Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton: The Film Collection
The V.I.P.s(1963)/The Sandpiper (1965)/Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966)/The Comedians(1967)
In the 1960s, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the ne plus ultra of celebrity power couples. We are talking "Brangelina" and "Bennifer" times a thousand. Celebrity gossip lovers had barely forgiven Elizabeth Taylor, arguably the biggest star in the business, for stealing Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds when the rumors of her on-set romance with the married Burton began floating in. The fact that their romance began in the context of the troubled epic multi-million dollar production of Fox's "Cleopatra" was just more grist for the gossip mill, and the path of their rocky relationship would be front page material guaranteeing magazine sales for more than a decade.
Throughout the course of their relationship, they co-starred in ten theatrical films and one telefilm. This set from Warner Brothers offers the four films that they made for Warner and MGM during this period, including a remastered 2-disc special edition of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and three other films making their DVD debuts.
The V.I.P.s (1963 - MGM - 119 minutes)
Directed By: Anthony Asquith
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Louis Jourdan, Orson Welles, Margaret Rutherford, Rod Taylor, Maggie Smith, Elsa Martinelli
This ensemble drama, directed by Asquith from a script by his frequent collaborator Terence Rattigan, was the first glimpse for many filmgoers of Burton and Taylor together on screen. It was produced after Fox's epic "Cleopatra", and was released widely while "Cleopatra" was still appearing in roadshow engagements. The story involves a group of "V.I.P" travelers who are stranded overnight when their plane from London to New York is grounded by fog. It borrows heavily from the "Grand Hotel" model, intertwining both dramatic and comic goings on between a diverse cast of characters.
The dramatic center of the movie is carried by the story of a powerful tycoon Paul Andros (Burton), his wife, Frances(E. Taylor), and her "recovering gigolo" lover Marc Champselle (Jourdan). Frances is planning to leave Paul for Marc, and is flying away with him to New York under the pretense of taking a solo vacation. She has left a note to this effect for her husband to find after the plane departs. The fog delay throws a monkey wrench in her plans.
The other major plotlines involve a pretentious European film director (Welles with a flamboyant if non-specific European accent), who is exiting the country with his latest "discovery" (Martinelli) and his accountant in order to avoid paying a large tax which he will owe if he stays one more day, an Australian businessman (R. Taylor) and his secretly adoring secretary (Smith) who are trying to save his tractor company from a hostile takeover, and the land rich but cash poor Duchess of Brighton (Rutherford), who is traveling to the US to make paid personal appearances in the hopes of saving her estate.
The cast is wonderful, but the overall effect is slight. The central love-triangle story is pretty standard stuff, and the three principle actors give competent performances that would need to be spectacular to breathe life into the set-up (to be fair, Jourdan brings a depth to his somewhat thankless role that almost achieves this). The sub-plots do offer some amusement and relief for those who are not taken with the melodrama, but only the subplot involving Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith is developed in any detail. That is also the only one that is interwoven with the central love triangle story.
The plot threads involving Welles, Martinelli, and Rutherford seem to take place in their own world independent of everything else that is happening. Rutherford does manage to draw a very amusing and sympathetic character, suggesting a sadness and desperation in a character who is mostly comic relief. She was rewarded for her efforts with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The other supporting actress who really shines is Maggie Smith. With minimal dialog but many expressive reactions, she manages to draw a more complete and interesting character than Elizabeth Taylor does in much more screen time.
There are a couple of "meta" aspects to the production that make it more interesting in context. On one level, as with all of the films in this collection, audiences were well aware of the marriage-busting romantic history of Burton and Taylor, and could project this onto the characters they were playing. On a second level, the story reportedly paralleled a real life incident where Vivien Leigh nearly left husband Laurence Olivier for actor Peter Finch, but was held up at Heathrow Airport allowing Olivier to come and talk her out of it.
The Sandpiper (1965 - MGM - 117 minutes)
Directed By: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Eva Marie Saint, Charles Bronson
After "The V.I.P.s", Richard Burton went on to star in "Becket" and "Night of the Iguana". Elizabeth Taylor, however, did not appear in another film until she co-starred with Burton once again in "The Sandpiper".
