Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and the Bubble of Superstardom

Waris Hussein and Richard Burton on the set of DIVORCE HIS-DIVORCE HERS - H 2016
Courtesy of Waris Hussein

Unlike today’s supercouple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor never pretended to be perfect — they didn’t have to.

My one and only encounter with Brad Pitt came shortly after a decapitated head was found near his and Angelina Jolie’s Hollywood Hills home.

While that does seem vaguely symbolic, it was merely a coincidence, an oddity that added another element of intrigue to a couple that lacked none. In January 2012, we were meeting for a Hollywood Reporter cover story when Pitt was locked in the best actor Oscar race with his pal George Clooney, he for Moneyball, Clooney for The Descendants. (Both lost to The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin.)

Sitting with Pitt for some three hours in a Hollywood hotel suite, I found him thinner than I’d expected, younger-looking and surprisingly candid.

“I’ve always been at war with myself, for right or wrong,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it more. There’s that constant argument going on in your head about this or that. It’s universal. Some people are better at dealing with it, and they sleep with no pain — not pain, arguments. I’ve grown quite comfortable with being at war.”

He didn’t elaborate, but he then spoke revealingly about his and then-partner Jolie’s plans to marry.

“We’d actually like to, and it seems to mean more and more to our kids,” he said. “We made this declaration some time ago that we weren’t going to do it till everyone can. But I don’t think we’ll be able to hold out. It means so much to my kids, and they ask a lot. And it means something to me, too, to make that kind of commitment.”

This was a blunder. Clearly, Jolie did not appreciate his revelation, and after a firestorm ensued, when his words ripped through the social media shredder, Pitt backtracked — though in a way I rather admired. He didn’t question the accuracy of the quote or fall back on the old “taken out of context.” Instead, he said he had misspoken, allowing me to keep my dignity even as his was slightly dinged.

Weeks later, he and Jolie married.

* * *

Today, stars live in a world where their every word, comment and action is propelled through a Large Hadron Collider, where it’s battered and banged against other particles of information, each then analyzed with the scrutiny scientists might reserve for the Higgs boson. It’s hard to understand why anyone would put up with this, and yet most stars do, because even when they complain, that’s the very breath they breathe.

The effect of all this is to make us overly familiar with our icons, and familiarity inevitably breeds contempt. We love them and loathe them in equal measure, and eventually sicken of them and spit them out. Only stars who maintain a distance — the Tom Hankses and Denzel Washingtons, who wrap a shroud around their private lives — can hold our interest for long. Their absence from the Internet leaves us room to imagine. As to the rest, their shelf lives will be brief.

Is this simply a phenomenon of our times? Or were stars forever trapped in a transparent bubble?

* * *

Waris Hussein was a young man when he directed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1973’s Divorce His, Divorce Hers, a British TV movie in two parts that presents a couple’s different takes on their relationship.

A decade earlier, the pair had fallen in love on the troubled Cleopatra (1963), but now their marriage was on the rocks, though Hussein didn’t know it when he landed the gig. Such stuff was hidden from the world back then, even though the Burtons were the Brangelina of their day.

The British filmmaker was thrilled at the prospect that lay ahead. As a child growing up in India, he had clipped photos of Taylor for his album, and eagerly anticipated their first meeting. But when he showed up at England’s Elstree Studios, where she was shooting another film, she didn’t seem to know who he was.

“We [Hussein and producer Gareth Wigan] were in her dressing room, which had been carved into one from two separate rooms,” he recalls. “I heard her outside saying, ‘I’ve never heard of him.’ Then she arrived at the door and said, ‘Oh hello! I’m Elizabeth.’”

Their meeting lasted mere minutes, in which Hussein tried to explain the plot, only to find that Taylor hadn’t even read the script. She sparked to life when she heard there would be glimpses of her past, and turned to a fellow who had been fluttering through her room.

“She shouted ‘Alexandre!’ and a man emerged from the corner,” says Hussein. It was the famed Parisian hairstylist. ‘Alexandre, obviously there’ll be a flashback,’ she said. ‘What sort of hairstyle would I have if I’m 20?’ ‘Ohh,’ he said, ‘I think A Place in the Sun, don’t you?’ She had not read the script and suddenly we were talking wigs. That was our meeting and then I was whisked away.”

Next thing, Hussein got a phone call telling him the picture, which had been planned as a local shoot in Bristol, would now film in Germany. (The story was meant to take place in Rome.) That was all to do with the Burtons’ taxes.

