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Friday, December 6, 2013

Tracking Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's stormy love affair in Rome

Liz and Dick – larger than life and famously falling in love in Rome.  Gotta love it, and I do.  Enough to drag Bill to Liz and Dick sites in and around Rome.

Imagine - on an enormous screen
That Elizabeth Taylor’s and Richard Burton’s passion for each other continues to fascinate many fans is no surprise, but that I’m one of them surprises me, at least.  I wasn’t that “into” them at the time, but since seeing Cleopatra on an enormous screen at Shea’s Buffalo several years ago (think of the size of her breasts!), and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold on a large silver screen last year, I've been hooked. 

Reading Furious Love – the recent book about “the marriage of the century” – or should we say marriages? – further stoked my enthusiasm.

And, of course, their torrid love affair began in a city we adore, Rome. 

First stop: Cinecittà.  They met in January 1962 (essentially for the first time) in Rome’s Hollywood, Cinecittà, on a sound stage for Cleopatra, determined not to like each other.  But they couldn't help themselves.  The sparks flew, and they still can be seen on screen in that overproduced epic, perhaps best known for the scene in which the Egyptian empress enters the Eternal City on a gigantic, sphinx-like float.  Cinecittà now has tours.  So you can walk where these famous two did their courtship dance. 

Entertainment on villa grounds, via Appia Antica
Second stop: the grand villas of via Appia Antica.  While they were filming Cleopatra, Liz lived in an “expansive Italian villa” on the old Appian Way.   We couldn't find the villa, but we can imagine it:  “The pink marble mansion came complete with swimming pool, acres of pine forests, two butlers, and three maids.”  Perhaps it’s a bit like Eugenio Sgaravatti’s on via Appia Antica - whose villa we know because he invites all of Rome to a spring party.

Salvator Mundi International Hospital on the Gianicolo
Third stop: a hospital.  By February 1962, Elizabeth was so in love with Burton that when he told her he would not leave his wife, Sybil,   she took an overdose of sleeping pills and was resuscitated at Salvator Mundi International Hospital on the Gianicolo, on RST’s Modern Rome Trastevere Stairways walk.
Fellini on via Veneto 

Fourth stop or stops: following the paparazzi from Piazza Navona to via Veneto.  They continued their torrid affair.  They were followed all over Rome - from Tre Scalini, the famous spot for “tartuffo” ice cream on Piazza Navona, to via Veneto, where Federico Fellini was filming La Dolce Vita.  You may recall the reporter in Fellini’s film is called “Paparazzo” (buzzing insect) – and, so, the paparazzi in Rome, on Vespas, found Liz and Dick.  And the world discovered the paparazzi effect.

Porto Santo Stefano today
Fifth stop:  a seaside hideaway.  The famous couple tried to escape the paparazzi by fleeing to a villa in Porto Santo Stefano on the Tuscan promontory of Argentario.  Caravaggio is buried in Ercole, the town on the opposite side of the island from Porto Santo Stefano.  We hiked from Ercole to Porto Santo Stefano one day – not knowing Liz and Dick had put their feet in the water off this same small town. But then, Liz and Dick probably didn’t care about Caravaggio either. 

Playing another furious couple
Sixth stop:  another lavish sound stage.  In 1966 Taylor and Burton were back in Rome to film Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew – an appropriate vehicle for the couple, who celebrated their second wedding anniversary on March 15, 1966. In the film of the Shakespeare play, Burton is Petruchio, the domineering husband, and Taylor is Kate, the wife who won’t be submissive – at least until the end.  It was Zeffirelli’s first film, and Elizabeth’s first Shakespearean role.

Again, the Taylor-Burtons had an opulent villa on via Appia Antica.  The filming this time was at the Dino De Laurentiis Studios just outside Rome.  As the Furious Love authors put it: The Burtons would be driven each morning in the Rolls-Royce, past the Coliseum, to their suite of palatial dressing rooms.” 
Dinocittà morphing into Cinecittà World
takes a lot of imagination to look back and forward
And so, Bill drove me, in our Malaguti 250, past the Coliseum, to where the studios should have been.  We searched and we searched, asked local police, and finally discovered something like a wasteland of old buildings with an optimistic sign. [our pic of studio site] Several years ago, a press release announced that there would be new theaters close to Rome, in this new “Dinocittà” (a take-off on Cinecittà), named after De Laurentiis of course. 

The project seems hardly to have gotten off the ground, and we were not allowed to step inside the gates.  Sadly, the current state of Dinocittà makes it difficult to bring to mind the films made there besides The Taming of the Shrew; among them King Vidor’s War and Peace with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn (1956) and John Huston’s The Bible (1966) with George C. Scott and Ava Gardner, Huston himself, and Peter O’Toole.  Press releases in 2002 said a Brian DePalma movie would be made there “next year.”  But those are the latest press releases on the Web site. Not much to see there, but if you get into maps, you can find it at this link.

Still, for those of us paying homage, it’s a nice drive outside Rome, on km 23.270 of the Pontina, on the west side of that harrowing road to the seashore.  It’s only 2 km north of Pomezia, a city founded in the Fascist era that we find intriguing.

Ponti and Loren's villa in Marino, circa 1964
Last stop: the small town of Marino in the Colli Albani just outside Rome. Taylor and Burton couldn't seem to stay away from each other or from Rome.  He holed up there when she announced her separation from him in 1973, and she went back to see him there as they tried to make up.  He was staying at Carlo Ponti’s immense villa in Marino. Burton needed to get his drinking under control to star in Ponti’s The Voyage, with Ponti’s wife, Sophia Loren.  (For more photos of the villa, see this link.)

And here Burton writes Elizabeth several pleading letters datelined “Rome”: 

“…[I]f you leave me, I shall have to kill myself.  There is no life without you, I’m afraid. And I am afraid.” – Burton.

Her response:  “I don’t want to be that much in love ever again.”

And so we leave our furiously in love couple, where they had their highs and their lows – Rome.

Quotations from Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger 


Anonymous said...

Good old times !

Anonymous said...

Address of Elizabeth Taylor's villa was 448 via Appia Pignatelli.

(Later home to Franco Zeffirelli, next door to Valentino).

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth's villa was at 448 via Appia Pignatelli.