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August 15, 2010

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Booze-soaked brawl of Richard and Liz

IN a book about alcoholic, promiscuous, big-spending divas, we're conditioned to expect a rise and a fall and then redemption. But "Furious Love," a joint biography that concentrates on what tabloids called "the marriage of the century," offers a long, wavy line rather than the familiar arc. And it makes for an indulgent, plenty-of-fun book about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's traveling circus of money, booze and mutual obsession.

Taylor has shared Burton's hot-and-heavy correspondence with Sam Kashner, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and Nancy Schoenberger, the author of "Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood." So it makes sense that Kashner and Schoenberger are protective of their generous subject. They lovingly cast her as an ordinary-at-heart woman who enjoys the simple pleasure of a hamburger right off the grill as much as the world's most expensive jewels. "She was not allowed to age like an ordinary woman," they write in defense of Taylor's well-publicized weight gain.

In fact, she seems like a borderline saint. She climbed into a crushed car to save her friend Montgomery Clift. She was loyal and generous, supporting dozens of people in her extended family. She raised a passel of kids and countless pets. She was the first celebrity hero of AIDS research, cuddling with a bedridden patient at a time when ignorance and fear were rampant.

But even if the book seems a little overblown in its praise and sometimes a bit schmaltzy - the Burtons' "Liz and Dick" tabloid personas were "perhaps their greatest roles" - the authors make shrewd observations. For example, they say Taylor engaged in "a kind of reverse Method acting," taking inspiration from her movie roles into her off-camera life.

From the moment they saw each other on the "Cleopatra" set in 1962 ("Richard in his too-short tunic and Elizabeth in her dark Egyptian eye makeup") until Burton's death in 1984, they were mutually addicted, as is evident from the often graphic testimonies to their lust. Burton described Taylor's breasts as "apocalyptic." Taylor said, "When you get aroused playing Scrabble, that's love, baby." The book offers lots of juicy details about the studio system's terrible publicity marriages; the dawn of the paparazzi; and the lavish social lives of the Kennedys, the Prince and Princess of Monaco, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and some startlingly ill-behaved members of the Hollywood elite. Back then, many actors routinely started drinking in the morning and were incapable of working after lunchtime. On the set of "The Night of the Iguana," John Huston gave his unstable stars guns and bullets bearing the names of each member of the cast.

Then there were the Burtons, two astonishingly dashing, alcoholic and damaged people who couldn't stay away from each other and couldn't stop fighting. "Furious" is an apt word for their love, because they were passionate but also as full of rage as overtired toddlers. "Theirs was the first reality show, a marriage with an audience," the authors persuasively argue; by the end of Burton's life, the couple had veered into the realm of self-parody and camp.

But in their prime, the Burtons made "married love" seem "glamorous and sexy," "even dangerous," the authors write. They also made it seem deranged and codependent. Though they married and divorced each other twice, this book suggests that when Burton died at the age of 58, they were just getting started. Their relationship did not have a before and after; it was all during or in-between. There's a lesson here for couples: marriage doesn't have to be a partnership of equals. It can be a bodice-ripping, booze-soaked, jewel-bedecked brawl that survives even death. It's a tough way to live, but it makes for a good beach book.


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