bank balances that they genuinely believe they are better than the rest of us. But there’s a tiny part of them deep down that feels unworthy and this terrifies them, making them need more reassurance than most. It’s lonely at the top, and many celebrities have trouble finding people they can trust, when family members and old friends succumb to the lure of the tabloid chequebook. That means they have to put all their eggs in one basket and expect their celebrity partner to be all things to them: lover, parent, best friend… a pressure that would damage most relationships. Yet that very loneliness means that as soon as (or preferably before) one relationship breaks up, they are on a hunt for the next person to fall in love with. And that’s why they keep getting married again and again.

The more space a particular celeb takes up in the tabloid media, the more likely it is that their marriage will fail, according to John Tierney and Garth Sundem, who studied the subject for The New York Times. They even came up with a formula to predict the chances of a celebrity’s marriage succeeding http://nyti.ms/ZUbvfc.

Rule number one: if a woman is a sex symbol given to wearing skimpy clothing in public, the marriage is doomed. Sorry, Katie Price and Kieran Hayler…

Rule number two: there are bound to be problems if one partner is much more famous than the other, or much wealthier than the other, because it means there is an inherent imbalance of power. Sorry, Kate Winslet and Ned Rocknroll…

Celebrities don’t have time in their busy schedules for long courtships when they try out different things and get to know each other. They hook up, the press gets wind of it and starts asking “Will they wed?” and the pressure is on. But a whirlwind courtship is one of the clearest indicators that a marriage will fail. If there are less than six months before the big day, it’s likely they’ll be in the divorce courts within six years. They’re marrying because they have sexual chemistry instead of taking time to learn mutual respect, trust and affection.

It used to be said that selling coverage of the wedding to Hello! Magazine was a sure sign the marriage wouldn’t last, and this may well still be true. Other key signs include:

• Getting tattoos of each other’s names. When he broke up with Winona Ryder, Johnny Depp had the tattoo ‘Winona Forever’ turned into ‘Wino Forever’ but they can’t all be so neatly transformed.

• Having a lavish fairy-tale wedding lets them be prince and princess for the day but indicates they are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

• Playing romantic roles in which they kiss other actors on screen is inevitably going to lead to infidelity sooner or later.  It’s an occupational hazard.

• If there have been several marriages before the current one, its chances are substantially lessened. Look at the previous relationships and you’ll see where the fatal flaws lie. (Will Tom Cruise ever stop trying to convert his wives to Scientology? Probably not…)

Dick and Liz on POST cover 001

I’ve been writing about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in my latest novel The Affair (due out on 23rd May). The odds were heavily stacked against their relationship working: she was much more famous and much wealthier than him; she was constantly photographed in low-cut gowns; she had already been married four times; she consumed her body weight in prescription drugs and both were at the start of a lifelong love affair with booze. The fact that their first marriage lasted ten years says something about their huge attraction to each other that clearly transcended the physical.

All her life she’d been praised for her beauty but Richard Burton was the first person to tell her she was intelligent, with opinions worth listening to. He even told her she was a good actress, which is pushing it some. On his side, he fell for her thoroughly modern outlook and her caustic, bawdy wit. She didn’t nag him not to drink; she let him be the dominant one and they had a lot of fun – while it lasted. Ten years first time round, then a quick remarriage of nine months duration.

He moved on to find happiness, peace and sobriety with wife number four, Sally Burton. Elizabeth Taylor remarried countless times but always looked back with nostalgia at the great love of her life, with the man who played Anthony to her Cleopatra.