The first of their eleven onscreen pairings, The VIPs was released at the start of the global frenzy and obsession regarding Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s tempestuous and scandalous love affair. Even though it was the start of their mega film brand, it often falls by the wayside in favour of more critically acclaimed films such as Cleopatra, which was released in the same year as The VIPs, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
Despite its lower ranking in their onscreen “cannon”, the film was an enormous hit upon release, grossing $15 million and therefore almost quadrupling its budget. While Cleopatra is perhaps the film that cemented the Burton-Taylor formula that still resonates in popular culture today, it was really The VIPs that introduced that essential element that they would become known for: tortured passion.
The screenplay was reportedly based on the real life events that involved another couple who perhaps rival Burton and Taylor in their fame and tumultuousness: that of Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh. Terrence Rattigan, who wrote the screenplay, was a friend of Leigh’s. Leigh had been having an affair with Peter Finch since 1948, and in the 1950s, the pair travelled to London Airport in order run away together. But fog delay meant that Olivier was able to halt their plan and take Leigh home.
The film starts with a title sequence that defines the roles of the main characters: Frances (played by Elizabeth Taylor) and Paul Andros (played by Richard Burton) are a wealthy married couple, Marc Champselle (played by Louis Jourdan) is a gambler and playboy, Gloria Gritti (played by Elsa Martinelli) is a pampered starlet, Max Buda (played by Orson Welles) is a famous film director, Les Mangrum (played by Rod Taylor) is a business owner, Miss Mead (played by Maggie Smith) is his secretary, and the Duchess of Brighton (played by Margaret Rutherford) is devoted to her crumbling estate.
The first VIP at London Airport is Max Buda and his “muse”, Gloria Gritti. They are met by the overworked VIP “manager”, Mr Sanders (played by Richard Wattis), who ushers them to the VIP lounge.
It then cuts to the Duchess of Brighton, a muddled, impoverished aristocrat, who is travelling to Florida to manage a hotel in order to make money that will keep her estate running. She cannot find her passport or vaccination card in her bottomless carpet bag, but Mr Sanders sets her to rights, and she, too, is ushered to the VIP lounge.
The Androses arrive at the airport via helicopter, as Frances is travelling to Jamaica for a holiday. Paul treats his wife like a prize, and lavishes her with gifts. However, his gifts are impersonal, as his efficient personal assistant, John, actually buys them. This time the gift is a diamond bracelet, with an inscription inside. Paul does not know the inscription, of course. When they arrive at the airport terminal, they find Marc Champselle sitting at the coffee bar. Paul seems to like him, as Marc’s lifestyle seems to amuse him, while Frances shows a patent dislike for the other man.
Les Mangram, the CEO of Mangram Tractors, and his devoted and efficient secretary, Miss Mead, arrive at the airport next. Les lacks illustrious roots, and tells an unimpressed Mr Sanders that he started out as a farm worker in Queensland, Australia before building his company from the ground up. His small company is being threatened by a corporate merger, but it seems that Les has managed to beat the threat back.
It is then revealed that despite appearances, Frances and Mark are actually having an affair, and are going to run away together to New York. Francis has left a parting letter for Paul, informing him of everything.
Max and Gloria are interviewed by a young reporter (played by real life journalist David Frost) whilst playing cards. The rather air headed Gloria delightedly reveals Max is leaving the country to evade tax. Max denies this, before informing both the reporter and Gloria, much to her chagrin, that she will most definitely not be playing Mary Stuart in his next film.
Les then learns that he has been betrayed by a trusted business partner, and he is at risk of losing his company and being ruined financially. He asks Miss Mead to write a fraudulent cheque to buy them some time before he gets to New York for a vital board meeting.
A heavy fog rolls in and delays all flights by one hour, causing anxiety for the airport director (played by Michael Hordern), and all of the VIPs except the Duchess.
The delay then extends to lunchtime, and Frances phones home in order to instruct the housekeeper to destroy the letter she left for Paul. But Paul answers the phone, causing Frances and Marc to panic. Whilst at lunch in the airport restaurant, Paul appears at their table. At first he thinks that Frances is playing a practical joke on him, but when he realises she is serious, he tries to stop her from leaving with Marc. He follows them to the departure gate, but is unsuccessful in his attempts to thwart the pair’s plan.
