The vibrant Virginia Woolf? aside, Judge Bill Gibron found this box-set overview of Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton onscreen pairings to be less than illustrious in exposing the couple's considerable talent.
Two of the beautiful people make one masterpiece—and three minor missteps
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
The Sandpiper (1964) Score: 80
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1965) Score: 97
The Comedians (1967) Score: 60
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)
The Sandpiper (1964)
The Comedians (1967)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
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.
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.
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.
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Scales of Justice, The V.I.P.s
Perp Profile, The V.I.P.s
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The V.I.P.s
Scales of Justice, The Sandpiper
Perp Profile, The Sandpiper
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Sandpiper
• Bonus Featurette: "The Big Sur"
Scales of Justice, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
Perp Profile, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
• Commentary by directors Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh
Scales of Justice, The Comedians
Perp Profile, The Comedians
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Comedians
• Bonus Featurette: "The Comedians in Africa"
Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.