In 1967 Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were at the height of their shared fame following the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967). Both films had been well received by critics and audiences loved seeing the two actors on screen together in fictional marriages that many assumed resembled their real-life marriage. There’s no doubt that the two actors brought some of their real-world experience to their roles but it became increasingly hard for the public to separate fact from fiction. Elizabeth Taylor had also become a target for critics and gossip columnists who insisted on labeling her a wanton woman who had destroyed Richard Burton’s previous marriage and was damning the acclaimed stage actor to a decadent Hollywood life spent making movies and drinking too much.
Of course this was only half the story, but unfortunately many people still think of Elizabeth Taylor as the woman who brought about Richard Burton’s downfall and it’s not uncommon for critics and biographers to blame her for the couple’s many problems. The truth is that Richard Burton was a notorious drinker and womanizer long before he ever met Taylor on the set of Cleopatra (1963) and even if he hadn’t fallen in love with her, there’s a high probability that his previous marriage wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Burton had also been making movies long before he met Taylor and the talented actor had expressed his desire to move away from stage acting and focus more on film acting. His high profile relationship with an award-winning star like Taylor gave Burton the opportunity to appear in better films and be more selective about the roles he took. And far from being the wretched shrew that so many critics and gossip columnists saw her as, Taylor was actually supportive of Burton’s stage work and used her Hollywood clout to help Burton gain more creative control over his acting career. Burton also encouraged Taylor’s stage acting because he thought she had the makings of a great actress who was capable of handling the classic plays that Burton had appeared in.
One of Richard Burton’s favorite classic plays was Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which tells the cautionary tale of a magician who sells his soul to the devil for more knowledge and power. For years Burton had longed to play Doctor Faustus and in 1966 he got the opportunity to in a Nevill Coghill directed production of the play that took place at the Oxford Playhouse in England. The play also featured Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Helen of Troy. Taylor had previously appeared on stage with Burton in 1964 during a poetry reading where both actor’s read the work of various poets including Robert Frost and Elizabeth Barrett Browning but Taylor’s non-speaking role in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus would mark the first time that the actress would actually be acting on stage in front of a live audience.
Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton in the Oxford stage production of
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus(1966)
Taylor was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the time and she averaged one million dollars a picture. Burton was making about $500,000 per film himself but both actors didn’t take any money for starring in the stage production of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Instead, the couple gave up their high salaries and all the money earned from ticket sales went to Oxford University for a studio-theatre extension, now known as the Burton-Taylor Rooms.
After the success of the Oxford production which played to a crammed full-house every night, Burton expressed interest in starring in a film version of Marlowe’s play and together with Taylor, the couple decided to finance a movie based on The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus simply tited Doctor Faustus (1967). Burton would make his directorial debut with Doctor Faustus in association with Nevill Coghill, who had directed Burton and Taylor on the Oxford stage and Burton and Taylor would once again play the roles of Faustus and Helen. Co-director Coghill also wrote the film’s script.
The film was shot in three months in Rome and besides Taylor and Burton; the entire cast consisted of undergraduates from the Oxford University Dramatic Society. The couple also employed many of the talented people who they had met and worked with on the set of Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew to make Doctor Faustus, such as producer Richard McWhorter, art director Boris Juraga, set director Dario Simoni, set designer Italo Tomassi, special effects artist Augie Lohman and stylist Alexandre de Paris who had helped create Taylor’s dramatic look for Cleopatra.
Together with a skilled international crew that included cinematographer Gábor Pogány, this group of creative people helped give Doctor Faustus an impressive look and stunning visual style even though most of the film was seemingly shot on rather small sets. Horror fans who enjoy Roger Corman’s Poe films, Hammer studio’s Gothic productions and Mario Bava’s Italian thrillers might be surprised by how much Burton’s Doctor Faustus seems to resemble horror films from the same period.
Although the script differs from the original play it still manages to follow Christopher Marlowe’s story somewhat faithfully. Nevill Coghill also smartly worked passages from some of Marlowe’s other plays such as The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine into his script, which spices up the proceedings and gives the film more creative depth and pathos.
Elizabeth Taylor’s performance as Helen of Troy is wordless but she still manages to make a big impact on screen. Burton’s love and affection for his wife comes through in every scene she appears in. Taylor floats through the film like a beautiful siren luring Faustus to his final doom. Throughout countless costume and makeup changes that would make Cleopatra envious, Taylor manages to give her silent role a quiet resonance that allows Burton’s Faustus to truly shine and take center stage.