All passengers board their respective planes, but when the furious airport director is informed that the fog is still obscuring visibility, the planes are indefinitely grounded and everyone is disembarked. Marc and Frances fear Paul’s wrath, while Max sweats over losing £1 million to the British government in tax. In turn, Les is distraught over the guaranteed ruin of not only his finances, but his reputation.
In the disembarkment lounge, Marc and Frances share a tender moment, before Marc is called away by an announcement over the speakers. He is shown into an office, where Paul attempts to bribe him and reveals he has a gun. Marc is unimpressed and tells Paul that he loves Frances very deeply, and that Paul has no one to blame for the disintegration of his marriage but himself, due to his impersonal and moneyed approach to everything in life. Paul is furious and then seemingly worryingly resigned as Marc leaves the office. Frances is disbelieving of Paul’s resignation and saddened despite Marc’s happy reassurances.
Many of the delayed passengers stay at the airport hotel, and Max despairs over his impending decrease in wealth.
Whilst in her suite, Frances and Marc have a discussion about their future and their feelings for one another. Marc is worried about their financial prospects, and Frances reveals that she has been keeping her substantial inheritance from her father a secret from him. Not a good sign for their future relationship in terms of mutual trust.
Max’s canny accountant reappears and informs the director that he must marry Gloria in order to avoid paying the crippling tax he owes. Gloria is both confused and delighted, especially by the prospect of playing Mary Stuart.
Les then receives a phone call from the board members in New York that confirms he is finished financially and that his company will be taken over. Miss Mead tries to comfort him, but he is fatalistically resigned.
Paul shows up at Frances’ room, and tells her that he loves her truly despite his lack of outright affection throughout the years. Frances angrily rejects him, saying that she wanted to be treated as a wife, not an expensive mistress. Paul cannot accept that she is not only leaving him, but for Marc, who he calls a male whore. However, Frances is adamant that she loves Marc. Paul then begs her not to leave him, and then accuses her of being responsible for their childless marriage. A struggle ensues and Paul accidentally smashes Frances’ arm into a mirror, causing quite a severe cut.
After the doctor leaves, Marc finds Paul in Frances’ room, before the latter leaves for good according to Frances. Frances then rejects Marc’s rather forward sexual advances, and he leaves her room in anger. Poor Frances is left quite a bit in this part of the film.
Les and Miss Mead have dinner and he grieves over the loss of his company and personal pride, but quickly forgets their conversation when his frivolous mistress, Miss Marshall, appears.
Miss Mead finds Paul in the hotel lounge and approaches him about lending Mangum Tractors the money needed for a bail out. Paul ascertains that she loves Les and laments about his own past actions regarding Frances, before writing out a cheque, much to Miss Mead’s delight and amazement.
Marc returns to Frances’ room and apologises for his earlier behaviour, before going to his own room. But Frances is still unable to sleep.
Miss Mead goes to Les’ room and shows him the cheque. He is ecstatic, forgetting about Miss Marshall, who leaves in a huff.
Paul asks the hotel concierge to post a letter for him, and then dismisses his chauffeur before walking off into the fog thick night.
A night porter wakes the Duchess, who has fallen asleep in the hotel lobby. She tells him about her misfit estate, and how much she loves it, even going so far as to quote Shakespeare in relation to the beautiful daffodils on the estate, before finally going to bed.
The following morning the passengers depart for their respective planes. The concierge gives the letter Paul wrote to Marc, but he won’t let Frances read it. Which is a bit of a cheek.
Max and Gloria announce their engagement to the press before Max sees a picture of the Duchess’ estate advertised in a poster in the airport. Max tells her he will use the house for his new film, and his accountant informs her that they will pay her £300 a day, meaning she no longer has to go and work in Florida.
At the departure gate, Les kisses Miss Mead, and tells her that he wanted to do so the previous night. Miss Mead is struck speechless, but touches her lips as Les goes through the departure gate.
