Case Number 10791

THE ELIZABETH TAYLOR/RICHARD BURTON COLLECTION

The V.I.P.s
Warner Bros. // 1963 // 119 Minutes // Not Rated
The Sandpiper
Warner Bros. // 1965 // 117 Minutes // Not Rated
Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
Warner Bros. // 1966 // 131 Minutes // Not Rated
The Comedians
Warner Bros. // 1967 // 152 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // February 8th, 2007

The Charge

Two of the beautiful people make one masterpiece -- and three minor missteps

Opening Statement

She was a studio system beauty, an on-screen delight who became a notorious interpersonal diva both on and off the set. He was the 12th of 13 children, born into a Welsh coal-mining family and famous for epitomizing the mid '50s British youth rebellion with his "angry young man" routine in Look Back in Anger. By the time they met, she was in career stasis (though a recent Oscar for Butterfield 8 had raised her artistic credit) and he was another "on the rise" English thespian. Their pairing and passions were legendary, and public curiosity gave movie studios a less-than-novel idea: Why not pair the paramours in feature films that would highlight their showboating sexuality? Unfortunately, over the course of their status as a couple (both in and out of marriage), Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton left very little of cinematic substance behind. This is especially true when viewed through the narrow light of Warner Brothers' recent reissue of four of the celebs' co-starring vehicles. Aside from their remarkable take on a controversial Broadway play, the duo failed to deliver the kind of on-screen allure that made their off-screen antics so mesmerizing -- and maddening.

Facts of the Case

The V.I.P.s (1963) Score: 81
In an exclusive lounge at London airport, several of the social elite are waiting for their planes to take off. Among them are Paul and Frances Andros (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). He's a wealthy if inconsiderate tycoon. She's the unloved wife on her way to New York. There, she plans on running off with her newfound boy toy, "reformed" gigolo Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan, Swamp Thing). Also hanging out are businessman Les Mangrum (Rod Taylor, The Birds) and his secretary, Miss Mead (Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). He is desperate to get to an important stockholder's meeting in a mad attempt at preventing a takeover of his company. In addition, international filmmaker Max Buda (Orson Welles, Mr. Arkadin) is there with his latest discovery, an Italian bimbo named Gloria Gritti. He has to get out of England immediately or face a heavy fine from the taxman. Then there is the Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford, The Mouse on the Moon). She is off to work in Miami, hoping to save her stately home from the auction block. When unbearable fog rolls in, all flights are delayed. Eventually moved to a nearby hotel, the individuals try to solve their impending personal and professional disasters while striving to maintain the standard expected of The V.I.P.s.

The Sandpiper (1964) Score: 80
When Danny Reynolds is brought before the Juvenile Court once again, his mother Laura (Elizabeth Taylor) is given a choice. Give up custody of the boy, or place him in an exclusive boarding school run by Reverend Dr. Edward Hewitt (Richard Burton). Hating everything that the Establishment and religion stand for, Laura is against the deal. But having no choice, she visits the institution and meets with the headmaster. They do not get along at first. He finds her of morally questionable character. She sees him as a commandant of a children's prison camp. Over the course of the next few weeks, they get to know each other better and eventually fall in love. They begin a torrid affair, much to the chagrin of their friends. Hewitt also has school trustee Ward Hendricks (Robert Webber, S.O.B.) to worry about. He knew Laura when she was in art college and wants the talented painter as a paramour once again. Equally imposing is Laura's friend Cos Erickson (Charles Bronson, Once Upon a Time in the West). He is suspicious of Hewitt's motives, as well as what he stands for in society. When Hewitt's wife Claire (Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront) learns of the tryst, she is devastated. This leaves her husband in a quandary. Does he continue on with Laura or let her fly free, like The Sandpipers that roam around the beach near her home.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1965) Score: 97
George (Richard Burton) is married to Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), a drunken shrew with the mouth of a salty sailor. After a night of partying at her father's house (Dad just so happens to be the president of the university where George works), the couple invites over new faculty member Nick (George Segal, A Touch of Class) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis, The Four Seasons). Amid the free-flowing alcohol and trivial interpersonal pleasantries, it is clear that something is wrong with the host and hostess. Their life is more or less a series of suggestions and mind games, an angry combination of love and hate (more the latter than the former), and there seems to be a suspect undercurrent to their angry competitions of marital one-upmanship. As the liquor gushes, Martha makes her move on Nick, while George digs deep into the young couple's equally unsettled past. As human flaws are exaggerated and tweaked, we soon see that life is nothing but a series of sloppy rivalries for the unhappy pair. George feels stifled by his strumpet of a wife -- she believes that the only way to crack his faded façade is to turn up the vitriol -- and vice. Together, they take all situations to uncomfortable, unnecessary extremes. Even their private in-joke about a famous author rings false. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, indeed.

