Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most beautiful actresses to ever grace the silver screen. But while her looks may have been unparalleled, there was one woman she worried might lead her love Richard Burton astray — Sophia Loren.
In his new memoir, My Life in Focus: A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set, Italian photographer Gianni Bozzacchi opened up about the his close relationship with Taylor and Burton. He first met them on the set of 1967’s The Comedians, and spent years traveling the globe with them afterwards.
Taylor and Burton had one of Hollywood’s most tumultuous relationships. They met while on the 1962 set of Cleopatra, and fell madly in love with one another despite both being married to other people at the time. Over the next 14 years, the two courted, married, divorced, rewed, and split again — all while feeding tabloid fodder with their off-screen antics.
Their first divorce, in 1974 after ten years of marriage, was specially hard for Bozzacchi and his wife. “It dominated — and troubled — our lives,” he writes, adding that the news came out of the blue. “What was a spicy soap opera for the rest of the world was for us a very delicate moment in the life of a man and a woman whom we cared for deeply.”
Since he was friends with both and didn’t want to take sides, Bozzacchi choose not to work with either Taylor or Burton. She was filming 1974’s Identikit (also known as The Driver’s Seat), while he was shooting The Voyage. “I didn’t want to find myself in the middle of whatever was happening between them,” Bozzacchi writes. “I had no desire to be involved in that melodrama.”
The melodrama appeared to be unavoidable, though.
Costarring in The Voyage was Loren — whom Bozzacchi claimed was Taylor’s “enemy.”
“It was a time when the two women reigned supreme, a league apart from every other actress,” he writes. “The superstars of the past had waned or gone, while those of the new generation were still on their way up.”
The actresses were almost opposites, Bozzachi writes: “Elizabeth was a beautiful woman, but she actually cared little about what she wore or how she looked, especially when she was with Richard, the love of her life. Sophia, on the other hand, cared intensely. She was deeply Italian, born in the land of the world’s top designers, particularly Valentino, who made it his business to ensure that Sophia always dressed with full elegance”
When Taylor learned that Burton was a guest in Loren’s Marino villa, she and Bozzacchi set up a photo shoot to take photos she could sell to American publications for articles about their divorce.
The layout was shot in his studio “in the ‘American style,’ ” Bozzacchi writes. “They were done in color,” he wrote. “Elizabeth wanted the world to know she was single, still young, and beautiful.”
Bozzacchi never knew whether a rumored romance between Burton and Loren actually occurred, but claimed that some insiders claimed that it did occur. “You hear a lot of rumors of affairs in the cinema world, and you never quite know who to believe,” he writes. “I don’t claim to know the truth. But everyone was convinced that Richard and Sophia were having an affair—everyone involved in the movie, the press, and above all Elizabeth.”
Loren was married at the time to The Voyage director Carlo Ponti, who was also her manager and her agent at the time. They remained together until his death in 2007.
“Carlo was in Marino when Richard was there,” Bozzacchi writes. “But Richard also had opportunity to be alone with Sophia. The marriage between Sophia — Italy’s beauty of beauties — and Ponti, a powerful but aging and decidedly not-beautiful man, has always been a major mystery in Italy.”
He may never have learned the truth, but Bozzacchi writes he was determined “to find some way to get Richard away from Sophia.” Convinced that Taylor and Burton still loved one another, as they phone each other daily, he organized a dinner to try to get them back together.
“It was a magnificent evening,” he writes. “The dinner itself was nothing special, just good food. But I did everything I could to make the atmosphere enjoyable. … Elizabeth and Richard were very sweet to each other. After dinner, in order not to bother the baby, Richard went for a smoke on the terrace and spotted our ping-pong table. First he played with Elizabeth. Then, under a sudden downpour, he and Franco had a match in the driving rain. It was a wonderfully absurd scene.”
A throng of paparazzi waited outside for them, declaring “Elizabeth and Richard [are] back together!” in the papers the next day. Sadly, Bozzacchi writes that they weren’t: “I could see that they still loved each other, but nevertheless they each went their own way.”
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In the end, Bozzacchi blamed the weight of their own celebrity for their divorce. “They became two people who’d stopped facing their lives in a rational way,” he writes “I don’t think they ever planned how to manage their careers or their lives, how to maintain some kind of balance. . . . That circus became too much for both of them.”
“They got trapped by the trappings of their life,” he continued. “They could no longer travel like anyone else. They couldn’t walk in the street like anyone else, go to a restaurant like anyone else. There’s a huge gulf between an actor and a star, an even greater one between a star and a superstar. They’re no longer in charge of their own lives. They become public property. Their freedom [vanished].”
“From their first meeting until they finally separated, Elizabeth and Richard lived one of the greatest love stories of all time,” he writes. “It’s just that sometimes history gets the better of people.”
My Life in Focus: A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set (University of Kentucky Press, 2017) is out now.