Taylor plays Laura Reynolds, a free-spirited artist who is raising her child on her own by choice in Big Sur, California. When her son gets in trouble, the local judge orders that he be sent to a nearby Episcopalian boarding school which is presided over by The Reverend Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton) and his wife, Claire (Saint). While their relationship begins in a confrontational manner, Edward eventually finds himself attracted to Laura despite their divergent views and lifestyles. As he embarks on this extramarital affair, Edward is eventually forced to come to terms with his own hypocrisy not just in his infidelity, but in all the little compromises of his ideals he has been making since he opened his school.
The filmmakers must have been trying to keep the gravy train rolling when they put Burton and Taylor once again on two sides of a romantic triangle. From a box office perspective, it certainly worked, as "The Sandpiper" was one of the biggest hits of 1965. Audiences seemed to still enjoy projecting their real life notions of Taylor and Burton's relationship onto their movie characters.
The film is very dialog heavy, with visual punctuation/relief provided by the scenic locations. Taylor seems somewhat miscast as a bohemian free-spirit painter, but less so than Charles Bronson who plays one of her sculptor friends. It suffers from perhaps two or three too many extended dialog scenes of Taylor and Burton musing on life and love to each other. It also tends to whack you over the head with its metaphors and themes (the parallels between Edward and a wounded sandpiper nursed back to health by Laura feel like they are drawn in bold text with double yellow highlighter encircled with pylon orange ink)
It is a straight melodrama with no comic relief as was provided by the supporting cast in "The V.I.P.s", so it is best recommended to fans of such things. In the end, the only part of the film that really stuck with me was the romantic Oscar-winning title song "The Shadow of Your Smile" which is worked into the score throughout the film and plays with vocals over the closing credits.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966 - Warner Brothers - 131 minutes)
Directed By: Mike Nichols
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis
The crown jewel of this collection is the newly remastered 2-disc special edition of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", an adaptation of the celebrated Edward Albee play. The plot takes place during a single late evening where George (Burton) and Martha (Taylor), a middle-aged college professor and his wife, invite Nick (Segal) and Honey (Dennis), a young faculty member and his wife over to their home for a nightcap. Nick and Honey find themselves caught up and drawn in to George and Martha's vitriolic verbal sparring. As the evening progresses through the dawn, the increasingly inebriated couples unveil more and more of their personal secrets showing their relationships to be quite different than they appeared on the surface.
While a superficial description of the plot does not sound like sufficient material to sustain audience interest for over two hours, the combination of the writing, performance, editing, and cinematography makes for a riveting viewing experience. The entire cast is at the top of their game, with Burton and Taylor giving perhaps the best film performances of their long and storied careers. Both Taylor and Sandy Dennis, in her first significant film role, received well-deserved Oscars for their performances. George Segal conveys the seemingly contradictory elements of charisma and selfishness that are at the center of Nick's character in a performance that is deceptively complex. The audience has to believe that he is being constantly outraged by his hosts, but not to the point of walking out on them due to his desire to ingratiate himself with Martha, the daughter of the university's president. All of the underlying drama is interlaced with copious helpings of wit and wicked comedy that make it go down easy.
Mike Nichols, directing his first film, brings out excellent work from all of his collaborators, somehow managing to remain very faithful to the original play while making it distinctively cinematic.
The Comedians (1967 - MGM - 152 minutes)
Directed By: Peter Glenville
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Peter Ustinov, Alec Guinness, Paul Ford, Lillian Gish
"The Comedians" is Graham Greene's adaptation of his own novel of the horrors of 1960s-era Haiti under the despotic rule of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, as experienced primarily through the eyes of a group of non-natives. Burton plays Mr. Brown, the English owner of an international hotel in Port-au-Prince. As the film opens, he is returning to Haiti after months away, ostensibly trying to find a buyer for the hotel he inherited from his mother. Arriving with him are Major Jones (Guinness), who likes nothing better than playing gin rummy and regaling others with tales of his exploits for the British Army in Burma, and Mr. Smith (Ford) an eccentric ex-American presidential candidate from a fringe party and his wife (Gish) who are looking to make their dreams of a vegetarian health food empire take root in Haiti. Brown actually has very little interest or sentimental attachment to his largely vacant hotel, but holds onto it as an excuse to remain in Haiti near his mistress (Taylor), the wife of a diplomat (Ustinov). Despite his desire to stay out of politics, Brown finds it increasingly difficult to avoid involvement in the conflicts between his friends and Duvalier's ruthless Tonton Macoute militia. The film proceeds to reveal how most of the players involved in this drama are so-called "comedians" playing at what they are not.