The Comedians (1967) Score: 60
Haiti. The reign of despot Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. The Tonton Macoutes, the government's secret police, rule the country with an iron fist and a loaded gun. Dissidents and other enemies of the state are publicly executed, their children awakened and forced to partake in the ceremonial savagery. Into this world walk Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Paul Ford, The Music Man, and Lillian Gish, The Whales of August) a pair of vehement vegetarians from America. They want to spend $500,000 opening up a natural food compound in the country. Along for the jaunt are Major Jones (Alec Guinness, Star Wars), who's working some shady deals with the Haitian military, and Mr. Brown (Richard Burton), a hotel owner who has just been to New York in an attempt to sell his failing island business. While the others are shocked at the situation in the country, Brown is used to it. In fact, he's come back to be with the only thing that matters to him -- the wife of a European Ambassador (Peter Ustinov, Topkapi) named Martha Pineda (Elizabeth Taylor). When rebel forces take refuge in the woods, they contact Brown and his friend, Dr. Magiot (James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope), to help their cause. Sadly, they are betting on a bunch of Comedians, isolated individuals destined to make fools of themselves.

The Evidence

They were the quintessential Hollywood couple. She was the superstar, a stellar product of the studio system, more admired for her beauty and ability to bedazzle an audience than for anything remotely resembling acting chops. He was the latest in a long line of British bad boys, famed stage faces who made the transition to America with their mannerisms and moxie intact. They met and fell in love on the set of the spectacular flop Cleopatra, and instantly gave off a carnal energy that the emerging tabloid press could not avoid. Even better, she was already a headline grabber, her several failed marriages, accusations of home wrecking, and numerous medical emergencies turning her into a combustible cause celeb. After waiting for their individual marriages to dissolve, they carried on like youngsters in heat. She was 31 and buxom as hell. He was 38 and bereft of the ravages that an addiction to alcoholism would soon provide. When they finally wed in 1965, it was international news. For many, the pairing of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton replaced the recently destroyed Camelot created by JFK and Jackie O, and for the next ten years their every move was reported, every problem amplified and aggravated by the public's perceived right to know.

Sadly, the films that they finally made together did very little to move the focus off of their personal life. Aside from a certified classic and a couple of well-received romps -- and a second Oscar for the beautiful bride -- their output as a couple was superficial and sullen. Apparently, instead of seeing the noted lovers in roles that matched their fiery interpersonal chemistry, Taylor and Burton were buried in glorified soap slop and the kind of well-meaning slow-burn dramas that more or less destroyed their box-office appeal. It wasn't their fault, wholly. The mid '60s saw a radical shift in the social climate, and the entertainment industry had a hard time adjusting. Instead, they were always playing catch-up. The newly empowered MPAA (thanks to the rise of former Kennedy staffer Jack Valenti) was opening up motion-picture permissiveness while simultaneously setting into action the gears that would see the implementation of the now infamous ratings board. This meant that movies could now take chances, striving for material that would never have been attempted before. Unable to tap into the new wave of frankness fused with art (except in one highly memorable turn), Taylor and Burton were hindered by public discernment and desire matched with their middling marketability. In fact, they represented the original example of tabloid talent. In most cases, the public would rather read about their off-screen exploits than sit through a three-hour dissection of Haiti's horrendous dictatorship.

Representing only a small percentage of their work together, the new Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Collection from Warner Brothers is a must for any pure fan of the pair. There is a creative caveat to be considered, however. As a couple, most of their movies were rather routine -- some would say, even poor. It was almost as if, once married, such a status marred the ability to place them in anything other than standard romantic dreck. While they would occasionally branch out, thanks to more challenging choices like The Taming of the Shrew, the sad fact remains that the duo were pigeonholed, typecast by an industry that only wanted to see them as lovers lost or icons intertwined. When viewing these films individually, one clearly sees this mandate in action. In fact, the best way to understand this box set's value is to consider each film separately in hopes of separating truth from legend, legitimacy of ability vs. the power of myth. Let's begin with:

The V.I.P.s (1963)
It's Love Boat circa the early '60s, except in this case, the very important people grounded and forced to intermingle by some unplanned London fog (???) are all respected actors and actresses, not bottom-feeding B-listers. In fact, if you go into The V.I.P.s realizing that what you are about to see is Peyton Place in an airport (with a layover in a local hotel), you won't be disappointed when the final credits roll. While Burton and Taylor share the biggest storyline, theirs is a narrative made up out necessity and nonsense. We never really understand Taylor's motives for leaving her workaholic tycoon husband and, when Burton finally breaks, realizing his "checkbook generosity" has gotten him a one-way ticket to Dumpsville, his reaction seems out of a maudlin melodrama handbook. No, the best storyline here belongs to Rod Taylor (affecting a rather successful Australian accent) and Maggie Smith. He's the businessman going bust; she's the devoted secretary who secretly loves him. Smith has a scene with Burton that breaks your heart, and Mr. Taylor's take on the rough-and-tumble journeyman CEO is excellent. In fact, one could successfully argue that Taylor and Burton are the weakest link here, what with Orson Welles chewing the scenery as a tax-dodging filmmaker and Margaret Rutherford working her way to an Oscar (though God knows why she won) as a doddering old Duchess. Sadly, they're all in service of a film that is far too long, way too sappy, and overloaded with tedious, talky confrontations.

The Sandpiper (1964)
The Sandpiper is a very strange movie indeed. It's a combination of old-school sexual sizzle with outlandish counterculture conceits. It takes pot shots at religion while it celebrates art and artists in the most mean-spirited way possible. It toys with concepts that we'd find laughable today -- suggested nudity, illegitimate children, young women being "kept" by older men -- and constantly believes it is pushing the boundaries of frankness and controversy with its tawdry interpersonal parameters. Granted, a stacked Ms. Taylor makes for one hot beach bum, and the connection she has with Burton is ballistic. When these two share the screen, we are almost embarrassed for the dirty thoughts they are obviously thinking about each other. One of the clues to the couple's success as an on-screen draw was this inferred indecency, the notion we are watching real-life lovebirds "performing" passionately for our voyeuristic sake. Talk about your proto-porn. The rest of the film is flimsy -- even with expert turns by Eva Marie Saint (as Burton's white-bread wife) and Charles Bronson (as a hippy artist). No, the big problem with The Sandpiper is that it believes itself to be more profound than it really is. There are several moments where social criticisms and political propaganda are laid out in long, laborious passages, and we are supposed to sit back and soak up the impassioned intellectualism. Unfortunately, many of these missives are merely common sense or just plain comical. They don't have the metaphysical heft the movie requires. This leaves us with pretty people pawing each other, and a little of said mid-'60s softcore can only go so far.

The Comedians (1967)
If scientists are ever looking for a way to manage time -- not just to travel through it, but to really slow it down and make it crawl like crippled snails with a bad case of slime based gout -- then all they have to do is thread up a reel of The Comedians and watch as minutes magically turn into millennia. This is one VERY SLOW MOVIE, using its Graham Greene-derived narrative to highlight the horrors of "Papa Doc" Duvalier's Haiti. Instead of dealing with the issues directly, confronting our fears and making us aware of the sad state the island citizenry lives in, Greene and director Peter Glenville channel every evil through the experiences of its lily-white cast. This kind of well-meaning mirror, meant to help Westerners relate to the weirdness of the international realm, was gangbusters back when television could barely tackle local news. But thanks to advances in technology and awareness, the use of such stunt showcasing is quite unnecessary. This is why The Comedians feels so tedious. Instead of using the inherent drama in the circumstances, it has to invent more (adultery, political posturing, the whole "meat is murder" angle) to give us the baby steps required to accept the premise. Aside from the bizarre casting of Paul Ford and Lillian Gish as a couple of staunch health nuts, everyone else here is basically going through the motions. Burton and Taylor are barely on screen together, and even then, her whiny sniveling is about as sexy as heat stroke. There is a great story to be told about the horrendous years that Duvalier (and his successor son) ruled Haiti with death and persecution. This is not that film -- not by an epoch-breaching long shot.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Welcome to a box-set epiphany. After a trio of movies that make little sense in the overall dynamic of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's on-screen legend, along comes this fantastic adaptation of Edward Albee's prize-winning play, and all previous filmic flaws are forgiven. Thanks to his friendship with the British actor (they appeared down the street from each other while both were on Broadway), soon-to-be-celebrated director Mike Nichols takes on the scathing domestic dark comedy -- a bizarre combination of screaming, seduction, and stridence -- and delivers a modern American masterwork. Though he had to tone down the Great White Way version's vitriolic language (gone were all the "F" bombs and graphic sexual suggestiveness), Nichols kept the soul of Albee's work, maximizing its impact by using the most famous faces in '60s celebrity to play two of literature's most unlikable marrieds. Albee was originally told that Bette Davis and James Mason would be heading up the motion picture's cast, and was unsure of Nichols's ability behind the lens. But thanks to their public popularity, the sharpness of the material, and the couple's compelling plea to be considered, the 40-year-old Burton and 34-year-old Taylor transformed themselves into the moldering, moving-beyond-middle-aged pair who pervert an evening with unsuspecting guests via their intricate, insidious games of fact and fantasy.

