Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Furious Love, Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger

I love pictures to adorn on my walls, I love beautiful picture frames, what's more - I love the pictures ... so, a lifetime ago, when I had a little money to spare, I had an image I'd found in Interview magazine photographed and blown up to eventually adorn my bedroom wall. That, however, had to wait as having spent the little dough I had at the time on having the magazine image blown up, there was no money left for the frame.

The photograph was of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It's a black and white double portrait taken by Albert Watson some time in the mid 1960s. I still have it, to this very day, and whenever I moved house (which, being a serial house mover, was often) the - long since beautifully framed - photograph was taken along.

I can't say if the original photograph was taken during a sitting or if it's a snapshot, though my guess is, that it's probably the result of a sitting. I've been obsessed with Taylor and Burton by varying degrees ever since I was a little boy when I read about them in the many tabloids my mother used to be a subscriber to. As I grew older and my sources of information on Taylor and Burton became more reliable, my erstwhile obsession turned into fascination and eventually admiration. I realised that behind the undoubtedly glamorous façade of their affair there was a couple deeply devoted to each other, both hailing from backgrounds that couldn't possibly be any more different, both extremely talented each in their own way, and both of a superior intelligence which, in Richard, manifested itself in a supreme, often self-deprecating wit, while in Elizabeth, it expressed itself in a rare, razor-sharp, sense of self and in an equally rare ability to laugh at herself.

Taylor was also full of contradictions who felt equally at home at London's Dorchester Hotel as she did in a Welsh pub, feasting on beer and rarebit. That's precisely part of what won over Burton's large family and endeared Elizabeth to them, even though they blamed her at first for breaking up Burton's marriage to Sybil. Taylor, for all her extravagance and her notorious love for diamonds and jewels, probably was one of the most unpretentious and simple movie stars imaginable. Perhaps, it's because she was born into wealth that, although used to it, didn't mind not having it - on occasion. In any case, though her display of wealth would occasionally be ostentatious, she was never pretentious, or worse, arrogant.

Moreover, in the 1950s and 60s, Elizabeth was a worldwide trailblazer in making homosexuality socially acceptable. Much later, and more admirably still, she would be the first A-list celebrity to publicly stand up for people with HIV and AIDS. Eventually, her efforts to raise funds to combat the deadly disease, would wash millions into the coffers of many an organisation, not least of which her own, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

But back to the photograph.

Needless to say, there are thousands of photographs of Taylor and Burton, her probably being the most photographed woman of the 20th century bar none. However, what intrigued me about this particular one is the expression on the faces of both, Taylor and Burton. It's perhaps the only photograph of a (married) couple I can think of that manages to perfection to capture their love for each other, making this love very obviously and believably visible, if not palpable.

Taylor's face seems to say, "See, that's us, we're an item and always will be, and nothing and nobody will ever come between us", while his expression is one of complete devotion - perhaps even submission - to her. I have no idea, of course, how long it took Watson to take the photograph, let alone if its end result is what he was after in the first place. All I know is that it's an outstandingly beautiful photograph - in all its simplicity - and that no matter how deep the feelings are between two people, I suppose that it still takes a highly skilled photographer to get these feelings across in one single image.

This, often referred to as Marriage of the Century, has become the subject of a book by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, aptly titled Furious Love. Of course, you may argue that with theirs having been such a highly publicised affair - their excesses having been covered by the international press to a heretofore unprecedented degree - what can there possibly be that we don't know already?

Well, for one thing, this, shall we say, Anatomy of a Marriage, was undertaken with the approval of none other than Dame Elizabeth Taylor herself. She even gave the authors unprecedented access to love letters by Richard Burton to her and the excerpts of these alone make the book worth reading. For it is one thing to know that theirs was indeed a furious love, but it's another to be presented with first-hand evidence, making you realise, for instance, that besides being a great actor, there also was a gifted poet hiding inside Burton.

Furious Love is a monument - a celebration - to two of the most fascinating and talented, figures in film history, accurately retracing their affair, marriage, and collaborations, down to their excessive, fascinating, sometimes lurid, detail.

