Who would you rather see in a movie? Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor or Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart?

So just when did people start avoiding movies that starred certain actors or actresses that they couldn’t stand?

1920: Way Down East?  Not interested.  Lillian Gish might be America’s sweetheart, but she’s not mine.

1931: City Lights?  Why would I waste my money on that little tramp Charlie Chaplin?

1938:  Bringing Up Baby? Is that the one with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant? Can’t stand either of them.

1941:  The Maltese Falcon?  Forget it.  I’m not going to see that horsefaced Humphrey Bogart.

1946: Its a Wonderful Life?  With that mushmouthed James Stewart? No thanks.

1956:  Autumn Leaves?  With Joan Crawford? What do you think I’m queer or something?

1959: Some Like it Hot?  I’m not supporting that tramp Marilyn Monroe.

1967:  Cool Hand Luke?  Are you kidding?  I wouldn’t go to a Paul Newman picture if you paid me.

1972: Last Tango in Paris? Why would I want to see Marlon Brando’s penis?

1976: Taxi Driver? If I want to hear cussing, I’ll go to  Fenway Park and sit in the cheap seats.

1982: Sophie’s Choice?  I’d rather stay home and watch I Love Lucy reruns than be stuck watching Meryl Streep for three hours.

So, up until the eighties, it was pretty rare for a person to boycott a movie on account of who was in it.  Not that there weren’t blacklisted actors, but, from Fatty Arbuckle and Lionel Stander to Ingrid Bergman and Vanessa Redgrave, there was usually some political or moral issue that had endangered their career. It wasn’t that the moviegoer simply could not stand watching them.

There  have always been actors so bad that they have ruined the movies, or at least the scenes, they were in. Timothy Carey gets my vote for the worst actor who ever stunk up the screen.  He utterly destroyed the execution scene in Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” and provided moments of unprecedented anguish that compromised the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It was rare for an incompetent performer to walk into a scene and destroy the illusion.  There were just too many struggling actors competing for the smallest roles for this to happen.  Not that they all were geniuses.  Lord knows that the majority of them were mediocre.  But, in general, they could handle the work they were assigned. Very few actually drove the audience  from the comfort of the theater into the cold, heartless streets.

But sometime in the eighties, something changed.  There were fewer and fewer movie stars, and more and more generic celebrities, people who simply wanted to be famous and possessed the means and connections to become so.  Some came roaring in like dead fish on a black tsunami.  Others slunk in through television’s afternoon soap operas. It didn’t matter how they had arrived to  their place in front of the cameras, the sad fact was simply that there they were. And we in the audience paid the price for their success.

Jami Gertz began in television (1982-84) and will probably end there, as it has been her exclusive employer since the year 2000. But from 1984-90, she had substantial roles in 13 of the worst movies the world had ever seen, the most annoying of which was 1987’s “Less than Zero,” which also suffered from the presence of her male counterpart, Andrew MacCarthy. For me, her presence in this miserable adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ breakthrough novel marked the beginning of the post-movie star era in Hollywood films.

In the Spring of 1983, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were in Boston for a pre-Broadway run of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.”  That I did not attend any of those performances is one of the few things in life I regret. While I would never count Elizabeth Taylor among my favorite actresses, I have always enjoyed watching her and she has never caused me a moment of aesthetic discomfort.  Burton, on the other hand, was my first hero.  He introduced me to Shakespeare with his “Hamlet” and to the Broadway musical with “Camelot.”  My emulation of Burton, though, stunted me as an actor, as I followed his lead in believing acting was all in the voice, which led to my erroneous practice of merely acting the text.  So I never became any good as an actor, but I was a pretty good singer.  Better, in fact, than Burton.

I don’t know why I passed on my opportunity to see Burton live on stage.  Was I so stupid to have been influenced by Kevin Kelly’s negative review in the Boston Globe, or had I become such an idiotic snob after a mere two years in the shadow of Harvard University that I thought myself too good to gawk at stars?   I did manage, in January 1991, to see Richard Burton’s daughter Kate in the Huntington Theatre production of Brian Friel’s “Aristocrats,” and couldn’t take my eyes off her, letting them roll out of focus until I was hallucinating her father’s features.  I mention this only to emphasize how much I idolized Richard Burton and what a fool I had been to miss my one chance of seeing him on stage.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” had been my favorite American play long before Burton and Taylor did the movie version.  I wonder if it would have remained so had the movie not been cast with my favorite couple.  Even had it starred Marlon Brando and Shirley MacLaine, I probably would not have watched it as often or consistently as l have over nearly fifty years, which has kept the play in the forefront of my consciousness for most of my life.

