The Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon: The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
It’s the Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon and I am so terribly late.
Now I normally get late at the blogathon, because my mind is like an overcrowded attic and there’s too much stuff piled up in there. But the problem in this specific case is also, I fear, that I am not a fan of Elizabeth Taylor.
Beautiful woman? Of course.
Great actress? Undisputable.
An icon in so many different ways? You bet.
So, really, that’s me – not a fan.
So sue me.
But before you sue me, be sure to check out the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, that is hosting the vent and that will provide a huge selection of posts about movies featuring Elizabeth Taylor.
Once you’re done, and before you sue me, you might want to check out the rest of this post. Because we are about to talk of Bill Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, as directed by Franco Zeffirelli in 1967, and featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as a bickering couple.
What a novel idea, uh?
Now, let’s start with a peculiar occurrence: it was 1985 when I first stumbled on Shakespeare’s comedy, and it stuck in my mind because my English teacher at the time was unable to translate the title in Italian.
That’s the sort of thing that more or less traumatizes you, as you can imagine.
The second part of the trauma was discovering that this Shakespeare thing had the same exact lot of Kiss me Kate… which solves for me the problem of who Shakespeare really was: he was Cole Porter.
But enough flippancy…
Written (probably) between 1590 and 1592, The Taming of the Shrew is the classic story that today would be impossible to write. And here is, if you please, the plot…
We are in Padua (actually the backlot of the Globe theater, because thus was in the old times) where Lord Baptista Minola has a serious problem: he has sworn not to let his daughter Bianca marry before her older sister Katherina. But Bianca is a nice and pleasant girl with a long string of suitors, while Kat is a firebrand and a shrew, and nobody wants her.
Enter Petruchio, straight outta Verona, an adventurer looking for a wife. He is recruited to woo Katherine and get her out of the way by marrying her.
And the deed is done – and then Petruchio starts working on Kat to “tame her”, with such pleasantries as denying her food and drink, and a variety of other forms of harassment. Kat is tamed, Bianca marries in turn, love triumphs and all’s well that ends well.
And here we can see that the comedy is a live source of bitter controversy – is this a misogynistic work about wife abuse? Is Kat actually playing along because she actually likes a bit of rough? Or is it in fact a cautionary tale, presenting us with a set of role-models to be avoided?
Let’s leave that to the critics, and let’s move on to 1967, and Franco Zeffirelli.
In the early ‘70s Franco Zeffirelli was to become the man that could not fail – a director that managed to be at the same time popular and crowd-pleasing but also highbrow and “an auteur”. But in 1967 he was a theatrical director, with along string of successful stagings of Shakespearean works in collaboration with the Old Vic. He was also known as an art director and costume designer.
His idea of setting up a movie version of The Taming of the Shrew seemed a good one, but when he said hje wanted Burton and Taylor to star in the movie, he was told he was nuts.
First, because while Burton was a well-known Shakespearean actor, Taylor had never done anything by the Bard, and secondly because their previous outing, Cleopatra from 1963, had been a financial failure.
But the idea of shooting the film with Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren as the leads was equally ditched, and in the end Burton and Taylor did actually shell out one million dollars of their own funds to buy into the project and act as co-producers.
But despite the titles in the magazines, the stars’ marriage was still in good shape, and the two were eager to show they still had box office potential.
And before you point it out, yes, the above TV promo is horrid – what’s with that background music?
Far from the Globe Theater, the movie was shot in Rome and in various locations in Central Italy. The scenes are great, and the exteriors have an authenticity that really makes the movie experience striking. Zeffirelli’s mise-en-scene is lavish as all his subsequent works, and indeed the movie – that ditches a fair chunk of Bill Shakes’ text – is a wonder to look at.
The costumes in particular reference period paintings with an incredible accuracy.
The movie was in fact a huge success, and launched Zeffirelli’s career as a darling of movie adaptations of theater and opera.
Seen today it’s pretty obvious Taylor and Burton had a lot of fun playing this – and if their bickering and fighting feels like a foreshadowing of things to come. Some have observed that, given the alleged amount of alcohol consumed by the couple off-screen, it’s a testament to their professional skills that they managed to hold the scene. But really, they are absolutely great.
The problem remains of what this story is all about – should we take it at face value, and see it as a story of domestic violence and abuse, or as something completely different?
Because if it’s true that Kat gets badly handled throughout the movie, it is also true that in the end it’s Petruccio that has to chase after her. And her final monologue is all but ironic…
Man/woman relationships were evidently pretty complicated, in the time of Shakespeare.
Oh, yes, and now you can sue me, if you feel like.
But I’d rather you not.