After the interview with Lauren Collins on Saturday, the second event for Damian Lewis at this weekend’s New Yorker Festival was a play reading of Lawrence Wright’s Cleo, with Damian Lewis playing the part of Richard Burton to Lily Rabe’s Elizabeth Taylor.
We’re all pretty familiar with “le scandale” that brewed behind the set of the filming of the most expensive production of its time, right? Lawrence Wright’s script gives us a story built around the events of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s combustible love affair during the filming of Hollywood blockbuster Cleopatra.
Hollywood Reporter did a review of the reading here. And here’s a bit of the background to the story of Cleo: Grieving over the tragic death of one of her true loves, Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor had married Eddie Fisher, whom she had stolen away from his wife and mother of his children, Debbie Reynolds. At age 30, Liz Taylor had already been in the limelight for nearly half her life. She was a child star raised in and owned by film studios, who used her at their pleasure to insure box office success. When she was approached to play Cleopatra, she was already a household name. As such, she became the first person, man or woman, to demand and receive $1 million for a film role.
The production of Cleopatra was interrupted by Liz’s near-death bout of pneumonia. By the time she recovered, the film had already been through several iterations of changing writers and directors. In its final incarnation, reknowned director Joseph Mankiewicz took over the helm. And Richard Burton was newly cast as Mark Antony.
Though not as famous as Liz, Richard Burton was no slack himself. He had shown great promise as a theatrical actor, and, in fact, took on the role of Antony to help finance a return to London theater. But fate, apparently, had other plans. Even as his career went in an entirely different direction than planned, Burton went on, after Cleopatra, to hit the mark as the top box office earner for 1971.
So, the scene is set. Here we have Liz Taylor, glorious beauty of ebony hair and violet eyes, with men falling in love with her at every turn. In Wright’s script and Lily Rabe’s performance we viscerally feel Liz’s longing to be seen for the woman she is behind the stunning beauty. She longs for the one thing that anyone who looks like her can never have: ordinariness.
Along comes a Welsh ox of a man, straight out of the coal mines. Hard-drinking, irreverant, unabashedly rude, irrecoverably sloshed and wounded man-child who has the uncanny skill of spouting iambic pentameter between burps and swigs of vodka. Richard Burton was essentially orphaned as a child (his mother died when he was 2 after which his father floated in and out of his children’s lives in a drunken stupor) and raised by his sister and brothers. He spoke his true mind always and never held anything back. And Liz needed that.
Liz has said of meeting Dick on the set of Cleopatra: “‘His hands were shaking and he had the worst hangover I’d ever seen,’ she said. ‘And he was obviously terrified of me. I just took pity on him and that was the beginning of our affair. He is a very sexy man, with the sort of jungle essence one can sense’.” As for Richard: “he would much later describe her as ‘the most astonishingly self-contained pulchritudinous, remote, removed, inaccessible woman I have ever seen’, adding, for good measure, ‘Our love is so furious that we burn each other out’. ” This article goes on to make the assertion that “In the long run, for Taylor the scandal was not much more than a blip in her reign as the Queen of Hollywood; for Burton it was the making of him as an international movie star, but the ruin of him as an actor.”
Ruined or no, the Richard Burton of Lawrence Wright’s script was certainly poetic. At once slurring sexy innuendos at this vivid buxom beauty in front of him, next making a joke out of their co-star Rex Harrison (“Oy there, you old fruit.”), then waxing thoughtful and philosophical about the nature of fame and celebrity, next breaking out in Welsh ballads. The rhythm driving all of Richard Burton’s banter was controlled impeccably and flawlessly by Damian Lewis.
You hear people talk about Damian Lewis and his charisma. But what does that really mean? Google tells me charisma is “a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.” Check. And, “a divinely conferred power or talent.” Divine? Who knows. But, okay, sure, another check. In short, charisma is something ineffable (yet, here I am trying to “eff” it); you simply know it when you see it. The way Damian holds up his end of this role? You see it. In spades. Bear in mind, this was essentially a table reading, but Wright’s words combined with Damian’s delivery made the heat of it all intensely palpable. Witness how, in moments of intimacy, Damian would lean over and read from Lily’s podium.