The results are just resplendent, an exercise in overkill that reaps more rewards the further it expands its excesses. Both Burton and Taylor are given a chore many actors couldn't command. They have to find a core of human decency in which are, essentially, two vile, reprehensible human beings. Part of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s magic is this emotional excavation. By alternating our perception of the couple, making George both sad and sinister, his wife Martha loutish yet lonesome, we are constantly off-guard about what to think. At any given time, we root for and despise our leads, waiting for husband to manhandle henpecking wife, only to see how such a strategy both fuels and obliterates her. In a legacy that proffers few examples of real performance acumen, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? delivers the Taylor and Burton of lore, the artists beyond the headlines and tabloid scrutiny. If you look to the movies they made together and separate, across the entire length of their careers, it is hard to find another example of such a nuanced, all-encompassing thespian expertise. Taylor is truly delicious here, frumped up to reduce her inherent beauty and let the real loathsome Liz shine through. She truly deserved the Oscar for her work. But Burton is no slouch, shifting in his equally unkempt manner, turning George into a devious, defeated bastard who only wants that one last chance to overpower his domineering wife. Add in the equally excellent work of George Segal and Sandy Dennis (turning drunken ditziness into an epic poem) and you've got one of post-modern Hollywood's greatest efforts.

All of which makes this incomplete collection all the more troubling. There is, frankly, nothing in The V.I.P.s, The Comedians, or The Sandpiper that can remotely come close to the overall brilliance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? As a matter of fact, when viewed side by side, one gets the distinct impression that the trio of lesser efforts offered here are being used to bolster Woolf's cinematic excellence. From a performance standpoint alone, Taylor more or less sleepwalks through The V.I.P.s and The Comedians, delivering a kind of hushed subtlety that renders her characters mere expositional cogs. Only in The Sandpiper does she show the kind of gumption that gives Virginia Woolf? its considered kick, yet it's being offered inside a drippy hippy bit of counterculture malarkey that overshadows its minor moments of excellence with huge, gaping flaws. As for Burton, he is best when not required to play the sensual suffering schlub. Certainly, assistant history professor George is no man of mettle, but he holds his own when necessary. The tepid tycoon of The V.I.P.s and the miserable minister of Sandpiper barely have a pulse. They are stoic statues stuck in storylines that offer little except languid lustfulness. At least The Comedians allows the actor the chance for change, to take his gravitas and channel it against a disturbing political backdrop. While it can't hold a candle to Woolf, it proves that there was more to his pairing with Taylor than slow-burn stares and hefty on-screen chemistry.

In general, The Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton Collection is a commercial dodge, another in a long line of odd DVD pairings that place magnificent stand-alone titles (in this case, the stellar Virginia Woolf? two-disc special edition) with a few companion pieces to ratchet up the compendium's commercial viability. It's not that Warner Brothers does anything morally invalid by matching a masterpiece with two silly soaps and a painful political misfire. Indeed, they provide decent tech specs throughout. All four titles are offered in near-pristine anamorphic widescreen transfers. The V.I.P.s, The Comedians, and The Sandpiper are all delivered in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, while Virginia Woolf? represents a less expansive 1.85:1 image. Aside from the occasional over-reliance on soft focus to gussy up the glamour, these prints are excellent and visually evocative. As for the aural elements, it's flat Dolby Digital Mono all the way -- not that it matters much. The overuse of the Oscar-winning song "The Shadow of Your Smile" in The Sandpiper not withstanding, there is no real need for substantive sonic settings. All the dialogue is easily discernible, and the ambience neither helped nor hindered by these basic mixes.