Indeed, reading the book made me hanker for a different world, the world of yesteryear, a world beyond the false morality and political correctness of today where, instead of attending yoga class followed by a macro-biotic meal, only to be in bed by ten, two newly weds - after an excessive shopping spree on Via dei Condotti - would booze on champagne until dawn before passionately making love, looking much the worse for wear on the set the next day but couldn't care less ...

Sadly, Elizabeth Taylor died not that long after the publication of Furious Love. Rumour has it, that Martin Scorsese has since optioned the movie rights and that the film is slated to be released in 2014.

Furious Love was published by Harper Collins in 2010. It is available on Amazon.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Heat: 3 Hot Classics To Watch

As entire parts of the planet are currently suffering under enormous heat-waves (Mid-West, Central Europe, etc.), it made me think of some movies where heat - or indeed heat-waves - are at the centre of the story or a crucial part of it.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, in movies heat, high temperatures, and heat waves are frequently used as metaphors for the sexual tension and chemistry between the main characters. Similarly, heat in movies also often symbolises - or leads to - violence, rightly suggesting that suffering heat-waves may wreak havoc with our emotions, in one way or another. Or with both, as is the case in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, where the physical attraction between Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff is such that they decide to bump off Phyllis' husband. The references to the outside heat are few, however, in Wilder's film, but they are there. Equally in
Roman Polanski's Chinatown - incidentally also set in Los Angeles - where the persistent heat is being mentioned several times throughout the film as the violence increases and the film's main characters, Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray, embark on their doomed love affair. Polanski's cinematographer, the brilliant John A. Alonzo, expertly managed to make the heat almost palpable using very bright key lights and medium close-ups, thus creating a claustrophobic atmosphere not dissimilar to how one feels when suffering under a heat-wave.

Yet, the heat is not at the centre of the story and the references to it are subtle.

They're a lot less subtle, however, in Lawrence Kasdan's Bodyheat, a quasi remake of Double Indemnity, shot almost 40 years later, showing everything Wilder couldn't show at the time due to the restrictions of the Hays Code, including some steamy sex scenes between Kathleen Turner and William Hurt which caused quite a stir, even in 1981, when Bodyheat was first released. There are numerous references to the unusually hot weather - even for Florida, where the film is set; having read Turner's autobiography, however, I remember her talking about shooting Bodyheat on location in Florida and the terrible experience of pretending it to be scorching hot when, in actual fact, it was freezing cold as Florida suffered under an unusual cold spell at the time.


This - be warned: raunchy - scene below is followed by one of Turner and Hurt trying to cool off in the bath tub:


Wilder's 7-Year Itch is set in the blistering heat of a New York summer where Tom Ewell's character is going through the 7-Year Itch, in other words, having been married for 7 years, the hot and sultry New York summer throws up heretofore unknown feelings in Ewell, especially as far as his new neighbour, an aspiring motion picture actress, is concerned. 

The film's - if not film history's - most famous scene is the one where, in order to cool off, Monroe catches the breeze coming up from a subway grate, causing her skirt to twirl up.   

Yes, here, the heat is also what does Ewell in - sort of ... - though this being the 1950s, the scenes between the Monroe and Ewell character are very tame and nowhere near as steamy as the ones in Bodyheat. In fact, the film version of George Axelrod's play doesn't even go as far as the Broadway play, where Ewell and the girl -remaining nameless throughout play and film - at least get the chance of a hot and steamy one-off.

Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beneix' classic French film from 1986 has a subtitle in the original version which - sadly - was deleted from the US and UK versions, Betty Blue, 37,2 degrees in the morning, referring to the sweltering temperatures that pervade almost throughout the picture. Beneix' amour fou is as disturbing as it is beautiful, revolving as it does, around the obsessive love of a young woman, played by Beatrice Dalle, for an odd-jobs man, played by Jean-Hugues Anglade. Their - at the beginning at least - reciprocal love is set against the rugged beauty of the Languedoc region in the South of France where the mid-summer heat is matched by the violently passionate love scenes between Dalle and Anglade. 

However, as Dalle's character slips ever deeper into self-destructive madness, and the heat gives way to somewhat cooler temperatures, the otherwise mesmerising film gets ever more painful to watch.

  Bodyheat, The 7-Year Itch, and Betty Blue are all available on AMAZON. So are Double Indemnity and Chinatown