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In 1929, William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew was made as a talking motion picture starring the most famous couple in the world: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. In 1965, first time film director Franco Zeffirelli had the idea of remaking the Pickford/Fairbanks version with the most famous couple of the 1960s Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. "I had thought it could be done amusingly with a couple like [Marcello] Mastroianni and [Sophia] Loren," said Zeffirelli in his autobiography. "But my London agent, Dennis van Thal, waved away the idea and insisted I think about British actors if I really intended to make my debut in movies as a director of international stature. But with whom? Which couple had the stature to take on such a piece? It was only then that I realized that the answer was staring us in the face the Burtons, though I hardly expected them to be willing to work with a new director. Dennis, however, saw a way in he knew that Burton longed to get back into Shakespeare and might just be persuaded. Dennis managed to track the famous couple to a hotel in Dublin, where they were staying during filming in Ireland. He arranged a meeting and I flew there on 6 February ." According to Zeffirelli's memoirs, when he arrived at the hotel, he walked into a screwball comedy: Taylor, who had brought back a bush baby [Galagos primate] from Africa, was running about the hotel room trying to capture it after it had scratched her maid. "Richard kept his back turned to the whole performance. Constantly sipping his drink, he preferred to discuss Shakespeare with me. Liz came storming back into the drawing-room. 'Will you please stop talking about your damned Shakespeare and give me a hand?' He slammed down his drink and yelled back: 'Will you please stop this bloody nonsense with that horrendous little monster and come and talk to this man. He's a superb Shakespearean director and you might be lucky enough to work with him someday. Can't you be more pleasant to him?'"
After numerous discussions with Zeffirelli, the Burtons agreed not only to star in the film version of The Taming of the Shrew (1967) but to co-produce it for a personal investment of between $1.4 and $3 million, opting to defer their salaries until after the film turned a profit. Once on the set, Taylor experienced stage fright. "I was so scared. It was the first time I'd tried to do Shakespeare. And my beloved was no help at all. 'You do it on your own', he said. The first couple of days I was so frightened I couldn't even say 'hello', so they had to redo them. Richard did advise me, 'Don't think of it as verse don't pronounce it to a metronome as you were taught in school.' And gradually I began to have fun with it." Zeffirelli was delighted with Taylor's performance, "Elizabeth and I came from different planets her world of the movies and mine of the theatre and Richard was the great leveler. He was the bridge. Elizabeth was very shy to play Shakespeare to begin with, but she brought a marvelous devotion. On the first day, I remember, she was like a girl coming to her marriage too young; she had extreme concern and humility. That day she was really enchanting...I consider that Elizabeth, with no Shakespearean background, gave the more interesting performance because she invented the part from scratch. To some extent Richard was affected by his knowledge of the classics, as are all established actors except Olivier."
The filming of The Taming of the Shrew was done at Dino de Laurentiis' new studios in Rome. "The fact that the whole film was shot in the studios gave it an air of unreality which matched the remoteness of the language. The magnificent sets were designed by Renzo Mongiardino and the costumes by Danilo Donati." Those costumes proved to be a problem when famed Hollywood designer Irene Sharaff designed a tight fitting dark outfit with vertical stripes for Burton that was reminiscent of Laurence Olivier's costume as Richard III. According to Zeffirelli, Burton "wasn't tall, had narrow shoulders and a large head. The only way to cope with this was to make everything larger than necessary, to give him loose, flowing costumes. [...] My attempt to make this point to her produced such outrage amongst the courtiers, and provoked a storm of whispering. Liz was loyally on Sharaff's side, 'Franco, this is an important artist, you must respect her.'" Zeffirelli found Burton to be no help to him and so he brought in his own seamstress and within only thirty-six hours, they had created five costumes for Burton. On the morning of shooting, he persuaded Burton to try on the costumes, which he loved, much to Sharaff's anger. "She assumed that we had been secretly making the costumes for weeks instead of virtually overnight, as was the case. The eventual compromise was that Richard would wear Danilo's costumes and Liz Sharaff's. That was our sole major area of conflict." Ironically, both Sharaff and Danilo Donati were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, as would Renzo Mongiardino and his crew for Best Art Direction.
