TERRY GROSS, HOST:
On Wednesday, BBC America presents a new made-for-TV-movie titled "Burton and Taylor," dramatizing one particular period in the intertwined lives of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Our TV critic David Bianculli says it's surprising and impressive, not only because of its cast, but because of its narrow autobiographical focus.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: You have to be of a certain age to remember firsthand the tornado of publicity that erupted when Liz Taylor - the former child star turned screen vamp - first met British stage star Richard Burton on the set of the 1963 movie "Cleopatra." But it's still one of Hollywood's most famous and inescapable love stories.
He played Mark Antony. She played the Queen of the Nile. And just like their onscreen characters, they fell in love. Though Liz and Dick were married to others at the time, they began a torrid affair, the coverage of which spread outside the gossip columns. Eventually, they divorced their spouses and got married. After 10 years and many films together, they divorced. Then, after a while, married each other a second time, then got divorced again. That all happened by 1976.
In the early '80s, Liz and Dick decided to reunite once again, but this time, only professionally, as the stars of a limited-run Broadway revival of the Noel Coward comedy "Private Lives." The play was about a long-divorced couple who meet while on honeymoons with new spouses, but whose love for one another is rekindled during the chance encounter.
Liz, who was popping pills and drinking at the time, may have wished for life to imitate art. Dick, newly sober, considered Liz one more compelling addiction it was wiser for him to avoid. And it's this period of their lives that screenwriter William Ivory examines in the new BBC America telemovie import "Burton and Taylor."
It's a highly entertaining study, for two reasons. One is the decision to peek at the private lives of these very public figures through such a tiny, fixed peephole. It's much more satisfying than watching a boring, by-the-numbers recreation of career highlights, like last year's horrible Lifetime telemovie titled "Liz and Dick," starring Lindsay Lohan.
That was more focused on getting the costumes and makeup right than caring about the performances or character insights. "Burton and Taylor," though, stays in one place long enough to make us feel their emotions, and, because of the excellent performances, believe them. The performances are the other reason this drama works. The stars of "Burton and Taylor" sound like unlikely choices, but they mesh perfectly.
Helena Bonham Carter - who's spent much of the past decade playing cartoonish characters for Tim Burton and others - plays Liz with a fire and a vulnerability that quickly makes the impersonation succeed. And as Richard Burton, one of the most commanding and forceful actors of his generation, the movie casts Dominic West, whom fans of "The Wire" know well as Detective McNulty.
Here, the native British actor gets to drop the Baltimore accent he used for that HBO series and approximate Richard Burton's gravelly, velvety tones, which he does so well, that he, too, quickly makes you forget about the performer and get drawn into the often intimate action. Take this scene, in which partway through the run of their sold-out Broadway play, Dick takes Liz out to dinner alone afterward, something he's avoided up to that point and which she hopes is an advance on his part.
They're talking about the next role he's thinking of taking on, Shakespeare's "King Lear," but the conversation soon shifts abruptly.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV MOVIE "BURTON AND TAYLOR")
DOMINIC WEST: (as Richard Burton) So are we going to have pudding, or are we straight for coffee?
HELENA BONHAM CARTER: (as Elizabeth Taylor) Richard. Listen, listen, listen, listen. I want to say some things. I've wanted to say them for a while. I nearly did at (unintelligible), but, I don't know, you seemed kind of frail.
WEST: (as Richard Burton) I am kind of frail. I mean, it's a worry, and that's something that concerns me about "Lear." I'll be fine with the words, but it's the physical demands that have got...
CARTER: (as Elizabeth Taylor) I'm not talking about acting, Richard. I'm talking about you and me and why we're doing this.
WEST: (as Richard Burton) $70,000 a week.
CARTER: (as Elizabeth Taylor) That is not true.
WEST: (as Richard Burton) Elizabeth, please. Can I say something, now that it's on my mind? And - there's a couple of things which have crept in over the course of the run. They're tiny things, but your first entrance, for instance. You're not playing it very confidently, which I think is losing some sense of Amanda protecting herself, which she undoubtedly is.
CARTER: (as Elizabeth Taylor) You're giving me notes? I'm trying to talk to you, and you're giving me acting notes?
WEST: (as Richard Burton) No, I...
CARTER: (as Elizabeth Taylor) Jesus, Richard. What are you doing? Why did you ask me out tonight?
WEST: (as Richard Burton) What?
CARTER: (as Elizabeth Taylor) Why did you ask me out to supper tonight? Why did you do that?
WEST: (as Richard Burton) Because I wanted to see you. You're my ex-wife. It's perfectly natural for me to want to see you, isn't it?
CARTER: (as Elizabeth Taylor) Fine. In which case, I'll take that note. Where did my Antony go? Remember? The man who would've risked everything for me. Who did. He tossed it all against the rocks so he could be with me. Where did he go, Richard?
BIANCULLI: "Burton and Taylor" is as serious as last year's "Liz and Dick" telemovie was campy. For writer Ivory and director Richard Laxton, it's easily a career best. For stars Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West, it's one more triumph to add to their already impressive resumes.
And for other TV writers and producers looking to dramatize the lives of famous figures, "Burton and Taylor" - like Steven Spielberg's narrowly focused movie biography of "Lincoln" - serves as a very clear lesson. Sometimes, when deciding how much of a life to examine, less very definitely is more.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history and Rowan University in New Jersey. You can follow our blog on Tumblr to find out what's coming up on our show, read interview highlights, and learn more about what's happening behind the scenes at FRESH AIR. That's at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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