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Sunday 18 February 2018

Taylor-made role for Helena

Portraying the film icon was fun but Taylor's character stuck with Helena Bonham Carter like a contagion, says the star

Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter star as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton
Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter star as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton
Liz Taylor and Richard Burton
Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter star in BBC Four film Burton and Taylor
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The heat in the Schubert Theatre in Boston was so stifling that not even the cognac diamond around Elizabeth Taylor's neck could keep her cool. She and her fourth and fifth husband, Richard Burton, were cranky. The previews of this production of Noel Coward's Private Lives had been poisonous, and they both suddenly loathed the director.

There was a frisson of hysteria in the air. The paparazzi were beginning to swarm into town. Hordes of fans, some of them guilelessly waving copies of The Last Star, Kitty Kelley's biography of Taylor, had already gathered outside the theatre. Many of them had never seen a play before, but then this was no ordinary production; it was Burton and Taylor, a couple once denounced by the Vatican for "erotic vagrancy", onstage together for the first time. Everyone wanted a ringside seat for the latest instalment in the saga.

By now – 1983 – the animal, competitive, sexual passion of their pomp had dimmed somewhat and both of them were married to other people. They were more like two soldiers who had survived the same ancient wars of martial breakdown and tabloid frenzy.

Burton was slowly recuperating from back surgery, and Taylor had recently survived a blood clot from a car crash in Israel. The roles of Noel Coward's ex-husband and ex-wife, who have just abandoned their new spouses and are trying to make a go of it again, seemed made for them, and yet they had trouble with the playwright's arch bons mots and the play's waltz sequence. They were fluffing lines and improvising new ones as they went along.

At one point in the rehearsal, Taylor, wearing vertiginous heels and a silk shirt, tripped over Burton and landed with him on the chaise longue in the centre of the stage. "Darling," Taylor said to Burton as they lay there in a heap, "you're still wearing your wedding band." "I know," he replied. "Why don't you take it off?" she asked. "Because I can't get it off," he sighed. It was just the kind of pertly witty exchange an audience could expect from Coward. Except he hadn't written it at all. This was Taylor and Burton riffing. Who cared if they had the dance steps down when art was imitating life like this?

The press wondered whether it was perhaps a little undignified, a sort of theatrical forerunner to the voyeurism of reality television. Not that Taylor was bothered. "Who cares?" she said in her dressing-room up in Boston. "For heaven's sake, it just adds a giggle to the whole thing. At this point, I know who I am and what I am."

The same could not be said for some of the actresses who have played her over the years. Last year's Liz and Dick, starring Lindsay Lohan and Grant Bowler, was slated by the critics and some have not held out much hope for Taylor and Burton, the forthcoming biopic which takes the staging of Private Lives as its backdrop.

Starring Helena Bonham Carter as Taylor and Dominic West as Burton, the new film eschews much of the melodrama, and bills itself instead as an intimate portrait of two ageing stars. "I wanted to play her because she's fun," Bonham Carter said last week. "She was fantastic fun to play. That's what I loved about her. She had a huge sense of humour."

The actress, known for her on-screen collaborations with her husband, director Tim Burton, says that she prepared for playing Taylor by going to an astrologer. West, as Burton might once have done, has described this approach as "cobblers". Of the Welshman with the deep voice (described in the film as "the theatrical equivalent of a big cock"), he says: "I think he (Burton) loved to give the impression he was an academic and, like Brando, was often very dismissive of acting, and I think there's a fair amount of nonsense been written about his work. His writing wasn't particularly interesting – it was sub-Dylan Thomas."

Bonham Carter seems to have more affection for her subject. To help her prepare, she read the book Furious Love by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, which chronicles, perhaps better than any other book, the epic mythology of Taylor and Burton, beginning with their first collaboration during the filming of Cleopatra in 1963.

Bonham Carter's method acting proved an irritant at home: Tim Burton adopted Richard's name and mannerisms as "revenge" for her staying in character.

Even after shooting had ended, Bonham Carter found it hard to shake the ghost of the star, who died of heart failure in 2011: "She's stuck, she's contagious, she's like a disease."

It's likely that Bonham Carter and West would settle for the success of the Taylor Burton incarnation of Private Lives, which was scorched by critics but adored by fans – it was sold out even before its run began. The stars earned $1m apiece for their efforts and Taylor, who co-produced the play, was said to have engineered Burton's involvement as the starting point for unfinished business: she still carried a torch for him.

Unfortunately there was little time for re-re-kindling of romance. Barely a year after the play's run ended, Burton was killed by a brain haemorrhage. He and Taylor had discussed being buried together, but his wife Sally cut this idea off by buying a large grave plot for her and her husband.

Still Burton and Taylor would forever be linked in the public consciousness. With Burton-like understatement West summed up the difficulty of every subsequent generation, which looks back on the original golden couple: "You could say they're a hard act to follow."

'Burton and Taylor' will air on BBC 4 tomorrow at 9pm

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