I never tire of seeing even the weakest Burton/Taylor vehicles over and over.  Just his week, I watched “The Sandpiper” for about the tenth time.   Vincente Minnelli is one of my favorite directors, and this is one of his worst pictures, but, with the exception of “Home From the Hill,” I have seen it more often than all the others.  Why?  You guessed it.  Burton and Taylor. Even though neither of them is very good in it, I still enjoy their performances.  And this is what movie stardom is all about.  The pleasure we get out of watching them.

There is certainly no such pleasure to be had in watching Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in the 2009 comedy, “Adventureland.”  Even though their acting is better than  Burton and Taylor’s in “The Sandpiper,” some of us simply do not enjoy watching the romantic adventures of geeks and snots while working summer jobs at an amusement park. We would rather watch a married minister fall in love with a single parent beatnik, even though neither of the actors are convincing in their parts. It is still more entertaining to watch Burton and Taylor than Eisenberg and Stewart.  We don’t stay away from the movie because we dread seeing Burton and Taylor fail at their craft.  That is their problem, not ours. We are paying to see them, and even at their worst, they are  giving us our money’s worth.

When people tell you who they think are the good actors and who they think are the bad ones, they are just telling you who they enjoy watching and who they do not enjoy watching.  It has nothing to do with acting ability.  If it did, nobody would ever buy a ticket to a Marilyn Monroe movie, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career would have ended when he passed the Mr. Universe title to the next muscleman in line. I don’t think Eisenberg and Stewart are so bad, but they get so over-involved in their roles and the ideas they have about acting  that they dissolve before our eyes and we find ourselves looking at nothing.  So the next time we see that a movie stars even one of them, we might decide to skip that movie because we found no pleasure in watching them in this one.  And after the passing of a decade or so, their names and the moves in which they appeared may be as  forgotten as those of Jami Gertz and Andrew MacCarthy.

Meanwhile, the legacy of Burton and Taylor lives on.

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9 thoughts on “Who would you rather see in a movie? Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor or Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart?

  1. Ha. Very interesting post, my friend. Ha! I saw Burton on stage performing on stage in Chicago in 1980 in Camelot! He was old and just stood there, but it was great to see the icon on stage. I am going to go ahead and disagree with you about good and bad actors. Great actors disappear into their role and what you see is not the star you have come to enjoy on the screen. Nicole Kidman did this as Virginia Woolf but she doesn’t disappear in other other roles; she is Kidman playing a part. DDL becomes Lincoln and the the actor whom I would marry if he asked me is gone. This is not to say 85% of the performances which I enjoyed had great acting performances. I loved the film because I enjoyed the star. As for Burton and Taylor; I never liked Taylor and believe it or not, Katharine Hepburn does little for me, even though I’ve written about her icon role. Neither did Marilyn. BTW, 1976, had me in stitches.

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    1. Cindy, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I always enjoy reading your take on things. The disappearing act was just an example of how current actors are often so enamoured of themselves as actors that they forget they are performing for an audience. i didnt mean to infer that great actors do not disappear into their parts. But when they do, they still realize they are playing for an audience, not for themselves, as eisenberg and stewart seem to me to do in wonderland. the original point of my article, which I may not have made clear enough due to all my peripheral ramblings, was that audiences have only recently taken on such an attitude towards actors that they will actually boycott a film if an actor they do not like is in it, and my theory as to why this may be true is that the actor has forgotten that he is performing for an audience,not himself. as you confirm, most of the time you love the film because you love the star. i watched Lincoln because i generally love daniel day lewis, but i hated his portrayal of Lincoln, because the script was phoney and the direction tedious. ( i also disliked him in There Will Be Blood) i much preferred henry fonda’s performance in john ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, a thrilling film on so many levels that escaped spielberg. did you know that The Hours was the only movie in which Kidman used her real nose? (an old joke)….with the old movie stars, i think we simultaneously believe in the character while retaining our awareness of the actor’s persona. i always know i am enjoying brando;s acting, but i also believe 100% in the character he is playing.

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      1. 1. I can see how you would think the script was phony, but is that because of the archaic words? They did have an impressive vocabulary and eloquence that today’s speakers of English are oblivious. Which reminds me, did you like the antiquated speech given in True Grit starring Hailee Steinfeld?
        2. I get that you don’t like Spielberg and when you say his direction is tedious, what do you mean? I know he can be smaltzy and too romantic in a telling, but I still find myself moved by his films, for the most part.
        3. I LOVE the idea of comparing and contrasting Young Mr. Lincoln and Lincoln. Care to go along with me and analyze the two films next month? For the Lucky 13 Club?
        4. Brando was a rare exception. I love him as much as you. 🙂

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  2. 1. I have put Lincoln out of my memory, but the traces that remain remind me that the script completely misrepresented the content of the president’s speech towards the end, That is what I meant by calling the script phony. I wasnt referring to any anachronisms in the dialogue, but to the revisionism in the script. Where are excerpts from the Lincoln/ Douglas Debates such as this choice bit from Lincoln: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

    2.By tedious direction, I mean that the already boring script is made even more boring by Spielberg’s lazy and unimaginative staging. In my view, this was, the most plodding and least engaging picture of the 2013 Oscar Nominees.

