screenstories62By now you’ve probably heard about LIZ & DICK(2012), a heavily publicized made for television movie produced by the Lifetime Network that dramatically retold the story of how Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton met, fell in love and married not once, but twice. I’m extremely fond of both Taylorand Burton and I’ve written about them frequently but I had no interest in watching LIZ & DICK myself. I made the mistake of sitting through LIZ: THE ELIZABETH TAYLOR STORY (1995) when it originally aired so the temptation to watch another TV production featuring lesser actors portraying performers I genuinely admire held no appeal for me. And if I want to relive the tabloid troubles of Taylor and Burton there are plenty of publications I can read.

Countless newspapers and magazines throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s documented Taylor and Burton’s complicated relationship. The two talented actors became household names after publications around the world devoted space to their stormy romance. Some of these accounts have been broken down and described in books but there’s something utterly raw and deeply revealing about reading these tabloid stories firsthand. If you think tabloids are bad now, think again! Thanks to television and the World Wide Web we might have more access to outlets that revel in movie-related gossip but the sensational nature of celebrity news coverage hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years.

My fellow Morlock, Susan Doll, recently wrote an interesting and informative post detailing the early history of movie fan magazines and highlighted a 1948 issue of Movie Stars Parade. This week I thought I’d borrow her idea and share an original issue of Screen Stories magazine from the early ‘60s that documents the way the press was responding to the budding relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Hopefully, Movie Morlocks readers will find it as fascinating to read as I did.

The title of Screen Stories was associated with the magazine’s main content, which consisted of movie plot summaries or “screen stories” accompanied by photos and shared without commentary allowing readers to decide if they wanted to see a particular movie for themselves. Today film journalists and critics often have to worry about publishing “spoilers” and audiences complain when promotional trailers reveal too much about a movie but in 1962 the readers of Screen Stories had no qualms about knowing everything they could about a new film before paying to see it. Besides detailed accounts of THAT TOUCH OF MINK and THE MUSIC MAN, the August 1962 issue (pictured above) also contains “screen stories” for HATARITHE INTERNSJESSICA and ADVENTURES OF A YOUNG MAN.

Along with these lengthy plot summaries the monthly magazine regularly published a gossip column written by the widely read Mike Connolly as well as feature stories with provocative headlines that usually focused on a particular actor or actress. In August of 1962 Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were at the center of a publicity storm surrounding their much talked about romance on the set of CLEOPATRA (1963). Rumors, innuendos and steamy tales from the set were making headlines across the globe and this particular issue of Screen Stories asked readers a topical question; “Liz Taylor . . . Is she being destroyed by LOVE?” suggesting that Taylor’s passionate liaison with Richard Burton had the potential to ruin her and her career. Although Taylor and Burton made very little effort to conceal their extramarital affair, Screen Stories’ gossip columnist Mike Connolly wasn’t ready to give up on Taylor’s marriage to Eddie Fisher yet. In his “Exclusive Report from Hollywood” Connolly writes:

“There’s plenty of substance to the stories that Liz Taylor wants Eddie Fisher back! He had a fabulous opening night for his singing comeback at the Cocoanut Grove, after spending nine months away from the business, ‘looking after Liz’ interests in Rome as her production aide on CLEOPATRA. Not the least fabulous of the evening’s events was the arrival of a huge bouquet from Liz: She didn’t attach a card to the peace offering. There was no need for one. Eddie knew they were from Liz because Sterling roses (a rare, expensive, violet-hued flower) were the kind he always sent her on special occasions when he was wooing her and after their marriage.”

Later Connolly adds:

“The word is out that CLEOPATRA is a great hunk of a movie. Coincidentally, the criticism of Liz Taylor’s behavior has let up a little. I wouldn’t be surprised if she came out of the scandal smelling like a rose, as least as far as her career is concerned. If it really is a fine movie, the fans will pay to see it, scandal or no. As one of my readers writes: ‘It’ll be interesting to see what happens to Liz. Personally, I think she’s so far out of the ordinary that she’s practically immune, in the eyes of the public, to any of the moral and ethical tenets of the day.’ Now that I will not concede. But you’re right, Dear Reader – it will be interesting to watch.”

