Ron Galella (1931 – 2022)

Ron Galella, patron saint of peeping toms, is dead, age 91.

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“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous. It’s being in the right place at the wrong time. That’s why my favorite photographer is Ron Galella,” Andy Warhol once said.

Ron Galella’s career was defined by taking pictures of the famous doing the routine – and his passing earlier this year recalled an earlier era where even the most public of celebrities attempted to achieve some  level of privacy. That era was over – replaced by social media and celebrities who have privatized fame, creating their own brands and personas, and wrestling back control from paparazzi such as Ron Galella.  

Times were once different. In his day, he was the tormenter of actors and actresses, singers and socialites: Elvis Prestley, Sophia Loren, Bruce Springsteen, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Robert Redford, Frank Sinatra, Brigitte Bardot, Sean Penn and a perennial favorite of his, Jackie Kennedy, the former first lady.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ran close second. The pair’s relationship – from its inception on set of Cleopatra in 1962 to the infamous kiss on a yacht on the Amalfi Coast that led to a condemnation by the Vatican and eventually to their marriage – was a fodder for tabloid presses, and Galella hounded them relentlessly.

In 1966, Taylor and Burton starred together in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an adaptation of an Edward Albee play, for which Burton was nominated and Taylor won an Oscar. Their marriage was also said to mirror that of the main characters in the movie – highly strung, uneven, teetering on brink of disaster – and they followed up that performance with another adaptation, this time, that of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Taylor in a role written for a much older woman plays an aging, serial-marrying millionaire, and Burton a younger man who turns up on the Mediterranean island to which she has retired.

The film was a dramatic flop. Time magazine called it, “self-indulgent fecklessness of a couple of rich amateurs hamming it up at the country-club”. The next year, 1969, found them in London – Elizabeth Taylor was filming The Only Game in Town with Warren Beatty and Burton Anne of the Thousand Days. Ron Galella remembered:

“They had a yacht in London called the Kalizma named after their three daughters: Kate, Liza, and Maria, moored on the Thames. They went to the yacht on weekends only because they were filming. They stayed at the Dorchester Hotel; I staked them out there as well. Richard was drunk and attempted to sock me but Liz held him back. I became friends with a Portuguese sailor. He told me about a party [on the yacht]. I went to the top floor, shielded the window so they couldn’t see me, and waited. I got great pictures of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in their yacht. One of my favorite shots shows Elizabeth Taylor and Ramone, the yacht steward putting up gauze curtains. The tourist boat never saw them, but I did.”

All along the Thames, tour guides sold tickets to tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the couple. Due to the curtains she put up to block the view, “the tourist boat never saw them, but I did,” Galella proudly recalled. A double spread of the photo above later ran in The National Enquirer.

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Elizabeth Taylor (1932 – 2011)

Elizabeth Taylor, screen’s ‘pre-Christian Elizabeth Arden’, is Dead at 79.

Liz Taylor was perhaps Hollywood’s best known star, albeit one better known for her alluring beauty and offscreen antics than for her acting. In an acting career than spanned six decades, she received her share of accolades and excoriations, and was best remembered for her 1963 film Cleopatra — one of the sliverscreen’s biggest flops.

The picture was originally intended as a low-budget remake of 1917 epic, to cash in on the recent popularity of sword and sandal pictures like Ben-Hur. But Fox brought in Liz Taylor, and built sets worth millions at London’s Pinewood Studios. After hefty demands (which included an unprecedented million-dollar salary, a $1500 a week stipend for her husband, a $3000 a week stipend for herself) were made, Liz Taylor conveniently woke up with a cold on the very morning the filming was to begin. The cold turned into a five-week absence.

Veteran Director Joseph Mankiewicz was brought in to save the picture the press was already calling the greatest movie never made. As the script was being furiously rewritten by Mankiewicz, Taylor again become sick, this time with pneumonia. She fought for her life and claimed that she died and came back, a publicity stunt that helped rekindle her waning star. Claiming that London’s weather contributed to her sickness, she demanded the production — massive sets and all — move to Rome.

The studio considered replacing Taylor (with among others Marilyn Monroe) but decided against it. But other cast changes led to the fateful decision to hire Richard Burton as Taylor’s opposite number. Their subsequent affair, Le Scandale as Burton called it, was shocking by the day’s standards, as were Burton’s lurid descriptions of torrid sex with Liz Taylor. Paparazzo Marcello Geppetti’s famous shot of Burton and Taylor kissing on a yacht on the Amalfi Coast confirmed these rumors. The photo was responsible for triggering not only the worldwide interest in the affair, but also sundering of carefully constructed studio images of celebrities’ lives all too common in the 50s and the 60s. The world of June 1962 had never seen anything like it. According to Snap! A History of the Paparazzi, there had always been rumours surrounding stars in gossip magazines such as Confidential and Hush Hush, but never before had there been pictures such as these to substantiate them.

The last to know were their respective spouses, and when Burton’s long-suffering wife threatened to leave him, Burton dumped Liz, who promptly overdosed. Her suicide attempt was another disaster for Fox, but a publicity scoop for Taylor. Burton dumped his wife of 12 years, and reunited with Liz. Yet things hardly picked up for Fox; Burton and Taylor’s stormy fights often incapacitated Taylor; the duo would often show up to work drunk. But Taylor kept on charming the studio executives and they kept funding this vanity project. Mankiewicz, who wanted to make a seven-hour epic, presented another problem. When the final, four-hour version was presented, the critics universally panned it, singling out Liz Taylor’s performance. “Overweight, overbosomed, over-paid and undertalented, she set the acting profession back a decade” noted David Susskind. The New Statesman‘s review which included the words “monotony in a slit skirt” was withering.

Fox nearly went bankrupt over the movie which cost it a record $42 million, and earned back just half of that. Cleopatra entered history books as the only film ever to be the highest grossing film of the year, running at a loss.