When it comes to added content, it becomes painfully clear why this collection was created. The V.I.P.s offers nothing contextual, while The Sandpiper and The Comedians provide the standard Warners publicity pieces of the era. Each one of these minor movie vignettes, meant to focus on production problems in Africa (subbing for The Comedians' Haiti) or Big Sur (Sandpiper's California setting) are intriguing, but not very insightful. It's too much hard sell and not enough real behind-the-scenes substance. Thankfully, Virginia Woolf? makes up for the paltry digital packaging by delivering a wonderful two-disc dissection of the film. On Disc 1, we are treated to a pair of excellent audio commentaries. First up, Haskell Wexler explains how he came to be part of the film (he was brought in to "pretty up" Elizabeth Taylor after original cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr. was fired) and the various techniques he used to realize director Nichols's goals. Then the filmmaker himself -- along with special guest guide Steven Soderbergh -- takes the trip down digital memory lane. Describing how he came to direct the film, his work with Taylor and Burton, and even a few backstage secrets about the production, this fascinating narrative track sheds a whole new light on Virginia Woolf?'s already mighty mystique.

Disc 2 continues the dissection of this amazing movie. The new featurettes, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Too Shocking for Its Time" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: A Daring Work of Raw Excellence" walks us through the play's impact, the scandal surrounding its subject matter and language, the issues in bringing the work to the big screen, and some more delicious behind-the-scenes gossip. Each documentary does a delightful job in contextualizing Edward Albee's work for a post-millennial audience. Similarly, a 1966 Today Show interview with Nichols reflects the tone of the times and allows us to actually witness the aftershock of Woolf?'s entertainment earthquake. Toss in Sandy Dennis's screen test and a collection of trailers, and you've got a terrific DVD overview of a timeless cinematic classic. It's just a shame that the same effort couldn't have been lavished on the rest of the films in the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton Collection. It would be interesting to place these frequently flawed efforts into the proper commercial and career perspective, especially considering the impact the relationship between these two megastars made on the viewing public.

Closing Statement

Avoiding the continued praise for Virginia Woolf? for a moment, it is necessary to defend the inclusion of The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper, and The Comedians in this simple, sell-through set. Though they represent Hollywood filmmaking at its most basic and trivial, all three do stand as a testament to how badly the industry wanted to capitalize on Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's tumultuous talent and personality. When your actors are already larger than life, it must be next to impossible to find material that matches their already overblown cinematic personas. While many could argue that publicity made the pair more important -- socially and artistically -- than anything they themselves could actually bring to the table, a walk through this quartet of movies makes the case for both Taylor's and Burton's ability as stars. If you come to this collection hoping for a foursome of excellence, you'll leave unfulfilled. But if you give The V.I.P.s and The Sandpiper their due, and remand The Comedians to the realm of poor decisions, you'll come away valuing the couple's creative canon. In the world of celebrity and fame, there were no bigger names than Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It's too bad that, with a couple of rare exceptions, their motion-picture output is more infamous than distinguished.

The Verdict

Not guilty. While far from perfect, this decent collection of Taylor/Burton films does a wonderful job of exposing what made this pair so popular and perplexing. Court dismissed.

Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice, The V.I.P.s
Video: 90
Audio: 80
Extras: 0
Acting: 85
Story: 75
Judgment: 81

Perp Profile, The V.I.P.s
Video Formats:
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)

Subtitles:
* English
* French
* Spanish

Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The V.I.P.s
* None

Scales of Justice, The Sandpiper
Video: 94
Audio: 82
Extras: 40
Acting: 82
Story: 70
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile, The Sandpiper
Video Formats:
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)

Subtitles:
* English
* French
* Spanish

Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1965
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Sandpiper
* Bonus Featurette: "The Big Sur"
* Bonus Featurette: "A Statue for The Sandpiper"

Scales of Justice, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
Video: 98
Audio: 90
Extras: 90
Acting: 100
Story: 98
Judgment: 97

Perp Profile, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)

Subtitles:
* English
* French
* Korean
* Portuguese
* Spanish

Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
* Commentary by directors Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh
* Commentary by Cinematographer Haskell Wexler
* Vintage biographical profile: "Elizabeth Taylor: An Intimate Portrait"
* Featurette: "A Daring Work of Raw Excellence"
* Featurette: "Too Shocking for Its Time"
* 1966 Mike Nichols Interview
* Sandy Dennis Screen Test
* Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton Movie Trailer Gallery

Scales of Justice, The Comedians
Video: 89
Audio: 80
Extras: 50
Acting: 80
Story: 58
Judgment: 60

Perp Profile, The Comedians
Video Formats:
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)

Subtitles:
* English
* French
* Spanish

Running Time: 152 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Comedians
* Bonus Featurette: "The Comedians in Africa"

Accomplices
* IMDb: The V.I.P.s
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0057634/combined

* IMDb: The Sandpiper
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0059674/combined

* IMDb: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0061184/combined

* IMDb: The Comedians
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0061502/combined