The seven minute scene in which Burton and Taylor teeter precariously on a roof which gives way, throwing them onto a pile of sheep's wool on the floor below, took eight days to film. Taylor, whose weight had topped the scales at 143 lbs when she played Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , dropped twenty-three pounds from the exhaustive physical work on The Taming of the Shrew. "Here I am with six inches of my spine fused and they expect me to toss Richard over my shoulder," complained Taylor one day on the set. She was a trooper, but the one thing she would not do was remove her wedding ring (the Burtons had recently celebrated their second anniversary). A pearl was sewn onto the ring at the beginning of each day's shooting.
The film premiered in London at the Odeon as a Royal Command Performance in February 1967, with Princess Margaret in attendance. Burton remarked, "We made The Taming of the Shrew because I wanted to act a rough role as far away as possible from those Rex Harrison parts with nice suits and freshly laundered shirts, and my wife because she wanted to talk English for a change. In Shrew she shows definite Shakespearean feeling, the only difficulties being some of the Bard's words that are alien to her. For instance, 'how durst thou' is not common talk in California."
The Taming of the Shrew turned out to be a wise investment for all concerned and grossed $7 million on its initial release, with worldwide receipts topping out at over $12 million. The critical reaction was mixed. Bosley Crowther titled his New York Times review, "Burtons Arrive in 'Taming of the Shrew': Shakespeare Gets Lost in Film", writing , "Under Mr. Zeffirelli's gleeful urging more than his restraining, I feel sure, Miss Taylor and Mr. Burton race madly through the first part of the film, committing physical violence on each other with a minimum exhaling of Shakespeare's words. After they've finally exhausted their energies, and ours - after Petruchio has tumbled Katharina in a bin of fresh-sheared wool and has come to a suitable arrangement with her old man to make her his wife-we are treated to more slamming and banging on a slightly lower level of the decibel scale, as Petruchio goes about the standard business of domesticating his bosomy shrew." Wilfred Sheed in Esquire had harsh words for Taylor, "Of Miss Taylor there is little to say. She will never really be adequate to any classical role. Her acting was fixated at the age of twelve in National Velvet  and has not moved an inch forward or back since then. She is, as she should be, a cinematic professional. But when it comes to brewing up a real emotion, such as shrewish rage, she can only flutter her surface and hope for the best." Hollis Alpert completely disagreed in his review for The Saturday Review, "There was never much doubt about the abilities of Burton; there was more question about Miss Taylor, originally a product of MGM's star system, and star-crossed in her love and marital life. Her movie performances during the past ten years have ranged from mediocre to very good [...] But Shakespeare is another kind of peak to climb, and the challenge to Miss Taylor must have been a big one. She had to contend with her husband at his absolute best in a role for which he is extremely well-suited, and she was up against other gifted actors...Well, not only has she managed it; she has come through the ordeal with honor. She has held nothing back in attacking the role with blazing fury."
Producer: Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Franco Zeffirelli (all uncredited)
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Screenplay: Franco Zeffirelli, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Paul Dehn; William Shakespeare (play "The Taming of the Shrew")
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Art Direction: Giuseppe Mariani, Elven Webb
Music: Nino Rota
Film Editing: Peter Taylor
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Katharina), Richard Burton (Petruchio), Cyril Cusack (Grumio), Michael Hordern (Baptista), Alfred Lynch (Tranio), Alan Webb (Gremio), Giancarlo Cobelli (The Priest), Vernon Dobtcheff (Pedant), Ken Parry (Tailor), Anthony Gardner (Haberdasher), Natasha Pyne (Bianca), Michael York (Lucentio), Victor Spinetti (Hortensio), Roy Holder (Biondello), Mark Dignam (Vincentio).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Richard Burton: Very Close Up by John Cottrell and Fergus Cashin
Elizabeth by Dick Sheppard
Zeffirelli by Franco Zeffirelli
Rich: The Life of Richard Burton by Melvyn Bragg
The Last Star by Kitty Kelley
The New York Times film review Burtons Arrive in Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare Gets Lost In Film by Bosley Crowther, March 9, 1967
The Saturday Review film review by Hollis Alpert, 1967
Esquire Magazine film review by Wilfred Sheed, 1967