Frances sees Paul at the airport coffee bar. He is disheveled, drunk and distraught. (That is a lot of d’s.) He begs her to leave him alone, and asks her to forget him, before telling her that he has always loved her more than his own life. He then leaves her once again.
Frances returns to the VIP lounge and makes Marc give her the letter, which reveals that Paul plans to kill himself rather than live without her. Marc claims that Paul is bluffing, and is distraught when Frances tells him she is returning to Paul and that she and Marc can never see each other again. Their parting is wrenching for both of them, as they still love each other.
Frances searches for Paul amongst the airport crowds, and finds him dejectedly standing at the airport bookshop. France convinces him that she needs him, too, and that she isn’t returning to him out of pity. They promise to try again, whilst Marc looks on in despair and resignation from the airport’s upper level.
The workings of the airport then resume as per usual, and Mr Sanders greets a new arrival of VIPs.
The film ends with Paul and Frances together in their car, embracing.
Richard Burton as high powered business tycoon
Although The VIPs is not considered the high point of Burton’s dramatic career, either on film or stage, I think that it is a film that shows what a talented actor he was. While the film is by no means a bad one, it is no doubt elevated by its very able cast. Burton takes a character that could very well have appeared one dimensional in his feelings of betrayal, and transforms it so that it is entirely clear that Paul Andros goes through a series of deeply felt emotions throughout the film. He begins as the proud, powerful tycoon who regards his wife as another expensive trophy in his business empire; to a man that is broken by the realisation that despite all of his wealth and prestige, he has nothing if Frances leaves him. And while this may sound tired and stereotypical, the sight of Burton on the brink of tears, whilst he sits alone and ground down at the airport coffee bar is one that brought a lump to my throat.
Sophia Loren was originally cast in Taylor’s role, but she convinced the film’s director, Anthony Asquith, to cast her instead. And I think that that was a wise choice. Whilst Loren would probably have been no slouch in the role herself, the combination of Taylor and Burton in this film is one that draws the viewer in. While we are supposed to believe that Taylor and Jourdan’s characters are the couple to root for, it is always Burton and Taylor whose scenes really show passion. This is especially evident in the hotel scene, when they both give extremely emotional and emotive performances, culminating in a shocking action of unintentional physical violence. This could have looked forced, but Burton and Taylor ramp things up to such a degree that the crescendo that is reached is entirely believable. While their verbally barbed exchanges in Cleopatra are legendary, this heated exchange in The VIPs shows what was to come.
I think the most impressive part of Burton’s performance in this film is how natural he is. While some may feel that his onscreen performances were too much like that of a stage actor, and like Olivier he was very clearly a classically trained theatre actor; there is nothing overblown or stiff about his turn in this film. His scene with a very young Maggie Smith in the airport lounge shows Paul’s gradual breakdown, the irreversible cracking of his king of industry facade, which makes his eventual staring, unaware stillness at the airport bookshop at the film’s end the logical conclusion to that breakdown.
The VIPs perhaps marks the beginning of Burton’s career as a global superstar, both because he would from that point on be indelibly linked with his on-again-off-again wife, Taylor, and because he had transformed from the pretty young man of My Cousin Rachel to a mature, very masculine leading man.
The behind the scenes workings of the VIP lounge
Margaret Rutherford won the best supporting actress Oscar for her turn as the Duchess of Brighton, this would be the film’s only Oscar win and nomination, and her only Oscar win and nomination.
When persuading Asquith to cast her as Frances instead of Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor reportedly told him “Let Sophia stay in Rome.”
Christopher Plummer was set to star in the film, reportedly in Burton’s role, but left after learning he would earn more making The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Almost all of the jewellery Taylor wears in the film were from her private collection, and the emerald brooch and diamond bracelet were the first of Burton’s “It’s Tuesday, I love you” gifts to her, whilst the tiara she wears during the title sequence was a gift from deceased husband Mike Todd.
The helicopter that Frances and Paul arrive in at the airport, also appeared in Goldfinger.
This was the first time Rod Taylor played an Australian onscreen, despite being a native Australian himself. He apparently “Australianised” some of the film’s dialogue.
This was Maggie Smith’s fourth screen role.