The lesser-known side of Hollywood’s greatest love stories

The relationship between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward was far from perfect and Liz Taylor and Richard Burton married other people. Still, both couples loved each other until the end of their days

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.Photo: GETTY

The starting price was $1 million; it was finally sold for $15.5 million, the highest price reached until then (2017) for a wristwatch in an auction. It belonged to Paul Newman and had been given to him by his wife, Joanne Woodward, with the inscription “drive carefully.” More than a watch, it was a symbol, the closest that a mere mortal could get to the incorruptible love of the couple with the best photo album in history.

The documentary series The Last Movie Stars (HBO) devotes six one-hour chapters to telling the true story of the most handsome man in the world and the wonderful actress with whom he shared more than half a century. Through unpublished material, more than a hundred interviews with the couple, friends and colleagues — which Newman intended to use to write his memoirs — in addition to talks with their children and grandchildren, director Ethan Hawke achieves a most difficult feat: to amplify the legend. He does it by bringing them down to Earth, showing that their relationship was not perfect (because no relationship ever is) and humanizing the last stars – as their friend, writer Gore Vidal, used to call them.

The star of The Hustler had burned the tapes, but the transcripts survived. It was the family who requested the documentary; their daughter Melissa mentioned that, even though they were seen as the perfect marriage, their story had to be deconstructed so they could get more credit, which they deserved. And it is precisely that authenticity, the essential quality of all good actors, what heightens their merit.

They met in 1953 at their agent’s office, and after a negative first impression that quickly changed, lust took over, taking them everywhere: hotels, motels, public parks, bathrooms, rental cars, swimming pools and beaches. The affair would last for five years, until Newman divorced his wife, Jackie Witte, with whom he had three children under the age of five.

They married in 1958 and had three children. While Newman’s fame took off, Woodward’ career – now the mother of a large family – suffered. In the documentary she admits that, although she loved them, if she had had the opportunity to do it all over again, she might not have chosen to have children. Still, their daughter Melissa says that it was her who made them all a family.

Paul Newman and his son Scott in 1972.
Paul Newman and his son Scott in 1972.getty

The marriage then followed an unfair, albeit universal script: while she grew old and took care of the kids, he moved up and became more interesting. “What is it like to be married to Paul Newman?” is what interviewers wanted to know. One day, the host of a show addressed the audience in front of the actor, and asked: “Would you let him leave the house if you were his wife?” It was then that he uttered a phrase that went down in the history of romanticism: “I have steak at home. Why should I go out for hamburger?” She didn’t like it at all. “What a chauvinist statement,” she says in the documentary (voiced by Laura Linney). “I’m not a piece of meat, for God’s sake. Every time that quote pops up, I want to kill.”

They also overcame the tragic death of Scott, Newman’s eldest son, by overdose, at 28 years of age, as well as the actor’s alcoholism. After finding him on the ground one day with a gash in his forehead, Woodward took the girls, left home, and gave him an ultimatum: it was either alcohol or them. Finally, they reached a pact – only beer.

The most handsome man in the world was surprisingly very insecure, and doesn’t speak highly of himself throughout the documentary (voiced by George Clooney). Woodward not only had “created” him as a sex symbol; she also taught him to love himself.

In 1983, on their 25th anniversary, after much trouble, they renewed their vows and remarried. The text they both read says: “Happiness in marriage is not something that just happens. A good marriage must be created. It is cultivating patience, the capacity to forgive and forget. It is standing together facing the world.”

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in1965.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in1965. MGM / The Kobal Collection (The Picture Desk)

In 2007, Woodward was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; nine days later, Newman was diagnosed with cancer. Before going to the hospital for the last time, he put his compass inside his wife’s Christmas stocking, so that she would have a present for the first holidays that they were not going to spend together in 50 years. By that moment he had already burned the interview tapes. Paul Newman was tired of Paul Newman. Fortunately, his friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern, had already transcribed everything.

A story of scandal

If the story of Newman and Woodward was about exemplary love (even if it started in adultery), the story of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton was about scandal.

They met when he was 28 and she was 20. “She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud. She was unquestionably gorgeous. She was, in short, too bloody much, and not only that, she was totally ignoring me,” he would say. As he first flirted with her, however, she refused to become just another “notch in his belt.”

They did not see each other again until nine years later, in Cleopatra. By then she had already been married four times: to Conrad Nicky Hilton Jr. (heir to the hotel chain) at 18; to the English actor Michael Wilding, at 20; to producer Mike Todd at 25 (he died a few months later when his plane, called Lucky Liz, crashed) and to Eddie Fisher (Todd’s best friend, who was married to Debbie Reynolds, one of Taylor’s best friends) at 26. Screenwriter Mario Parra, author of Romances de cine (Movie romances), explains that the press began to accuse the actress of being a “home-wrecker.”

Elizabeth Taylor in 'Cleopatra' (1963), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Elizabeth Taylor in 'Cleopatra' (1963), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

The sparks flew on the set. Even though they were married to other people, Taylor and Burton did not leave each other’s side. “The Vatican,” recalls Parra, “condemned the couple, accusing them of ‘erotic vagrancy,’ and Fox tried to sue them for damages, alleging that the extramarital affair and all the bad publicity it brought had a negative impact on the film, despite the fact that Cleopatra ended up being the highest grossing movie of 1963.″

They got married in 1964, following two big-money divorces. Burton gave her an emerald and diamond necklace valued at $150,000. After the initial controversy, the press fell in love with the explosive couple. Then Burton started drinking – up to four bottles a day – and in 1973 they separated. In the summer of 1975, accompanied by their respective lovers, they met in Switzerland to settle the divorce, but instead decided to remarry. They lasted less than a year. He married another woman and she married her seventh husband, John Warner, a Republican senator “of whom she quickly got bored,” Parra says. In 1982, Taylor interrupted a Burton play by getting onstage to whisper “I love you” to him in Welsh. The applause of the audience was thunderous. Actor Gabriel Byrne would call it the most theatrical and unforgettable moment he ever saw on stage. But it did not work. At one point, Burton eloped to Las Vegas with one of his young assistants. Taylor checked into a detox clinic.

At the end of the summer of 1984, he told her goodbye by phone. She was 58 years old. His widow forbade Taylor to attend the funeral. She respected her decision and waited to visit the grave. A few days later she received a letter that the actor had sent her before she died; they had never stopped writing to each other, not even when they were married to other people.

As Joanne Woodward said: “Nobody understands anybody else’s relationships. Only the two people who are involved know what binds that relationship together.” The two loves lasted a lifetime, each in its own way.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in 1978.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in 1978.John Jay

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