    3. Thanks for the offer, but I would rather wait to analyze a movie that I love for Club 13, rather than to offer an adversarial voice. I respect your admiration for Spielberg, but am of a somewhat opposite opinion of his skills as a film director. what I could agree to, if you would like to tackle both Lincoln and Young Mr Lincoln in the same month, is to take on Young me Lincoln while you take on Lincoln, sparing you and your readers the negative remarks I may make about the Spielberg picture. so rather than compare the pictures, we could individually initiate the discussion on the movie that moves us.

    4.Donald Trump reminds me of a bad comedian attempting a Brando imitation. (and Rand Paul is a good straight man doing a fine Bill Murray impression)

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  3. 4. LOL. Our political system is a farce and needs an overhaul but I have no idea how to do that. We are studying the fall of the Roman empire in class and even 14 year olds recognize America is Rome on it’s decline and that they should be learning Chinese rather than Spanish…..
    3. I like your idea of the two and offering you up to my followers as a positive, insightful intellectual than for them to see your bombastic, surly curmudgeon ;). I see what you mean about Lincoln as a boring script–it would have been far more interesting to witness the change in Lincoln. for while he did make those comments at the L/D debates, his opinion about blacks altered by the time of his death. That’s the story. The story presented was boring. While I love DDL performance, it was a wasted effort and one of the Spielberg’s lesser films. So there you go, maybe we shouldn’t do it. And yet, there’s a lot of good things that happen (staging) in the film I could talk about. So why not? Shall we give it a go for November 13? You watch Young L. and I’ll watch L. Maybe with a revisit I’ll have more positive things to say about it.

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    1. historically, i think the US under george bush paralled , if not the roman fall, rome under caligula. we are in a different situation now,with the empire lust of hillary clinton pushing the US into a Nazi program of world domination, and trumps bumbling Mussolini relying on the stupidity of the people to lead the country into delusional fascism. i watched the republican debates to see if there was any one there who could defeat hillary, and the only possibility was mark rubio, who i dont like but would be preferable to the continuation of the reagan-bush-clinton-obama dynasty. but we would still have the economic and moral idiocy of the extreme right that focuses on issues that are not even the business of government. bernie sanders would be good for the survival of the middle class, but i dont think he would be the best leader in terms of foreign relations, but none of the potential candidates would. rand paul is the only candidate who is not willing to add his name to the list of mass murderers who have led the country in past years, but he is not presidential. i like the governer from new york, but i dont think his party is too fond of him, and that ben carson is intelligent and well spoken. give him a television show and he could be the next william buckley, but he would be a terrible president. i believe the democrats will win the elction, no matter who runs, so i just pray it isnt hillary clinton. she is the devil incarnate.

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  4. let’s go ahead with the lincoln idea. perhaps we could expand it to reference other film portraits of the president. an aside: regardless of how of if lincoln changed his mind about the blacks on his death bed, his motive as president to attack the south was predicated on their succession from the union,not their ownership of slaves. the emancipation proclamation was an aggressive move to push the country into civil war, not to free the slaves, about whom he had little interest. i love the ford picture because it is an inspiring portrait of a young lawyer, for me to like a picture concerning lincoln’s presidency, it would have to address the issues of succession as well as slavery. also i would like to see his an honest dramatization of his failed attempts to stay the executions of over 300 indians in the wake of the sioux uprising. was that covered in spielberg’s picture? i honestly havesolittle recollection of that film that i dont remember.

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  5. I enjoyed the article as much as the comments from you and Cindy that followed. I plead guilty to not wanting to watch films because of actors. The list is long, but includes Steve Carrell, Adam Sandler, almost anything with Jim Carrey, or Ben Stiller. I love Ricky Gervais on TV in the UK, but hate all his films. As for the US politics, I will leave that to you and Cindy.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    1. i also avoid movies that feature certain actors. i love penelope cruz as a spanish comedienne, but hate her as a hollywood sex symbol. i cannot watch marilyn monroe. she embodies all i despise about a certain kind of entertainer.

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