"The Comedians" carries with it a somewhat dubious reputation as the first large scale box-office flop after a string of commercial successes for Burton and Taylor. While the film may not be the best example of its genre (the similarities between Burton's Brown and Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine in "Casablanca" set the bar almost impossibly high), it does offer an engaging story of international intrigue. Burton gives a credible performance as Brown, and the filmmakers do a great job of conveying an ever escalating sense of dread and tension. The location shooting, with Dahomey (now known as Benin) Africa standing in for Haiti, contributes greatly to the movie's authentic "third world" atmosphere.
The cast is strong, including wonderful supporting turns by Roscoe Lee Browne as a supremely officious Haitian newspaper man welcoming and sending off visitors to the country, Douta Seck as Joseph, Brown's right-hand-man at the hotel, James Earl Jones as a cautiously idealistic physician and longtime friend of Brown's late mother, Georg Stanford Brown as a not-so-cautiously idealistic artist, and Raymond St. Jacques as a menacing Tonton captain.
There are a few problems, however. Taylor's role as the ambassador's wife is larger than it needs to be, probably to justify her salary, and her attempt at a German accent is highly variable and unconvincing. You would never guess that she was supposed to be German if it had not been for other characters saying so. Also, the ages of the actors and characters do not seem to quite add up properly -- James Earl Jones seems too young to be a longtime associate of Burton's mother. Finally, too much time is given over to plot elements involving voodoo beliefs and rituals considering their minor effect on the story and atmosphere. Viewers sensitive to such things should be aware that chickens are most definitely harmed in the making of this motion picture.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 color transfer of "The V.I.P.s" is something of a mixed bag. The source print appears very clean, with little visible wear and tear. Black levels appear somewhat crushed, showing little texture to items like the dark coat Richard Burton wears for most of the film. The picture appears very sharp for much of the running time, but certain scenes have a "dupey" quality that makes them less sharp with even less shadow detail. There are also a number of instances of "haloing" around characters when they appear against high contrast backgrounds, usually being backlit. It looks similar, but not identical to video-based edge enhancement, but may actually be an artifact of the lab work done by the "Metrocolor" (MGM's Eastman color process) folks.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 color transfer of "The Sandpiper" is very good. Color and contrast appear natural and appropriate, film grain is persistent, but not distracting, and the source element has only a few nicks and tiny flaws over the film's complete running time. Some establishing shots of the scenery and wildlife around Big Sur are a little less pristine than the rest of the film. There is some light ringing on horizontal edges. The compression occasionally has trouble keeping up with the film grain, but digital noise is mild and preferable to overly filtering the image.
The 16:9 enhanced black and white transfer for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" fills up the entire 16:9 frame. It equals or betters the previously released non-anamorphic widescreen transfer (which had been framed oddly with a small but noticeable pillarbox bar on the left, but not on the right of the frame) in every respect. Greyscale is impressively rendered. There is a slightly soft cast to the image at times, and certain scenes, such as the outdoor conversation between Burton and Segal by a tree swing, are inherently more grainy than others because of the way they were shot.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 color transfer of "The Comedians" falls a bit short of that for "The Sandpiper", but is still more than acceptable. The film element used has signs of wear and tear with regular nicks and rare vertical scratches, and there is light grain throughout. Contrast and shadow detail during several key night sequences are impressively rendered. There is occasional, but not pervasive, edge ringing visible.
The audio for "The V.I.P.s" is presented in a well mastered Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. All aspects of the soundtrack are well served, particularly Miklos Rosza's aggressive, if occasionally overbearing, score. A French mono track is also provided with available English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio for "The Sandpiper" is just about perfect. There is a noticeable hiss during quiet passages, but no more than one would expect from the original audio master. A French audio track is also provided with available English French, and Spanish subtitles.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is simply outstanding. The carefully constructed dialog-heavy mix is rendered just about perfectly with great dynamic range and frequency response. I was very pleasantly surprised by the deep bass content, for instance, during the sequence that takes place in the roadhouse with the jukebox. A French audio track is provided with available English, French, Spanish, Potuguese, and Korean subtitles.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio for "The Comedians" is maybe a hair shy of the other films in the set in terms of fidelity and dynamics, but does not have any significant flaws. There is a non-distracting persistent low level hiss, consistent with what one would expect from a magnetic tape master. No other language tracks are provided. Subtitles are available in English, French, or Spanish.
