The romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is about as amazing as anything Hollywood could ever come up with. The two fell in love during the filming of Cleopatra, during which time they were both married to other people. Within a few years they had divorced their spouses and married one another. That marriage lasted for nearly a decade and then hit the rocks. Less than 18 months later, they were remarried. Their second marriage lasted less than 10 months before ending in another divorce. During this time together the two starred in a number of films and even if the movies were less than stellar, Taylor & Burton had fantastic chemistry.
Warner Brothers has taken four of their collaborations and put them into a boxed set this holiday season, and for fans of classic movies and this star-crossed couple it would assuredly make a great gift. Included in the set are: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2-Disc edition), The Comedians, The Sandpiper, and The V.I.P.s. For Woolf, Taylor received her fifth Oscar nomination for Best Actress and won for the second time. Burton was honored with his third consecutive Best Actor Oscar nomination for the same picture (though he failed to secure the statue).
Some movies that Burton & Taylor made together are absolutely timeless. A film like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf seems just as fantastic a film today as probably ever has. Nichols direction of Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Albee’s play not only provides a wonderful list of names to attach to it, but shows what great talents are truly capable of.
Others don’t always seem that special years later, and The Sandpiper unquestionably falls into that category. This is a film about a priest that falls in love with the Bohemian mother of one of his students. The problem lies in the fact that not only do these two people live in exceedingly different worlds, but the priest happens to be married too, and to Eva Marie Saint no less. While choosing between Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Marie Saint may be a difficult task, it seems to me that if you already have one of them, and are married to them, and consider yourself a man of the cloth, your choice is made for you. Burton’s character seems to feel differently. And, inexplicably decides to pursue Taylor’s Laura Reynolds.
Maybe the wayward priest falling in love with the outsider and having a crisis of conscience was new and different 40 years ago, but today it certainly has the feeling of having been played out… repeatedly. Sure, the movie looks great (all the films in the set look fantastic), and Big Sur is beautiful, but there are really no moments in the film that aren’t telegraphed for today’s audience. This may have been the case 40 years ago as well, but I prefer to give The Sandpiper the benefit of the doubt.
The other two DVDs in the set, The V.I.P.s and The Comedians, lie somewhere between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Sandpiper. The V.I.P.s looks at the lives of several important/rich people as they wait for a flight to take off from London. All of them, for various reasons, find it crucially important to leave that day, for one person it’s to sign papers and save his company, for another it’s a tax dodge, and for Elizabeth Taylor it’s to leave her husband, Richard Burton, before he goes home and discovers her Dear John letter. Sadly, due to fog, the airport is closed, all flights are delayed, and the various “VIPs” have to scramble in order to salvage their lives. The film develops in interesting ways, and is a pleasant enough diversion. The moments between Taylor and Burton feel a little overly melodramatic, but that is certainly a common enough occurrence in their films.
As for The Comedians, despite its name it’s a very serious look at the lives of people in Haiti under the rule of Papa Doc (Francois Duvalier). This film is much more Burton’s than Taylor’s, though she does play an important role. Burton is a Haitian citizen, recently returned in order to try and salvage his hotel. He quickly however finds himself embroiled in the political affairs of the country and the resistance to Papa Doc, despite his desire to stay out of it all. Taylor is the wife of an ambassador with whom Burton is having an affair. The historical context and political intrigue that surround this film are absolutely fascinating and provide a wonderful backdrop for the goings on. Sadly, the Taylor/Burton relationship in the film feels strained. The scenes between the two are overly long and I can only surmise that Taylor is given as much screen time as she is due to her star status and the added ability to market the film as another Taylor/Burton film.
Save Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? these DVDs offer little in the way of special features, just some behind the scenes making-of featurettes for The Sandpiper and The Comedians, neither of which has been created for this release. Woolf, on the other hand features several different commentary tracks, an interview with Mike Nichols, trailers, and two new featurettes (Woolf has the second DVD devoted to many of these extras).
Even if some of the films in this set do not stand the test of time as well as one might like, they are all still fascinating looks at one of the most famous couples in cinematic history.