AT REST: Richard Burton's grave in the protestant church in Celigny, Switzerland. Photo: wikipedia
Photo: Gabriel Hershman
Sunday, August 5 1984. I remember turning on the news and the BBC bulletin led by slowly unveiling the face of Richard Burton, dead at 58 from a cerebral haemorrhage. His premature death followed a lifetime of great performances but also a long period of well publicised alcoholic dissipation.
That BBC news clip showed photographs of Burton, accompanied by that magnificently melodic, thunderous voice which sounded as if it had been blasted out of a coalmine, reading from Shakespeare. "What piece of work is a man? How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and in moving how express and admirable, the beauty of this world, the paragon of animals...and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?"
Burton's voice never lost its capacity to amaze, not just through its depth, but with the intelligence that lay behind it – its restraint and subtlety. Burton's rendition from Hamlet gave perhaps a hint of his private demons, the man whose passion for the world and all its riches was outshone only by his capacity for self-destruction.
Burton was unique, a superstar who was also a great actor, an intellectual who could convincingly play tough-guys, equally at home in modern drama, such as Edward Albee's searing portrait of a decaying marriage in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or in Shakespeare.
Once seen as the natural successor to Laurence Olivier, Burton, according to the critics, had "sold out" to Hollywood. This, however, was not the whole story. Burton's peers and rivals for the title of Britain's best actor of his generation – the likes of Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole and Anthony Hopkins – failed when they tried Shakespeare even though all three had that indefinable on-stage "presence".
Burton, however, simply bested them in the classics; it was the melodic rhythm of his voice that distinguished him, his knack of finding the music of the poetry without obscuring the meaning behind the lines. Add to that the actor's "mask" – the sculpted, pock-marked face with wide-set hypnotic eyes – and perhaps you can explain why women seemingly found Burton irresistible. It was said that he had made Hamlet seem sexy; small wonder then that his Broadway run in 1964 broke all records.
Tales of wine and roses Most biographies of Burton concentrate on his womanising and drinking and marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. The most recent book on Burton – And God Created Burton by Tom Rubython – is no exception. It tells us that Burton had 2500 lovers and averaged at least three different women every week until he was well into his forties. Be warned that many stories about actors are apocryphal; they are cited (perhaps exaggerated for effect) by one source and then repeated endlessly by other writers.
So the story of Burton's promiscuity could have been embellished, not least by Burton himself who relished his libidinous, liquor-loving image. If it were true, one wonders, are there some (by now middle-aged) Burtons running around the place of whom we are unaware?
So far as we know, Burton had two daughters, one of whom, Kate, was an actress. His other daughter, Jessica, was autistic and has lived in residential care the whole of her life. Whether this tragedy tipped Burton into the depths of alcoholism we shall never know, but by the time he filmed The Klansman with Lee Marvin in 1974 his drinking had escalated to the point where he was drinking up to three bottles of vodka a day.
Of all the Burton biographies to date, easily the best was by Melvyn Bragg, published in 1988, partly because it features excerpts from Burton's highly erudite diaries and also because Bragg went beyond yellowing newspapers cuttings – Burton always referred to the tabloids as "tomorrow's fish and chip paper" – and bothered to talk to people who actually knew him. The figure that emerges is a man blessed by the gods but haunted by the spectre of losing. His daughter's mental illness, his favourite brother's untimely death in an accident, his deteriorating health and tempestuous marriage to Taylor are all chronicled in detail.
Bragg's book is also revealing because it focuses on acting. Superfluous to say so, you may think, but curiously – and this is particularly true of Rubython's recent work – biographies of Burton seldom give much space to his acting at all. This is a pity because Burton's work stands the test of time despite the critical carping of self-righteous pundits who castigated him forever for "leaving the stage" and chasing Hollywood superstardom.
Treading the boards The constant refrain that Burton left the stage was, in any case, untrue. Unlike Marlon Brando, who forsook theatre completely for films, Burton continued to tread the boards – for Equus in 1976, Camelot in 1980 and Private Lives in 1983. Aside from a string of great film performances, his masterful narration of Coleridge's the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner and recordings of Dylan Thomas's poetry will remain with us for posterity. By contrast, his contemporary Paul Scofield, a masterful Shakespearean actor who rarely filmed but who, ironically, pipped Burton to the best actor Oscar in 1966, leaves a comparatively empty archive of film and recording work.
Perhaps envy explains why critics forever railed against Burton. Even some of his obituaries seemingly relished his downfall. Hubris breeds nemesis, they thought. Burton had everything; he was handsome, intelligent, charismatic, worshipped by women, revered by men and rich beyond the dreams of avarice. He was the poor Welsh boy from the valleys who had married the most beautiful woman in the world – Elizabeth Taylor – moving between the couple's mansions in Switzerland and London's Dorchester Hotel. Burton, it was said, liked to lavish diamonds on Taylor almost as much as she liked wearing them.