Damian’s concentrated lingering over pronouncing the Welsh just right, alone, was enough to elicit vapors, as the Austenians would say. Unfortunately, I don’t have the vocabulary to describe an accent so I go to my old friend Wikipedia to learn that Welsh has “A strong tendency (shared with Scottish English and some South African accents) towards using an alveolar tap.” Whatever that means translates very readily to plain old: sexy as all hell.
Was Burton actually as poetic in real life? Vaguely recall interviews of him being rather put-off by the engine of Hollywood and unwilling to contribute anything more than the bare minimum to keep the liquor flowing and the demons of a harsh childhood at bay. He was certainly literate and a master of Shakespearean delivery. Some viewed Richard Burton as the natural successor to Laurence Olivier. And for a time he may have been. Richard Burton once said, “The only thing in life is language. Not love, Not anything else.” Indeed, when Richard Burton died, he was a buried with a copy of Dylan Thomas’ poems. (But, dare I say it, the only successor I see to Laurence Olivier in this time and place is that guy up there in the header to this blog)
Both Liz and Dick were hiding behind their profession and neither of them seemed to have anything in their lives beyond it. Sure, Dick was then married to a woman with whom he shared children and a long nurturing history. But, Liz had been floating from marriage to marriage, chronically optimistic that her next would be her last. I remember Elizabeth Taylor saying that whereas other women had serial affairs, she simply felt compelled to marry the men in her orbit and make a real go of it, despite all odds.
Liz’s then current husband Eddie Fisher was a safe placeholder. Everyone, including Eddie, knew that he was out of his league with Liz. He was high on amphetamines, high on his idea (read: delusion) of the promise of his career. Eddie Fisher had a talent and a name, I suppose, but he was like the second act to the really desirable crooners of the day like Sinatra. Eddie Fisher was a mid-level crooner, and, dare I say, he wasn’t much of a husband and father either. In Wright’s production, Robert Petkoff as Eddie plays this all beautifully, his eyes going watery at the thought of losing Liz, seeking advice from Cleopatra‘s producer, Walter Wanger, played by Robert Vaughn (remember the original Man from U.N.C.L.E.? Yes, that Robert Vaughn). Walter had been similarly cuckolded and paid the price by spending some time in jail for going so far as to shoot at a delicate region of his wife’s paramour. Vaughn’s performance was slight and understated but very present for the rest of the script.
Indeed, the script seemed to cover all the marks. You go in expecting a two-man show of just Dick and Liz and the elephant in the room, their undeniable chemistry, on stage. But, instead, you get a gallery of storied performers who know their parts and put the concentration into delivering it all right. All the performances worked beautifully. You have the director Mankiewicz, played by Bruce Altman, with his soon-to-be-lover, the sweet shy production assistant from London, Rosemary Matthews, played by Katherine Leask. In one memorable scene Joe implores Rosemary to not take Liz’s tantrums to heart, telling her Liz is rather weak and needs love. To which Rosemary reasonably replies “What?!? She’s fucking Elizabeth Taylor.” And we get Dick and Rex Harrison doing the “Englishman in the Colonies” bit with them bonding over Liz’s implicit sexiness and the fact they are both there to milk the tit of Hollywoood for all she is worth. One could intuit something of Damian’s own career in that sentiment. If so, then by all means, consider me one Yank offering permission to milk away, please.
Yes, there was absolutely an ensemble cast on stage. But when it was just Dick and Liz in the scene? The scene set in his trailer or in hers? They were pretty much the only people there, not only on stage, but in the entire house. Simply riveting. Not an easy task to convey lust without touch or even a rare facing towards the object of your lust, but Damian’s Dick and Lily’s Liz managed to put it all out there. The words between them were sensuous and saucy and sordid. Damian’s growly delivery of Dick’s Welsh-infused sexy talk… worked. As did Lily’s ebullient laughter as Liz.