Elizabeth Taylor has expressed many times how in awe she was of Burton’s acting talents and she’s still deeply hurt that Hollywood never fully embraced or rewarded Burton during his lifetime. While watching Doctor Faustus again I was impressed with the way Taylor acted as a sort of lovely ornament in the film infusing it with color, vitality and warmth. The picture was clearly made in an effort to let her much admired husband showcase his impressive acting abilities and creative skills as a co-director and producer, which Burton does to great effect but it’s also his love letter to the English language and the dramatic arts.
Critics have naturally referred to Doctor Faustus as a “vanity project” for both Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. And there’s no getting around the fact that Burton’s dream of bringing Marlowe’s play to the screen was motivated by his personal desires and hopes, which Taylor completely supported. But I also think that a lot of care, creativity and thought went into the production and it’s plainly obvious that Burton had a sincere appreciation and deep understanding of Christopher Marlowe’s work, which should be obvious to anyone who’s seen the film.
Burton clearly enjoyed playing Faustus and his magnificent booming voice gives a lot of weight to Marlowe’s classic play. In the book Constructing Christopher Marlowe author, performance critic and Professor Lois Potter mentions that Richard Burton’s stage and film adaptation’s of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus did more for Marlowe’s fame than any other event during the last century which is a remarkable feat.
Unfortunately film critics (who undoubtedly had very little experience with Marlowe’s original work) were not kind to the film. As a matter of fact, they were rather brutal in their harsh dismissal of Doctor Faustus. New York Times critic Renata Adler said of the film in 1968 after it debuted in America that it, “is of an awfulness that bends the mind . . . one has the feeling that ‘Faustus’ was shot mainly as a home movie for them (Burton and Taylor) to enjoy at home.”
In the New Yorker Pauline Kael claimed that “By the time Richard Burton was in a position to star in a movie of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, further dealing with the Devil probably had become anticlimactic” and claimed the film was “The dullest episode in the Burton and Taylor great-lovers-of-history series that started with Cleopatra . . . Burton gives a dead, muffled reading.” And last but not least, Judith Crist added “It turns out to be the story of a man who sold his soul for Elizabeth Taylor.”
It’s easy to dismiss some of the negative criticism of the film as pure opinion without much basis in fact once you’ve seen the film, but it’s impossible to overlook some of the more pointed personal attacks that were aimed directly at Elizabeth Taylor. Both Kael and Crist were clearly comparing Taylor to the Devil and their cruelty is utterly tasteless, catty and unprofessional, as well as weightless when one considers the facts behind the film’s production. Instead of making Doctor Faustus with Burton, Taylor could have spent her time earning a million dollar paycheck in Hollywood. But Taylor clearly supported her husband’s creative desire to make the film and lent her ample financial clout and fame to help him realize his dream. Unfortunately the criticism that followed the rest of the film’s Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made together would often take a similar ugly direction.
Doctor Faustus is not a perfect film and I personally find it a bit too stagy and slow-moving at times for my own liking, which can be blamed on Marlowe’s original play as well as the script. But there’s also a lot to enjoy in the film and it’s a shame that the critical reception was so negative on its release. The special effects are very imaginative for the time and the production employees stylish touches such as a split-screen to convey Faustus’ thoughts and highlight simultaneous actions by various characters.
I would have loved to have seen Richard Burton go on to direct other films or at the very least co-direct. Doctor Faustus proves that he had many other talents besides acting and I think he could have successfully adapted other classic Elizabethan plays for film if he had been given the opportunity. In fact, I feel confident in saying that the negative criticism and lack of respect from Hollywood, which resulted in Burton never receiving an Oscar even though he was nominated seven times, deeply troubled him and did more harm to Richard Burton’s personal life and career than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.
The personal attacks on Elizabeth Taylor found in the criticisms of Doctor Faustus have continued to haunt the film, even though the 2004 DVD release of the movie seemed to generate mostly positive reviews.
In the following clip I came across on Youtube you can witness Elizabeth Taylor take on a group of journalists as they question Richard Burton about his career choices in relation to Doctor Faustus. Taylor had grown-up in the public eye and she had clearly grown weary of thoughtless critics. Burton on the other hand is rather new to this kind of extreme critical attention and he remains calm and collected in the clip. He also seems to get a mild kick out of seeing his wife lash back at the reporters.
Also worth a look is this brief hard-to-see clip shot in 1966 featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton leaving the Oxford Playhouse after the first stage production of Doctor Faustus while they’re being questioned by journalists about their performances.
If you enjoy classic Elizabethan drama or classic gothic horror from the sixties, I recommend giving the 1967 film version of Doctor Faustus a look. The film should also hold a lot of interest for fans of Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew since both films could be considered siblings to Doctor Faustus due to the fact that so many crew members worked with Taylor and Burton on all three productions.
If you would like to see more images from the film please see my Doctor Faustus Flickr Gallery.