"The V.I.P.s" contains no extras.
"The Sandpiper" contains two brief vintage black and white featurettes that look like they were made to promote the film. The first is called "A Statue for the Sandpiper" and focuses on Edmund Kara, who sculpted a Redwood tree-stump into a bust of Elizabeth Taylor that is featured in the film. The second , narrated by Richard Burton, is called "The Big Sur". It starts like a travelogue highlighting the area, but finishes with some behind the scenes footage of "The Sandpiper".
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is presented in a 2-disc special edition that is packed with extras. The first disc contains two commentary tracks. The first is the same Haskell Wexler commentary that graced the older DVD edition. He has many insights and anecdotes, covering events occurring during active production in great detail with only occasional lulls. The second commentary features Director Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh serves as something of a moderator on the track, and does an outstanding job of drawing out Nichols on subjects pertinent to the film. Clearly, Soderbergh did his homework, and Nichols came ready to talk, with the net result being both informative and interesting, covering a wide range of topics from the film's genesis through its production and release. One particular anecdote about how Burton's extended monologue about George's happiest memory was shot at the wrong exposure but fixed in post production is not corroborated on Wexler's track, but it's a good one, so I hope it is true.
The second disc contains numerous featurettes, including:
- "Elizabeth Taylor - An Intimate Portrait" - This 67 minute television documentary from 1975 is hosted by Peter Lawford. It presents an overview of Taylor's life and career. The core of the show consists of a number of sit-down interviews between Lawford and various close associates of Taylor including actor Rock Hudson, Sara Taylor (her mother), actor Roddy McDowell, Director Richard Brooks, costume designer Helen Rose, Producer Sam Marx, and director Vincente Minnelli. The faded 4:3 image betrays its 1970s video origins and the film clips look and sound pretty rough, but there is some interesting archival material, including some color behind the scenes footage from "The Sandpiper" that appeared in black and white on the promotional featurette available on that DVD.
- "A Daring Work of Raw Excellence" - This newly produced featurettes runs just over 20 minutes with comments from film scholar Drew Casper, playwright Edward Albee, critic Richard Schickel, author Bobbie O'Steen - widow of the film's editor Sam O'Steen, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. It offers a concise assessment of the film and its production, and complements the Nichols commentary nicely. It is presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen.
- "Too Shocking for its Time" - A 10-1/2 minute featurette on the controversy surrounding the film's harsh language and how that contributed to the end of the production code and the beginning of the MPAA rating system. Casper, Schickel, and O'Steen, from the same set of interviews used for the previous featurette are joined by MPAA head Jack Valenti. It is presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen.
- "Sandy Dennis Screen Test" - Self-descriptive, it features seven minutes of Sandy Dennis running through a few key scenes, some with Roddy McDowell reading the part of Nick. It was shot in black and white 2.35:1 anamorphic Panavision on a set, and is presented in a high quality 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer.
- "1966 Mike Nichols Interview" - Features nine minutes of excerpts from an interview Nichols gave to NBC television in the summer of 1966. The questions are presented as text titles, with Nichols' answers provided via 4:3 color footage.
- Trailer Gallery - Trailers for all four films in the DVD set. The trailer for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The trailers for "The V.I.P.s" and "The Sandpiper" are letterboxed in a 4:3 frame. The trailer for "The Comedians" is presented in 4:3, and includes some of the same behind the scenes footage that appears on the featurette on that DVD.
"The Comedians" contains only one extra - a vintage 11 minute featurette called "The Comedians in Africa". It concerns the location shooting of the movie, but is largely promotional in nature. It features on-camera, on-location, interviews with Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, and director Peter Glenville. Burton slips a good-natured jab in at South Wales that actually made me laugh out loud. It is presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio in color. The transfer is superb, with lots of high quality behind the scenes footage of the film's production. This looks substantially better than I expected.
The discs are attractively and space-efficiently packaged in four slimcases inside a cardboard slipcase. "Who's Afraid ...", the only 2-disc offering and the only title in the set to be released separately, is in a double slimcase.
If you are a Taylor-Burton fan who enjoys their pairings in romantic melodramas, then this set is a no-brainer. If your tastes do not run in that direction, I would recommend at least picking up a copy of the remastered "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", which should be part of any literate cinephile's library.