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.
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.