I wasn’t familiar with Lily Rabe before this and I only just learned that she’s Jill Clayburgh’s daughter (loved her!). The part of Liz Taylor showcases Rabe’s stunning voice: gravelly, thick and throaty, perfect for reaching out all the way back to the cheap seats, and so reminiscent of the head bitch in charge that was Liz Taylor. A thick voice over the soft heart, Liz Taylor was never truly able to cover up her soft middle. Lily Rabe wonderfully captured Liz’s willingness to throw back vodka shots, and pills, and duck drumsticks and thighs, damn the consequences. Liz lived large and like a diva. She was hardened by an entire life spent in Hollywood, yet, she never made any effort to hide an innate vulnerability. Actually she longed to be seen for all she was. .This show’s Liz never truly got over losing Mike Todd. She was defeated as far as love goes. She knew she could have any man she wanted and only really wanted one who would stay and love and just BE with her. Rabe’s plays the defeat peppered with occasional sparks of an effort to exert some control over her career and her life. She would fight and flay and then fizzle out beautifully into soft tears of defeat. Liz knew from Day One that Dick was a dick. But she also knew they couldn’t stay away from each other. My approximation of a telling line in the script “He touches parts of me no one has even seen before.” Liz Taylor was chronically optimistic, hell bent on survival. She was never a whiner. All of this and more is captured in Wright’s script and Lily Rabe’s performance.
And Richard? Well, he was an in-your-face asshole, holding nothing back, a gadfly too smart for his own good. He had a wife who had met when he was just a boy, who had stood by him for years and filled the gaps left by his damaging past. He owed her and loved her. But maybe her very existence reminded him of his damage and neediness. Unlike his wife, Liz gave Dick an out, a release. And the longing to “empty himself into her” overpowered any of the brutish defenses he put up to keep her from destroying his marriage.
Yes, these two were entitled spoiled brats of the Hollywood engine. But in this performance, you couldn’t really resent their sense of entitlement. They were both so openly expressive of their inherent meekness, their neediness. They were slaves to their reputation. There’s a great line in the play that I don’t remember exactly. Something about how a reputation leads you into a room and takes all the light off of you so all people see is it and not you. Damian’s Richard growled “Ah, reputation, that annoying bugger, always entering a room before you.”
Often with live theater, the intensity of it all can sometimes be too much and the mind just wants to take a break during lulls in action or dialogue. I can happily say that, in this production, there were absolutely NO lulls in dialogue and direction (deftly done by Bob Balaban). This is not just me saying this. As the ladies standing in line for the loo after the show were sharing where they’d come from to experience the “nerd holiday” that is the New Yorker Festival, one woman asked another what she thought of the reading and she said something akin to “I was there the entire time, it never lost me.” Indeed, it never lost me either. And I look so forward to this making it to production and coming back to New York with the same cast.
Getting back to the production on which this production was based: Cleopatra surpassed all expectations of problems on set (assistants in Rome killed by mines leftover from WWII!) and was operating under way over budget, really unreal expenditure. The script was good as far as words go but the production was over the top in every way: elaborate sets built of buildings that wouldn’t, in historical reality, be built until years later, thousands of extras hired, a fiasco of gold lame and short short skirts, way above the mid-point of the thigh, and that just for the male cast members.
Amidst the passionate declarations of sovereignty by Julius Caesar and state hood by Cleopatra, the actors playing the characters were engaged in their own passionately relevant story behind the scenes. The production devolved from a struggle between giants on the very fate of the Roman Empire to a ridiculous spectacle of a cheesy love triangle between Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra. The love triangle behind the scenes between Dick and Liz and Eddie was much more vivid, in that it was real and sad and involved children.
But the chemistry. Oh, it was real too, the minute they were thrown together as Antony and Cleopatra, the first kiss that wouldn’t end despite the director’s admonitions to “Cut!” One presumes, and this script indicates, that both Liz and Dick sought to uncover in each other whatever was left of themselves that was real and not owned and operated by the studios. Their meeting was a head-on collision and their chemistry was like nothing anyone on set had ever seen before. A scene of curtains cut away by a foil-covered cardboard sword on the surface was in reality metal striking hot as soon as these two met.
It was sure a treat to see the first reading of Cleo and it’ll be even more of a treat seeing this script get to production. For his part, Damian gave it his all as he always does. He has emptied himself into us time and time again. But, luckily, Damian Lewis contains the proverbial multitudes. And I, for one, am confident there is much more where all this came from.