Hussein tried to reach Taylor in Yugoslavia, where she was fending off the women who swarmed her husband on the set of Bluebeard, but did not meet either of his stars again until they were ready to shoot in Munich.

He got an early taste of who called the shots when Taylor put a red line through most of the costume sketches, designed by Oscar winner Edith Head. “She wanted everything cut down to the navel to show her breasts,” says Hussein — not quite the right look for a businessman’s elegant wife.

After the few days Hussein spent filming with Burton alone, Taylor showed up on set, surrounded by paparazzi. “Burton disappeared,” says the director. “When we found him, he couldn’t stand up straight. He’d gone through a whole bottle of vodka.”

Shooting was delayed again and again. Taylor would arrive at noon, film for an hour, then sit down for one of her and Burton’s “gargantuan lunches with five different wines and desserts and men in white gloves.” Occasionally, a red phone would ring on the set, summoning the director, “and when it rang, it was almost like someone was about to start a nuclear war,” he says.

One day, when he asked Taylor to look as if she were remembering the past so that he could cut to a flashback, her face projected nothing. “Perhaps you could blow your nose or something?” Hussein asked jokingly. “She said, ‘I’ve never blown my nose onscreen before and I don’t intend to do it now!’ After that, she did the shot once more, walked right up to the lens, kissed it, said ‘Cut!’ and got into her car and walked off.”

The worst moment, says Hussein, came when Burton “was so drunk he couldn’t sit up straight. I tried to talk to him, and he just in a very loud voice said, ‘Fuuuuuuck off!’ The ‘fuck’ lasted about three seconds. And then he said, ‘I could have been [King] Lear!’ This was in front of the whole crew, the whole cast. Elizabeth went yellow under her makeup. It was horrendous. He couldn’t sit still and the cameraman couldn’t even shoot him in close-up, he was swaying so much. I walked off the set. I was shaking.”

He adds: “These were two incredibly visible, supposedly intelligent people — Richard had dipped into being a scholar at Oxford and desperately wanted to be someone other than who he was. At this point, he realized he had sold his soul to the devil. That was the Faustian pact.”

In retrospect, Hussein finds it touching that the actors were drawn so powerfully to one another, despite an evident intellectual gulf.

Once, Taylor showed him a book she had bought for Burton’s birthday, a first edition of Goethe. “She said to me, ‘I’m giving Richard a very rare present. Gerty. A book by Gerty.’ This was the bridge that had to be crossed by the two of them. No matter how passionate their love lives were, there was a stone in the shoe. He knew it.”

At the wrap party, with Burton drunkenly singing Welsh songs, Hussein was forced to give Taylor a gift, an immensely expensive gold filigree chain paid for by the production, that cost as much as his salary. “She said, ‘Goodbye, Waris. Thank you for this. Behave yourself.’ ”

* * *

Hussein, who’s developing a new movie about his experiences with the Burtons, Monstrous Love, says it’s unimaginable that stars could be like that today.

For one thing, there’s the fishbowl effect of social media; for another, there’s the corporate control exercised by (and over) the studios, which would lead them to shut down anyone that excessive. “I don’t think they can behave on set the way these two behaved, and if they did there’d be a lot of trouble,” says Hussein. “None of the actors and actresses today has that kind of power. They can get the money, but their power factor is not going to work.”

The kind of outrageousness we’ve read about in the past has all but vanished. It’s fine for reality TV, but if you’re a Mel Gibson or Charlie Sheen or any other megastar, you have to sandpaper the rough bits, file them away until nothing too unusual is left.

Which is fine if you’re a studio. But is it possible we’re hurting ourselves? Isn’t there also a chance the political correctness we expect from our icons is limiting their freedom to be original?

Even Jolie has modified her conduct. Gone are the days of alleged bisexuality, vials of blood and sleeping with knives. Once she was a wild child; now she’s Saint Angie, looking for a job with the United Nations.

I don’t miss horrific behavior, but I do regret seeing so many cookie-cutter stars. Whatever you might think of Pitt and Jolie, they were never that. “They’re the last power couple,” says Hussein. “They just can’t exist any more.”

Not that he minds. He was shattered by the Burton-Taylor experience, his career left in shards. Years later, when he was back on top, a mutual friend said Taylor would like to meet with him again. Replied Hussein: “There’s nothing to be gained.”

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