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It’s interesting to note that Connolly was once called “the most influential columnist inside the movie colony” by Newsweek but today he’s probably best remembered as the man Shirley Maclaine punched in the mouth. The actress became so irate over one of his gossip columns in 1963 that she walked straight into his office at The Hollywood Reporter and socked him on the jaw, which made headlines in New York and earned Connelly a mention in Maclaine’s autobiography, Don’t Fall Off The Mountain.

Screen Stories’ main feature on the Taylor and Burton romance was written anonymously, which is unusual for a magazine that regularly credited its writers. I suspect that none of the staff or regular contributors were eager to be associated with the story directly and publishing it anonymously gave them the opportunity to be as sensational as possible. The extended title of the cover piece was “Only the Sphinx knows – Is Liz Being Destroyed by Love?” and constantly references quotes from nameless and faceless ‘friends’ who offer readers their opinions while dishing out questionable advice to Taylor and Burton on how they should live their lives. The article begins with this attack:

“‘What is the matter with Liz?’ a friend of hers, who’d just returned from visiting her in Rome, asked. ‘She seems bent on destroying herself. What is there inside her that makes her seek trouble? Just look – she’d finally won public acceptance of her marriage to Eddie Fisher. Because of her almost fatal illness last year, she even had the world rallying to her side – praying for her. After three years of having been criticized and reviled for having taken Eddie away from Debbie and his children, you’d think she’d be happy at the way things turned out for her. She had public good will, was earning millions in CLEOPATRA, had her children with her, her health restored, the unflattering devotion of her husband. Just what more could she want? And now, overnight, she has torn everything down. She’s a woman disgraced and reviled all over again.’ Will Liz’ headlined romance with Richard Burton destroy her, as some of her friends believe? Will it hurt her career; will it hurt her as a woman?”

After detailing Taylor’s assumed sins, the article briefly discusses Burton’s own digressions. Of course, this is 1962 and as this piece illustrates, it was much more acceptable for men to engage in affairs while they were married.

“Richard Burton, his friends say, has had discreet friendships with women before the Liz Taylor episode. But it was always clear to these women that he had no intention of leaving his wife, Sybil. Whenever he was ready to end a friendship, the women quietly walked out of his life. Liz is one of the few women of our time who has never known what it is to be frustrated. Richard Burton has said, ‘I won’t marry Liz. I won’t leave Sybil.’

‘And why should he?’ asked a friend of his. ‘Sybil has always been tolerant and understanding. Where else would he find such an undemanding wife? Certainly not in Liz.”

The anonymous Screen Stories article ends with a complete condemnation of Taylor:

“If Liz were able to realize her dearest dream – Richard’s agreement to a divorce and marriage to her – she might still be destroying herself. It is unlikely that her fans will remain loyal to her if she succeeds once again in taking a man away from his wife and two children. Though many of them forgave her once, this second time is just too much for most people to swallow. She has alienated fans, the press, churchgoers, and the general public.

If Richard turns his back on her, what will be left of Liz? Surely she is smart enough to know the real score. No one – neither Debbie nor Eddie nor Sybil nor Richard – could harm Liz as much as she is harming herself. ”

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We now know that Screen Stories was wrong and Taylor survived her affair with Burton and eventually married the man she loved, which has become the subject of countless books and two made for TV movies. But it’s interesting to read just how venomous the press was at the time. Taylor was often portrayed as a fallen woman who ‘stole’ the helpless Burton away from a devoted wife. And even though it was common knowledge that Burton had regularly engaged in elicit affairs before meeting Taylor, the press overlooked his indiscretions while they were busy condemning Taylor.

This kind of biased coverage that attempts to paint women as evil seductresses who lure hapless men to their doom still goes on today and is reminiscent of the way the Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt affair was reported as well as the recent romance between young Kristen Stewart and director Rupert Sanders. The times may change but movie publications haven’t. They’re still practicing the same kind of sensationalist journalism today and the public is still lapping it up. Of course, actors aren’t innocent bystanders in their own lives. They’re well aware of how the publicity machine works and that was undoubtedly true of Taylor and Burton. They may have suffered some scathing attacks but they also got a lot of free publicity for themselves and in Hollywood, any publicity is often considered good publicity.

by Kimberly Lindbergs

Originally written for Turner Classic Movies/Movie Morlocks Blog