Burton, according to this theory, living in tax exile in Switzerland, had chosen easy riches and glamour and glitz over art. So when Burton collapsed yet again after a bender or was rushed into detox, his liver ravaged by a lifetime of excess, there was touch of schadenfreude among onlookers. Rubython's book, unfortunately, is nothing more than a rehash of all former biographies of Burton with few original insights, amalgamated into one volume so that it looks more impressive than it is it.
Unfortunately, there's another problem with Rubython's book. The author is not artistic at all, by which I mean he is a sports journalist with little understanding of the subtleties of the thespian world. His last biography was of racing driver James Hunt, aptly titled Shunt, full of voyeuristic anecdotes of Hunt's sexual exploits. Indeed, both Hunt and Burton are made to seem like alley cats on viagra; doubtless this makes for good copy in certain quarters but frustrating for those us wanting to get at the man behind the myth.
Class act In truth, the most interesting part of Burton's life was not the sexual/alcohol addiction but the performances. The "hellraising" tag does Burton a disservice because it places him in the same category as other marathon drinkers – like Richard Harris and Oliver Reed – who were not of his calibre. O'Toole comes nearest in terms of acting ability, perhaps followed by Nicol Williamson. Burton was indeed, as Rubython's book labels him, the greatest actor of his generation but the author, like so many others, fails to explain why.
Burton's genius is never more evident than in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as the downtrodden, mediocre professor of history. When he tells the story of the boy who kills both his parents in a car accident he did so, according to director Mike Nichols, in one take. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold he gave the second best performance of his career. True, many mediocre movies followed but it's worth watching most of them for Burton alone. In The Wild Geese, for example, as Colonel Faulkner, the leader of a bunch of British mercenaries, he's brilliantly acerbic. There's a scene in that movie with Stewart Granger which has many self-deprecating jokes, some at Burton's expense.
"My liver will be buried separately with honours," he tells Granger in their first encounter.
"I'm not a very humorous man," Granger replies.
"So I noticed," Burton says within a fraction of a second.
With a wink, a gesture, a cold stare, you know you are witnessing great acting there. It is Burton's timing that is so exquisite, not just his voice, wonderful instrument that it was. When you expect aggression, Burton is restrained; when you expect gentleness, he's razor-sharp. It's Burton's gift as an actor in a two-hander to surprise you. He was also brilliant in a monologue – witness his courtroom tirade against the British political establishment in The Medusa Touch – "I for one am with the defendant. If I knew how, I'd blow the bloody place (the imperial war museum) sky high."
Aside from these performances, nobody can see films such as Look Back In Anger, Where Eagles Dare, Anne Of A Thousand Days, The Sandpiper or the VIPs without being struck by his star quality.
Simple life in Switzerland The brilliant television documentary In From The Cold, first shown in 1988, charted his life with the help of thespian friends – Robert Hardy, Sir John Gielgud and Lauren Bacall – but perhaps the most magical moments are Burton reading poetry and reciting lines from one of his first breakthrough stage roles in The Boy With A Cart.
The programme charts his rise from Pontrhydyfen in South Wales through to Hollywood stardom and, of course, the Burton-Taylor on/off marriage that garnered so much – in Burton's words – "stupid and stupendous" publicity. It ends by showing Burton's library at his home in Celigny, Switzerland. The library was actually a converted loft with tens of thousands of books, a place where Burton, despite his reputation for skirt-chasing and drinking, was most at home, surrounded by the written word. Ironically, although reviled for his ostentatious vulgarity, Burton lived relatively simply towards the end of his life. Le Pays de Galles, Burton's home, was not a superstar's mansion. As long as he had a lamp a book to hand, a cigarette and – I suppose one should add – a bottle of vodka nearby, he was a happy man.
It is Burton's masterful poetry readings and seven Oscar-nominated performances that will stay with true fans, not the drinking or the promiscuity. Hopefully, another biographer will yet do him justice but that is perhaps unlikely unless Burton's unabridged diaries are released. In the meantime, you are advised to watch some of his old movies or listen to some of his recordings on YouTube.
Take, for example, his masterful renditions of Dylan Thomas's poetry, "Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light." And, after playing that, you will know the real reason why Burton is indeed Wales's most beloved son. And, by the way, Mr Rubython, the sleeve of your biography tells us that Roger Moore, who wrote the foreword, is "like Burton, an English actor". The sound you hear is Burton, the Welsh hero who was so nationalistic that he was buried from tip to toe in red, turning in his grave.
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