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The Great Actor Who Hated Acting

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1962

On the face of it, it is not much of a tragedy. A young classical actor promises greatness but is diverted from his path by the lure of easy money and vulgar fame. He ends up in unhappy affluence with his nervy, high-maintenance wife, his great voice now marinated in alcohol. Yet Eugene O’Neill made one of the great twentieth-century tragedies from such a figure: James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

Richard Burton would have made a great James Tyrone, and the public, which had become used to reading his private life into his performances, would have flocked to see him. Like O’Neill’s father James, the model for James Tyrone, Burton was a dark-haired beautiful boy with a wide face and a richly powerful voice.

Both came from obscure poverty and from the so-called Celtic fringes of the United Kingdom: Tyrone from Ireland, Burton from Wales. Both emerged suddenly and forcefully as actors with the vocal command and physical presence that would allow them to define the great Shakespeare roles for a new generation. Both succumbed to the lures of enormous wealth and inordinate fame. Tyrone’s trap was the endless money to be made from repeating his turn as Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, Burton’s the flood of Hollywood dollars that sprang from the equally long-running melodrama of his partnership with Elizabeth Taylor. For both men, critics developed an almost identical narrative, a secular version of the Garden of Eden. They ate the apple of temptation and were expelled from the paradise of great art.

Of James O’Neill, the real Tyrone, it was written that “he is reaping the pecuniary profit of his business sagacity, but it is at the cost of art.” Richard Burton noted in his intermittent but extensive diaries his weariness of the perennial question from hack journalists: “Have you sold your soul to the films for the sake of filthy lucre?” In June 1970, when he is forty-four, he writes:

Marvellous what the public and press will persuade themselves of. I have this marvellous reputation as an actor of incredible potential who has lazed his talent away. A reputation which I enjoy, but which I acquired even when I was at the Old Vic those many years ago.

The reference is to his hugely successful performances in Hamlet, Coriolanus, Henry V, and Othello in London between 1953 and 1956. Even when he was in his late twenties, he is suggesting, the mantle of James Tyrone was already being placed on his shoulders by critics and journalists. And as he writes elsewhere, “I wasn’t greatly taken with mantles.”

Burton noted in August 1971 that the moral tale of prostituted greatness is luridly attractive:

The press have been sounding the same note for many years—ever since I went to Hollywood in the early fifties, in fact—that I am or was potentially the greatest actor in the world and the successor to [John] Gielgud [Laurence] Olivier etc. but that I had dissipated my genius etc. and “sold out” to films and booze and women. An interesting reputation to have and by no means dull but by all means untrue.

By no means dull, indeed: in Burton’s case, the narrative of dissipated genius is a garish, Technicolor extravaganza, played out over two decades with Taylor as its ravishing costar; lit by a billion paparazzi flashes; diamonds, yachts, and private jets as its props and front-page headlines as its script. If Burton’s soul was sold, the price he got for it—a feast of sex with many of the world’s most beautiful women, torrents of money (in 1978, he wrote to his manager asking for details of how he and Taylor had managed to spend “something in the region of 30 million dollars”), and a long reign as half of the world’s most famous couple—makes Faust look like a sucker. Not for nothing, indeed, did Burton (in 1967) finance, star in, and codirect a film version of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

There are three levels of fame. On the first, wherever you go, someone recognizes you. On the second, wherever you go, everyone recognizes you. On the third, someone recognizes you but no one can believe it’s really you. At one point, in September 1967, Burton wanders over to watch some locals playing soccer in a village in Corsica:

After about 1/2 hour somebody thought he recognized me and went excitedly to his friends. “Ca c’est Richard Burton c’est vrai, c’est vrai.” Fortunately nobody believed him and we were left undisturbed. There were many snarky remarks to the enthusiast on the general level of “What would Burton be doing in a shit-house like this?”

In fact, Burton knew a lot about excremental places. Twenty-seven years before this incident, we find, in the matter-of-fact diary of the fourteen-year-old Richard Jenkins (he later adopted the last name of his guardian and mentor Philip Burton) laconic entries: “Bucket of D.” “Went up Mountain and had a bucket of D.” “Fetched a bucket of D. There was another man up there but I was very keen today I could smell D. a mile off. This mountain is nothing but D.” “D.” is code for dung. The adolescent Richard earned money by climbing the mountains outside the industrial town of Port Talbot, scooping animal manure into his bucket, carrying it back down the mountain, and selling it to gardeners in the town.

The alchemy of Burton’s career is the transformation of dung into diamonds. There is a delicious moment in the diaries when he is reading in bed “and E. was around the corner of the room I asked: What are you doing lumpy? She said like a little girl and quite seriously: ‘Playing with my jewels.’” The innocence is as much his as hers: Burton’s idea of wealth—dressing your princess in diamonds—is a fantasy of childhood poverty.

He could never forget those origins. One of the more admirable aspects of Burton’s diaries is his refusal to relinquish his inherited detestation of the English ruling class whose entrenched privilege was the obverse side of Welsh working-class poverty. He appreciates the ironies of “Lord Millionaire Richard,” a tax exile in Switzerland, posing as an enemy of the Establishment, but the loathing and resentment are bred in the bone:

My hatred of Tories is unabated by long-term membership of the rich class, and I hope they howl in the wilderness for another five years…. No legislation they might enact…could ever make up for their intolerable air of superiority over us lot in the years and years gone by. I hope they grovel for evermore.

