A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
It’s not very often I feel sorry for young people. They’ve got tons of brilliant stuff going on — all the time. They live in a wonderful age when anything is not only possible, it’s downright probable. And they wear it well, in general. They’re smart and way more polite than I ever was at that age, but they’re young yet. However, for the last couple of days, I’ve felt sorry for them – oddly parental – protective, if you will. Just as if they didn’t get that cool Christmas present, or grandma forgot their birthday, or they’re teenage sad with hungry love –the poor things. I’m sad for them because they’re never going to sit in the dark and see Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – the first time. Liz and Dick are a forgotten cliché now. They’re on television, Netflix, Yahoo and YouTube. They’re gone. They might just as well be Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
There’s no way to describe Liz and Dick to the 21st century. In a world of 24/7 celebrity, they sound trivial — even trite. They were not. They didn’t soar above everyone else; they lounged there. They simply did not share top billing with anyone, and only Marilyn was ever mentioned in the same breath. There was never any debate. It was Liz and Dick and then everybody else. They were celebrities without even trying; to call them Hollywood Royalty or larger than life actually diminishes their stature. In a time before regulated celebrity gossip, they made news — right alongside Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro.
This isn’t just old man nostalgia either. I was never a fan. I didn’t follow them in Photoplay, for example, or tune in when they showed up on Carson or Cavett. It didn’t matter. Liz and Dick didn’t care because we were friends. We, the three of us, shared their movies. They were on the screen and I sat in the dark, watching them. We were three consenting adults — together alone. It just happened that the theatre was full of all those other people who were doing the same thing.
That was the magic of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They lived in a conjured world that was real, and they let us watch. There’s no doubt that it’s Edward who tears his soul apart for Laura in The Sandpiper, but somewhere inside there, it’s Burton and Taylor. When you see it the first time, it’s personal. These are people you care about. You want them to be in love, and in the end, they have such a majestic sadness. It’s the same in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It might be Martha and George screaming insults at each other, but, somehow, you’re not sure it wasn’t Dick and Liz who invited Nick and Honey to watch.
But that wasn’t all they did. They knew they were celebrities. They didn’t deny it. They flew to Friday night parties in Europe and flew home Sunday morning. He bought her jewels the size of Easter eggs. They drank and smoked and partied without any self-conscious leer at the waiting cameras. They didn’t demand a normal life; they chose to be famous. Remember, it was Dick and Liz who invented the paparazzi when they carried their half-hidden adultery across to Italy during the filming of Cleopatra in 1962. It was a time before Rock Hudson was gay; when June and Ward Cleaver still slept in separate beds, every Thursday night. And the Kennedy brothers kept their mistresses hidden behind the curtains of Camelot. It was a time when scandals ruined people and careers — but not Dick and Liz. They were splashed across every newspaper in the world and reviled by everybody but the public. They didn’t care. They did what they pleased. And they kept doing it, brawling and beautiful, for two and a half decades.
Sometime I’m going to see their movies again, but even the biggest TV won’t do them justice. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are special, beyond Hepburn and Tracy and even Bogie and Bacall. You need to be alone with them — sitting in the dark.