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Elizabeth Taylor, a Welsh Cleopatra in ‘Under Milk Wood’.

By Andrew Sinclair.

In 1972, Dylan Thomas’s 1954 radio drama, Under Milk Wood, a “play for voices” about the inner lives of the inhabitants  of Llareggub, a fictional Welsh  village, was adapted for film. It starred Elizabeth Taylor; her husband Richard Burton, who had been in the original radio play; and Peter O’Toole. The director was Andrew Sinclair.

FROM MY REPUTATION, Elizabeth Taylor disliked me on sight. She felt undereducated, her husband had wanted to become a don, and I had been an academic.

In her Shepperton studio dressing-room, while making her previous film, Zee & Co., she appeared somewhat dishevelled, if that were possible. She gave me three orders before starting Under Milk Wood. Firstly, her back was too bad to take the train to Wales; I would have to film her two-day shoot in London. Secondly, it had to be at the end of the schedule, as her movie was a long way from a wrap. And although she was playing the small part (for Dylan Thomas) of a Welsh whore called Rosie Probert, she would require three Parisian nightdresses, at the cost of £600 – half our costume budget.

The next time I met her was the coup de grâce. Richard Burton had invited me and the comic Ryan Davies, who played the Second Voice, for a drunken evening in his Camden house. After a few bottles, Richard decided we were his two best friends, and he presented each of us with a silver goblet, given by the Rotary clubs of Wales in grateful recognition of their favourite son and daughter, Elizabeth and Richard Burton, alias Jenkins. “I have to cut all the jewellery advertisements out of the glossy magazines,” Richard was confiding in us, “or I would be ruined. She loves the rocks.”

But he was unable to forestall the apparition that burst through the door – Elizabeth, in a yellow hot-pants wool suit, covered by a wild mink coat, the tails of the little beasts twirling on the floor. “Taraah!” she cried – and then she saw the silverware Ryan and I were holding. “What are you doing with my goblet?” Elizabeth screeched. I handed one silver cup back to Richard, Ryan handed him the other, and we left hotfoot into the London night. Behind us, a voice like a police siren rent the black air.

AT LEE STUDIOS, WE waited all morning for Elizabeth to appear. We had only two days to shoot her, for if she and Richard did not leave British shores by tomorrow midnight, their back taxes would have settled much of the national debt. I went to her dressing-room, and I put down a costly gold Egyptian serpent bracelet as a peace offering from my pocket. Unfortunately, she was making herself up as Cleopatra, all kohl and rouge and peacock eyelids. “That won’t do,” I heard myself daring to say. “You’re a Welsh sailor’s whore of the ‘fifties. You can’t look like that.”

“I always look like Cleopatra,” she said, and dismissed me.

She did not come on set until noon. I decided to turn her into Captain Cat’s wet dream, as in the text. “Grease the lens,” I told my cameraman, Bob Huke, who asked, “Do I make her look beautiful, or like the back end of a bus?”

I swallowed and gulped out, “Beautiful, please. She has picture approval.”

We laid her on the brass bed and bunged in three shots on the incredible violet eyes before lunch. I noticed that Bob was performing in front of the Brute lights, as the conductor of an orchestra, only his baton was a black ruler. When she was gone, I asked Bob what he was doing. “Hiding her three chins,” he said, “even when she moves. The thingy throws a shadow across her neck. We call it a Charliebar. Any Charlie can use it.” And indeed, for the full-length solo stills, because of her low-slung figure, Elizabeth insisted on being shot upwards by a photographer lying on the floor. On such a take from a worm’s eye view, she looked far taller and thinner, and a bouffant hairdo made her head a decent size.

Saving the picture…

AFTER PETER O’TOOLE HAD saved the picture by getting Elizabeth back on the bed after lunch, I made my only personal appearance and comment. I was the pair of hands in black gloves putting two old pennies on the defunct Rosie Probert’s eyes. I had solved the problem of having five different cemeteries in various locations, all pretending to be one at Llareggub, by travelling with a moveable gravestone as a cornerpiece in the shot; it bore the Probert name. I must say, Elizabeth left without saying good-bye, although she did write in Burton screen play, which he gave to me, that it had been a fantastic experience. Indeed, for both of us.

At lunch with Tony Curtis and Roddy McDowall some time later, I complained about Elizabeth’s behaviour, only to be sharply reproved by McDowall, a lifelong friend of Elizabeth’s; the two had starred in the 1943 film Lassie Come Home, when she was only 11. She was no Shirley Temple, but she was, he said, one of the few child actresses, after her breakthrough performance in  National Velvet, who had grown and matured. The two were often working on films at the same time. By Californian state law, minors had to receive four hours of tuition daily between takes. Roddy came out of a lesson one day to meet Elizabeth, running into class.

“You’re late!” he cried.

“Wouldn’t you be,” she asked, “if you had just had Robert Taylor sticking his tongue down your throat?”

“You must forgive her,” Roddy told me at the end of his story. “She has lost all sense of reality. But child star to real star. that is a wonderful and rare thing to do.”

It was a wonderful and rare thing to do, as he well knew. And now she is done and I regret her passing. She truly leaves a void in extravagance and human nature.

Andrew Sinclair directed the film version of Under Milk Wood and did the cinematic adaptation of the work. He is also the author of several books, including Prohibition and reviewed Daniel Okrent’s Last Call for The Fortnightly Review in June 2010. He lives in London.

Under Milk Wood is available on DVD (here for North American readers, and here for British and European readers). The trailer may be viewed here.

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One Comment

  1. Auron Renius wrote:

    According to Plutarch, when Mark Antony first met Cleopatra, he tried to out do her extravagance, and failed miserably ( though I don’t think it bothered him much as he had found the love of his life.). Plutarch said;

    “On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good humor and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equaled for beauty.

    The next day, Antony invited her to supper, and was very desirous to outdo her as well in magnificence as contrivance; but he found he was altogether beaten in both, and was so well convinced of it, that he was himself the first to jest and mock at his poverty of wit, and his rustic awkwardness. She, perceiving that his raillery was broad and gross, and savored more of the soldier than the courtier, rejoined in the same taste, and fell into it at once, without any sort of reluctance or reserve”.

    Wednesday, 30 March 2011 at 13:34 | Permalink

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