As well as the sex and the money, Burton’s Faustian bargain gave him the opportunity to reign over “those smug bastards” who had kept “us lot” (meaning both the Welsh and the workers) down for so many generations. Burton and Taylor were not just members (in some respects inventors) of the new aristocracy of celebrity—they were royalty. Burton, after his final separation from Taylor, almost married Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. He had a thing for deposed royals. At one point, in May 1967, we find him with the duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII, in Paris, sneering at the actual reigning monarch: “I referred disloyally to the Queen as ‘her dumpy majesty’ and neither the Duke or Duchess seemed to mind.” Burton and the duke get on so well together that they end up singing “the Welsh National Anthem in atrocious harmony.” The source of their rapport is obvious enough—both were monarchs without thrones.

In October 1967, Burton and Taylor went to England for the gala charity premiere of Doctor Faustus: “a nurse…presented E with a bouquet of flowers and if you please curtsied.” A curtsy is the gesture of homage and obeisance demanded of female subjects fortunate enough to be presented to a queen. “E and I,” Burton confesses, “were delighted.” The delight is not mere egotism. It is striking that the day after he records the incident in his diary, Burton lapses into memories of childhood. He remembers, for the only time in his adult diary, collecting dung and his “stinking green sweater”—stinking presumably of excrement and poverty.

That poverty was written on his face. One of the first entries in his adult diary, from January 1960, is “I hate myself and my face in particular.” Beneath the actor’s makeup, his skin was badly pockmarked from childhood disease. Kenneth Tynan, reviewing one of his best film performances in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, compares his face to “a bullet-chipped wall against which many executions have taken place.” Burton, in 1966, describes himself as “pocked, pimpled and carbuncled as a Hogarth.” Later, he calls himself “that thick graceless pockmarked man.” At a telling moment in 1970, Burton watches himself on television, playing Edwin Booth in Prince of Players, released in 1955. His Welsh friend Brook Williams remarks “that Ron Berkeley [Burton’s favorite makeup man] clearly didn’t do my make-up because my pock-marks were showing. E’s loyal little face tightened in defence.” Taylor’s defensiveness, and Burton’s gratitude for it, hint at a sensitivity that lies in this case not beneath the skin, but on it.

The very scale of the transformation from poverty to dazzling wealth and from obscurity to royalty makes the narrative of sold-out genius all but irresistible. It is not an unflattering narrative: to receive in return these rewards of women, wealth, and class revenge, he must have had a lot to sell. The corollary of the fabulous price paid for his soul is that it must have been a jewel as rare and precious as the notorious million-dollar diamond or the La Peregrina pearl he bought for Taylor at the height of their reign. He must have been, indeed, potentially the greatest actor in the world. This great genius ends up in the lucrative mediocrity of Raid on Rommel, The Wild Geese, and The Medusa Touch. It is, as Burton himself recognized, a great story. But could it be, as he protested, “by all means untrue”?

It is easy to suggest that this insistence is merely self-deluded. But his diaries are not those of a man afraid to take a harsh look at himself: “How dumb and boring I must have been for the greater part of my life”; “I am, I think, sublimely selfish”; “my acute sense of physical inferiority”; “I could have cut out my vile tongue with a blunt razor. From what twisted root did that bastard tree grow?”; “I do, of course, choose my moments well to shout at my wife, like after her father’s funeral.” He accuses himself of “savage ill humour,” “absolutely unstoppably filthy moods, insulting everybody left right and centre,” and “venomous malice.”

He writes of all the films he and Taylor had made: “a vast majority of them were rubbish and not worth anybody’s attention.” He is much more likely, in dealing with his fights with Taylor, to record his own bad behavior than hers. Conversely, the diaries are remarkably free of self-congratulation, either for his achievements as an actor or for his great generosity with money. There is enough self-criticism, even self-hatred, here for Burton’s dismissal of the narrative of sold-out genius to merit attention.

It is undeniable that there is, with Burton, some kind of void. The easiest way to make sense of him is to imagine that void in the most obvious way, as the great gap of unfulfillment between his fabulous beginnings as an actor and his ultimate destination in bad movies, alcoholism, and death at the age of just fifty-eight. But perhaps the empty space is a more profound darkness. Perhaps the point about Burton is not that he was a great actor who fell into a void. Perhaps the void was always there. Perhaps it was precisely the shadow, the darkness, the empty space around him, that made him such a potent presence.

There is a difficulty here: the idea of Burton’s potential greatness is based on his evanescent performances on stage, especially in Shakespeare. Raid on Rommel remains forever—Burton’s reportedly thrilling Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I at Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer of 1951 is gone for good. We do, however, have some highly suggestive reviews and, remarkably, a “live” film of Burton’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. Both suggest not just that he was indeed an electrifying performer, but that the nature of his brilliance is utterly at odds with his extravagant public image.

The broad image of Burton the actor is one that fits well with the grand narrative of dissipated genius. It draws on another preexisting notion: the romantic Celt. As a cultural type, most famously constructed by Matthew Arnold, the Celt is everything the Anglo-Saxon is not: exuberant, imaginative, emotional, impulsive. The Celtic label is attached to Burton from reviews in 1951 right through to his posthumous official biography by Melvyn Bragg, who writes of his “Celtic lust for life,” his resemblance to a “Celtic hero,” and his “hammering his way through life like some Celtic demon.” Burton himself, in the diaries, refers to his own “sly Celtic charm” and “Celtic pessimism.” For journalists, of course, it was all too easy to bracket Burton with the Irishmen Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris as hard-drinking “Celtic” hellraisers, even though, in the diaries, Burton himself writes that he “despises” everything about the Irish in general: “their posturing, the silly soft accents, their literature…their genius for self-advertisement, their mock-belligerence, their obvious charm.”

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