At the time, Burton and Taylor were the world's most famous lovers. They had begun a torrid affair on the set of Cleopatra (1963), which had not yet been released. Producer Anatole de Grunwald, who had given Burton his first film role in The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), wanted to make a film that would capitalize on Burton's new notoriety, and get it into theaters quickly. De Grunwald had originally intended the role of the runaway wife in The V.I.P.s for Sophia Loren. But Elizabeth Taylor, whose hold on the married Burton was tenuous, wanted to stick close to him. "Let Sophia stay in Rome," she said. "I'll do it." Taylor was paid one million dollars to co-star in The V.I.P.s, and Burton half that. And they also got a percentage of the profits. But by Cleopatra standards, The V.I.P.s was a hassle-free production, both in money and time. It had a relatively short 10-week shooting schedule, and cost $3.3 million to make...about one-tenth the cost of Cleopatra.
In her autobiography, Margaret Rutherford says the idea for the fogged-in airport storyline of The V.I.P.s came from producer de Grunwald, who had experienced fog delays himself. But according to a recent Vanity Fair article by Sam Kashner, screenwriter Terence Rattigan based the script in part on a story told to him by Vivien Leigh. She was leaving her husband Laurence Olivier to run off with Australian actor Peter Finch, when their flight was grounded by fog. During the delay, Leigh changed her mind.
The marital drama onscreen in The V.I.P.s was a mirror image of the one off-screen. Burton, tortured by guilt, was unable to choose between Taylor and his wife. While Burton was ensconced at the Dorchester Hotel with Taylor, Sybil Burton and their daughters were living in another part of London. Burton, drinking heavily, went back and forth. In his portrayal of the anguished businessman, some saw a reflection of Burton's private agony. Finally, five weeks into filming, Burton decided to divorce Sybil and marry Taylor. The diamond and emerald brooch Taylor wears in The V.I.P.s was Burton's engagement present to her.
The Vanity Fair article cites an unnamed source on the set of The V.I.P.s as saying that there was a "disagreement" about Taylor's Givenchy-designed wardrobe for the film. "She wanted to wear gowns, not dresses," according to the article, although an extravagant outfit would not have been appropriate for a long plane trip, even in 1963. In the end, Taylor wore a simple wool dress...with a mink-lined raincoat over it. Since she wore the same outfit for much of the film, wardrobe made duplicates. Taylor infuriated the producer by giving away the extra coats to crew members.
Wardrobe was an important element of Margaret Rutherford's performance as well. She had at first turned down the role of the duchess, because she felt there wasn't much to work with. But Rattigan rewrote her character, adding details of her life, and Rutherford's gift for physical comedy did the rest. The way she claps her shapeless felt hat on her head, wrestles her ratty carpetbag and flaps her fur-collared coat says a lot about the duchess's shabby gentility, and makes the character uniquely her own.
London tabloids hinted about an affair between Louis Jourdan and Elizabeth Taylor during filming, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Jourdan's wife had written a catty article about Taylor, and Taylor demanded a public apology from Jourdan. He refused, and she made her dislike of him evident.
The V.I.P.s was Maggie Smith's third film. She was so good as the mousy secretary that Richard Burton, upon seeing their one scene together, said that she not only stole the scene, she "committed grand larceny." Smith's scenes with Rod Taylor were enhanced by a very real attraction between them. They would later co-star in Young Cassidy (1965).
When The V.I.P.s premiered, just three months after Cleopatra, it broke box office records in New York and London. The public couldn't get enough of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but even critics seemed surprised at how much they liked the film. In fact, reviews praised every performance but Elizabeth Taylor's, which they found curiously subdued. They singled out the chemistry between Maggie Smith and Rod Taylor, Burton's wounded tycoon, Jourdan's ruefully self-aware playboy, and most of all, Rutherford's delightful duchess, which won her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. Newsweek called The V.I.P.s "a trivial but sprightly romance which does not intrude upon one's adoration of the most splendid woman in films. She is getting older, true, but still, at the sight of her, the pulse quickens, the eyes widen, the soul exults. She is, of course, the magnificent Margaret Rutherford."
Director: Anthony Asquith
Producer: Anatole de Grunwald
Screenplay: Terence Rattigan
Editor: Frank Clarke
Cinematography: Jack Hildyard
Costume Design: Givenchy, Pierre Cardin
Art Direction: William Kellner
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Frances Andros), Richard Burton (Paul Andros), Louis Jourdan (Mark Champselle), Elsa Martinelli (Gloria Gritti), Margaret Rutherford (Duchess of Brighton), Maggie Smith (Miss Mead), Rod Taylor (Les Mangrum), Orson Welles (Max Buda), Linda Christian (Miriam Marshall).
C-119m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri