April 02, 2001 12:00 PM

England’s Other Elizabeth PBS

(Wed., April 4, 8 p.m. ET)

When Elizabeth Taylor met costar Richard Burton on the Cleopatra set in 1962, “he was suffering from a hangover,” she recalls in PBS’s Great Performances paean to the screen diva. With shaking hands, he was “trying to drink a cup of coffee…. Our eyes locked.” Thus began one of Hollywood’s juiciest love affairs. The same story is recounted (though not by Liz, who wasn’t interviewed) in American Movie Classics’ two-hour autopsy of 1963’s Cleopatra, then—at a cost of $44 million—the most expensive movie ever made. Ironically, you learn more about Taylor, now 69, in the dishy AMC account of her overstuffed epic than in PBS’s lightweight recap of her career. Though Liz gives great anecdote—she recalls being first on the scene of the 1956 auto accident that injured her friend Montgomery Clift and tearfully reenacts her grief when she learned of third husband Mike Todd’s death in a 1957 plane crash—there’s not much about her accidents and illnesses or her seven other marriages (including two to Burton). By contrast AMC tells how she almost died from a pneumonia-induced coma while shooting Cleopatra and was later denounced in the Vatican and Congress for cavorting openly with Burton while their spouses (Eddie Fisher and Sybil Burton) stewed. Taylor aside, Cleopatra’s cost overruns, cast changes and cutthroat intrigues are all chronicled in this first-rate primer on how not to make a movie.

Bottom Line: Liz bio fizzles; Cleo has brio

Terry Kelleher is on vacation.

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