Filmmaker Mike Leigh's biography of the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner is what critics call "austere"—which means it's slow and grim and deliberately hard to love—yet…
LONDON - Richard Burton said, "It's that long hair, that's what it is." He stroked the hair back from the face of Lisa Todd, Elizabeth's daughter, and looked into the girl's eyes. "It's that long hair getting into your eyes." He shook his head, pretending great solemnity. "We'll have to operate," he said. "The left eye definitely has something in it. We'll operate at...ah, four this afternoon, I think. Very serious." Lisa laughed and shook her hair back into her eyes. Burton took her by the hand and led her into his dressing room. "Gonzales is playing again this afternoon at Wimbledon," he said. "Did you see yesterday's match? It was rather better than 'Hamlet' - the old man against the young man."
"Are there any horses here?" Lisa asked.
"Not at the moment, no," Burton said. "Not in this room, at any event." He looked around carefully. "Not in this room, no. Sit here next to me." Lisa sat next to him on a sofa.
"What's this movie about?" Lisa asked.
"About Henry the Eighth," Burton said. "That's me. I divorce my wife, Katherine, you see, because I want a male child. I'm getting old and I want to be followed by a King, not a queen. I marry Anne Boleyn, but she doesn't have a male child either. Only a daughter - Elizabeth. So I fall in love with Jane Seymour and chop off Anne's head. That's what's known as the story in capsule form. Of course we take two hours and 10 minutes to tell it..."
Just then Burton was called back for another scene on "Anne of the Thousand Days." Lisa sat in his director's chair and watched as the scene was shot. Then Burton suggested they go upstairs to the office he and Elizabeth Taylor were occupying at Shepperton Studios. "Elizabeth just got a new sapphire," he explained to Charles Jarrott, his young Canadian director. "It's 39 carats I think. She's so fascinated by it she won't even come down on the set. She's sitting up there adoring it with one hand and eating steak and kidney pie with the other."
"A gift from you?" Jarrott said.
"Well of course," Burton said. "Who else would give her anything?"
Burton led Lisa down a corridor and up some stairs and down another corridor. "Once you get off the set," he observed, "these big stages are like hospitals."
Burton opened a door onto a large living room. It was flanked on one side by a dressing room and on the other by an office occupied by his secretary, Jim Benton. There was something of a family reunion in progress; Burton's sister Katherine was there, and her son, and a friend of hers named Elizabeth, and Burton's daughter, Maria. They were all going up to Wales on the yacht tomorrow to see Prince Charles invested as Prince of Wales. There was an enormous pop art poster, of Elizabeth on the door to the dressing room. It opened, and Elizabeth herself stepped into the room.
"How do you like it?" she said. She was wearing a white mini dress, and she polished her new sapphire on the hem before showing it to Katherine.
"Oh, my," Katherine said, clapping her hands. "It's lovely."
Elizabeth bent over to give everyone on the sofa a better look.
"Careful," Burton said, "We can see your behind, Luv." "How's it lookin'?" Elizabeth asked, giving the item in question a pert wriggle.
"You can wear it as a pin or a ring," Elizabeth said. "You have to fiddle about with it," Richard said. "It comes with a screwdriver or something. It's as complicated as a Meccano set." The Wimbledon tennis match was on TV; Burton walked over to the set and turned it off. "Anybody want to watch tennis?" he said. "It interrupts social intercourse, as they say." Elizabeth went into the next room to show her sapphire to Jim Benton.
"I understand Sheilah Graham wants to see Elizabeth and me," Burton said. "She's been on the phone all week, asking for an interview. But she wants to be sure we've read her book first, because she's afraid we'll be mad at her. She has a chapter about Elizabeth and me."
He poured himself a brandy, and sat on the sofa next to his sister. Lisa and Maria occupied chairs in the corner of the room, being seen but not heard. "Well I read the book, or tried to," Burton said. "I couldn't even get through the chapter we were in, let alone anything else. This woman says I made a pass at her once."
"Have you seen her? She looks like Maggie down at the fish and chips shop. And she dredges up every old lamentable tale and lie that's ever been written about Elizabeth and myself. But no matter; it's so deplorably written that nobody will be able to read it anyway. Oh, I'll give her an interview all right. I'll get her into this room and give her several sharp ones right under the heart..."
"Can I be in this film?" Lisa asked.
"Haven't you already been in a film?" Burton said. "My rule is, each child can be in one film. Of course we've got 99 children. Maria was in 'Staircase,' where her father was a homosexual, if you will."
Maria smiled proudly. Elizabeth came back into the room, wearing the sapphire on her finger. "See?" she said. "Now it's a ring." She bent over to show it to Katherine, and her mini dress slipped up.
"Elizabeth," Burton said, "you're displaying your bum again."
"You leave my bum out of this," Elizabeth said.
Burton said something in Welsh, and his sister giggled. "I keep forgetting," he said. "I always speak Welsh to my family. A couple of my nephews said they saw Prince Charles on the telly, speaking Welsh, and he sounded quite good. He must be a clever boy. That was a shame about that time bomb they found. A couple of nice demonstrations, that's all right, but I hope they don't blow him up. Of course we're no good with our hands in any event. They took that bomb apart, and it appears that if it had exploded when it was supposed to it would have blown up the conspirators." Jim Benton came into the room and got down on his knees to adjust the doorstop.
"Jim," Burton said, "you don't have to get down on your hands and knees to me."
"But Mr. Burton," Benton said with exaggerated humility, "Why should I act differently in public than in private?"
"Richard," his sister said, "where was 'The Taming of the Shrew' photographed?"
"Rome," he said.
"Even that scene in the sheep wool?"
"You bet. It was stinking. We both had to be deloused."
He poured himself another brandy and picked up a book from the coffee table: "The Drinking Man's Diet."
"You know," he said, "we thought we'd go on this, but they want you to drink so much..."
Elizabeth took a chair. "Did you hear about our scare yesterday?" she said.
"No, dear, what was that?" Katherine said.
"We had a Welshman break into the dressing room," she said. "He wanted 7,000 pounds. He'd been writing to us for three weeks, apparently. He was 7,000 pounds in debt and he wanted Richard to bail him out."
"Because Richard was also a Welshman."
Burton laughed. "Just a modest little request," he said. "He wanted us to bail him out, pay his debts, and give him a fresh start in Switzerland. Broke right into the dressing room."
"I've got to stop leaving the key in the door," Elizabeth said.
"I'll never forget a letter I got from one fellow," Burton said. "He said I'd be curious to know that he had discovered a lost manuscript by Shakespeare. I wrote back saying we could put it on at the Old Vic. He replied that the manuscript had unfortunately been destroyed but that fortunately he had committed it to memory."
There was general laughter, and just then somebody knocked at the door. Burton opened it. "Mister Thomas!" he said. An old man entered the room and sat down. It was Katherine's 90-year-old father-in-law. He took a seat of honor and Burton busied himself at the bar.
"Mr. Thomas is from my village in Wales," he explained. "Before he retired, he had two jobs - the builder and the undertaker."
He took a glass of brandy to the old man, who accepted it with a nod and then said something in Welsh to Burton.
"What'd he say?" Elizabeth said.
"He said," Burton said, "you know, this stuff buried your father."
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