The holiday season seems a great time to watch new films and catch up with the waiting list. One film long on my list has been Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I knew enough about the film and had seen enough clips to know it would not be the typical feel-good holiday watching. But I also knew enough about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s history together that any film starring the two of them would be a scalding glimpse into their mad love story.
What does all this have to do with Damian Lewis, you wonder? Well, one of the Top Moments in 2015 for Damian Lewis was his reading the role of Richard Burton in Lawrence Wright’s Cleo at the New Yorker Film Festival in October. And because Damianista and I were there, front row center, it’s a TOP moment for us too! There we were rapt in attention as Damian belched his way into the script and, despite the fact that the show was simply a table reading, proceeded to channel the rude, sexy, and perpetually drunk Welshman to a tee.
These days when every couple who appears on screen together is promptly given a squish name, and a fandom devoted to their One True Pairing, it’s easy to lose site of where it all came from. Burton and Taylor were the first real-life/onscreen couple who, with their love story, arguably birthed the paparazzi machine. The film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf also birthed what we now know as official MPAA ratings on films released in the U.S. Suffice it to say, the film implied a fair amount of violence and plenty of sexual innuendo, but, of course, because it’s 1966 never openly expresses either. What was “Fuck you” on the page of Edward Albee’s play became “Screw you” on stage. By the time it got to the big screen, it was no more than a shocking-for-its-time “God damn you”. What puritans we are, gosh darn it.
Yes, the tale of Burton and Taylor is legend. The affair, the marriages, the drinking, the diamonds: audiences at the time ate it all up. Thus, even those of us a couple generations removed, are familiar with the story of “le scandale.” They say that comedy is tragedy plus time, and in Cleo, Wright provides an often dramatic, sometimes personal and consistently humorous window into what brewed behind the set of the filming of Hollywood blockbuster Cleopatra, the most expensive production of its time.
Now 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. 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. 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.
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 become the top box office earner for 1971. Burton’s friend Laurence Olivier famously warned “Do you want to be a great actor or a household word?” Richard Burton answered “Both!” And, by some estimates, he may have been the first actor to succeed, at least for a little while, in that dangerous mix.
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. 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…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….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 Wright’s script was certainly poetic. At once slurring sexy innuendos at this vivid 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. 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. Some things are hard to turn off.
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? I 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.” (But, dare I say it, the only successor I see to Laurence Olivier in this time and place…as I’ve said before…is that guy up there in the header to this blog)
Wright’s script seemed to cover all the marks. You go in expecting a two-man show of just Dick and Liz and their undeniable chemistry on stage. But, instead, you get a gallery of storied performers who put the concentration into delivering it all right. 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. 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.
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. The minute Dick and Liz were thrown together as Antony and Cleopatra, the first onscreen kiss refusing to end despite the director’s admonitions to “Cut!” Their meeting was a head-on collision and their chemistry was like nothing anyone on set had ever seen before.
Lily Rabe wonderfully captured Liz’s willingness to throw back vodka shots, and pills, damn the consequences. 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 beautifully the fight and flay and then the fizzling out 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. 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.
Both Burton and Taylor were slaves to their reputation. There’s a great line in the play… 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).
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.