10/21/2013 10:53 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Liz n' Dick's 'Private Lives'

"Miss Taylor swept into Tavern-on-the-Green on the arm of her latest escort, Victor Luna. She wore a low-cut, white beaded gown, massive jewels at her neck, a tiara, and was wrapped in what seemed to be thousands of white feathers. It was not an outfit in which one could disappear!"

That was part of my "Live at Five" NBC-TV report on the opening night of the Liz n' Dick show, known to the public as a revival of "Private Lives," back in 1983.

Elizabeth regally reigned at her table. Richard sat apart with his fiancée Sally Hay, glum. (Well, he'd been glum ever since he gave up drinking some years before.)

• This was a dodgy time for the former Burtons. After two marriages to each other, two failed attempts apart (John Warner for Liz, Suzy Hunt for Richard.) Burton was treading water as a star. Miss Taylor had triumphed on Broadway in "The Little Foxes" in 1981, and though her movie career was just about over, the media madness that always surrounded her never abated.

Now they were together again, on Broadway, in Noël Coward's classic of sophisticated young marrieds, divorced, wed to others, but still madly in love. Taylor had persuaded Richard to join in this venture after they met up in London for her 50th birthday. He behaved badly, and gossiped to the press about making love to her. But she forgave him. They did an amusing skit together on a Bob Hope special (with exquisite irony, considering Elizabeth's medical history; she played a nurse!) So, for money and publicity, he agreed to co-star in "Private Lives." Nobody close to her thought this was a good idea. At all.

And this is the point where the new BBC production, "Burton and Taylor" opens, telling of that tumultuous moment in time, the run of "Private Lives" on Broadway.

• To say that this current movie, starring Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth and Dominick West as Richard, towers above Lindsay Lohan's "Liz and Dick" would only be stating the obvious. What wouldn't be better than that?

There are factual bits to nitpick over--time compression, certain oddities (Elizabeth left alone in a rehearsal hall--this woman for never alone for a second of her life!...Richard and Elizabeth sitting in a cheap diner, reading the reviews...the Broadway opening night being 45 minutes late -- it wasn't, I was there! And half a dozen other little errors.

• But the feeling of the movie captures those weeks in New York--the show would later tour to wildly enthusiastic audiences across the country. Whatever Richard's motives for taking on the job, he soon regretted it. He had momentarily forgotten the chaos of Elizabeth's life. She was clearly attempting to lure him back. I was privy to a lot of the back-stage shenanigans, and Miss Taylor was indeed pretty loopy, and desperately bitter about the presence of Richard's new lover, Sally.

Helena Bonham Carter captures a lot of Elizabeth's vulnerability and desperation at that time, though not much of the star's wit or intelligence. (These qualities were being drowned by drink and over-medication.)

Dominick West is excellent as Richard, though to be honest, he looked handsomer, younger and more vigorous than the real-life Richard did at that time. But he played Burton's mounting frustration very well. "Nobody forced you to do this," Helena/Liz says pointedly, as West/Burton fumes.

And the movie makes it crystal clear that it was Elizabeth, not Richard, whom audiences wanted to see. When she was "indisposed" after Richard's sudden marriage to Sally Hay, the show was forced to close. She was sticking it to him--"I'll always be the bigger star!"

• And how well I recall Elizabeth's return to the stage after Burton's marriage; giving not an angry performance, but one tinged with palpable regret. In the famous balcony scene, when Amanda complains about "that damn moonlight" her eyes were clearly watering. She'd lost him, and this time for good. The audience went wild. They'd read the papers. They knew they were really seeing life and art merge. Taylor was still weeping as she took her curtain calls.

"Burton and Taylor" the BBC movie, is well-intentioned and made with care. Having been a part of that era, watching it unfold in some recognizable resemblance of the truth was especially surreal.

In real-life, the play moved on, and was even more fun than the Broadway version. NY critics were unkind. What did they expect? Both stars made it clear it was a money-making stunt, something amusing for the fans.

But by the time "Private Lives" reached Los Angeles Elizabeth was tipping the scales at about 140 pounds again. (She began the run shapely and reasonably svelte.) Her children and best friends stepped in and intervened--she would enter the Betty Ford Clinic, no arguments.

She did, and after that, totally changed her life. Had it not been for the agonizing run of "Private Lives," it's likely Elizabeth would have died of an overdose. Even had she lived, she would never have had the strength or clear-headedness to spearhead the fight against AIDS.

• So, it wasn't great theater, but a lot of great things came of it. And while "Burton and Taylor" isn't a great movie, it's a fair and balanced attempt to delve into the abyss these two giants were constantly battling near--never falling in. But one held one's breath.

Richard Burton died nine months after "Lives" closed. Elizabeth fainted when she heard the news. When she was revived, she was hysterical for hours. Years later she said, "If I hadn't already been to Betty Ford and cleaned up my act, I'm certain I would have killed myself."

• P.S. When I turned on BBC America, to watch "Burton and Taylor," I caught the last five minutes of the Joe Mankiewicz/20th Century Fox "Cleopatra" which was being run as a lead-in. It contained Elizabeth's final dramatic showdown with Octavian (Roddy McDowell) and her beautifully performed death scene. I admit I got a chill when Elizabeth looks slowly up at Roddy and says, "Octavian, when I am ready to die, I will die."

And she did. On-screen and off.

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