Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 900 posts

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor in Rome

Liz and the unsuspecting Eddie Fisher--with Burton?
"The only word Elizabeth knows in Italian is Bulgari," her 5th husband, Richard Burton, once remarked, referring to the storied merchant of jewels.  Richard had kindled the Bulgari passion in Elizabeth in 1962, when the two were in Rome for 215 days filming Cleopatra (1964) on mammoth sets on the lot of Cinecitta'.  Though already married (Liz to Eddie Fisher), the lovebirds had secretly rented a pink stucco bungalow in Porto Santo Stefano, on the promontory of Argentario, perhaps an hour from Rome.  (Scandalized at hearing of her conduct, a member of Congress sought to have English-born Taylor banned from re-entering the United States.)

A forlorn Richard and Elizabeth following a car
accident in or near Rome, 1962

Wearing Bulgari Serpenti, 1962
 While trying to manage their affair, deal with the Vatican's condemnation of Elizabeth as "a woman of loose morals," figure out a future for themselves, and process the likelihood of an imminent visit by Richard's wife, Elizabeth became ill.  She had her stomach pumped at Salvator Mundi Hospital and, later, Richard sought to soothe the beast with a $150,000 emerald brooch from Bulgari.  It was the beginning of a love affair--with Bulgari this time--and in June, 2009 this affair was consummated with a spectacular showing of some 500 of Elizabeth's Bulgari items at the Palazzo delle Esposizione on via Nazionale.  That occasion was the 125th anniversary of Bulgari's store in Rome.  As Margo Jefferson wrote in the New York Times in 1999, Taylor was "full of no-nonsense shamelessness."  "Whether it's about how she ages or what she wears, she has, bless her heart, made the principles of good and bad taste equally meaningless."  On the set, she wore diamonds while playing dominoes.  She was vulgar but not vain.   

As Cleopatra
Cleopatra enjoyed some success at the box office, but not enough to justify the extraordinary cost of production.  The set for Alexandria, the Egyptian capital where the real Cleopatra met Julius Caesar in like 56 BC, was the largest, most elaborate, and most expensive ever made.  But if the film was an economic bust, it was a highly symbolic one.  With Roman Holiday, it was the best known of a group of the "Hollywood sul Tevere" (Hollywood on the Tiber) films, many of them filmed on sets at Cinecitta' and collectively responsible for drawing a generation of film stars to the Eternal City--among them Deborah Kerr, Gregory Peck, Rod Steiger, and Dick and Liz--and in the process helping to create the glamorous and decadent era of via Veneto and the paparazzi.  (See our post on Hollywood films made in Rome in the postwar era.)

Made in the early 1960s, at the height of American power and hubris,  Cleopatra was a visual representation of the nation's world dominance in the postwar era and of its dreams--not to be realized--of a future characterized by American hegemony in the world.  And the scene that best captured that historical American moment featured Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, entering Rome on a massive 30-foot pedestal pulled by hundreds of slaves, to the acclaim of thousands.   

1961, with Eddie Fisher and
Kirk Douglas and his wife
Taylor did not appear in Spartacus (1960), another of the Hollywood-sul Tevere films, but she had been drawn to Rome in 1961, accompanied by her husband Eddie Fisher, to celebrate the film's 1st anniversary with its star, Kirk Douglas (today, after her death, Taylor is being called the last movie star--but Kirk's still alive).  

With Eddie Fisher
Elizabeth was in Rome at least two other times.  She and 3rd husband Mike Todd were there in 1958; later that year he died in the crash of a plane named "Lucky Liz."  With Eddie she attended the opening of the Rome Olympics in 1960.  

Rome 1966.  An informal moment.  Liz in a cast
with a '60s look, Richard as Hemingway

And she was back again in 1966, for no obvious reason.  On the 28th of March, she showed up with Richard at Rome's Opera House, her hair in an exaggerated, fantastical bun decorated with bands of jewels and a jeweled hairpin that spilled over onto her forehead.  Looking a lot like Cleopatra.  Elizabeth Taylor lived most of her life in Beverly Hills, and New York was a second home.  But Rome--especially the delicious, over-heated Rome of the early 1960s--was a grand stage for a woman of great appetite and enormous talent. 


No comments: