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Better than Brangelina
by Brooke Allen
A review of The Richard Burton Diaries by Richard Burton,Chris Williams
was right!Support The
Liz and Dick. It was, for a while at least, the romance of the century. In 1962, when Burton and Taylor dodged their respective spouses while filming Cleopatra in Rome and began their melodramatic liaison, which included a suicide attempt (Elizabeth’s) and a condemnation from the Vatican, there ensued a paparazzi feeding frenzy the likes of which would not be seen again until the death of Princess Diana thirty-five years later. Even Brangelina has nothing on Liz and Dick. Burton was devastatingly attractive and virile, and was widely acknowledged as a great actor, the natural successor to Gielgud and Olivier. Taylor was, according to popular opinion, the most beautiful woman in the world. Even as a small child, hardly able to read, I was somehow made aware of the brouhaha.
Their elopement was romantic but the long-term picture was not pretty. The Burtons turned out to be not only the most glamorous couple in the world but one of the most self-indulgent: alcohol, food, yachts, private jets, diamonds as big as the Ritz. They treated drinking as a competitive sport, and booze spawned unseemly brawls. Paparazzi shots from the later years of their partnership show a puffy, degenerate-looking couple. Their careers suffered. They divorced in 1974, then remarried a year later, but it was only a few months before the marriage’s final meltdown.
The exploits of Liz and Dick, as revealed by the tabloids, made a singularly unedifying spectacle. Richard and Elizabeth, the human beings behind the tabloid stories, seem to have been rather different. The recently published Richard Burton Diaries shows us a couple whose habits were as undisciplined as those of Liz and Dick but whose humor, intelligence, and family-feeling make up for a great many of their failings. Richard Burton himself is the greatest surprise here: the diaries reveal a man of considerable intellectual abilities who was tormented by a feeling that he had ended up in the wrong life. If he had followed his own inclinations, he would have been a writer or a professor of literature, but his rise to stardom was so meteoric and its rewards so lavish that he hadn’t the willpower to change directions. In 1969, irritated after an interview with a fatuous journalist, he went on a characteristic rant in his diary:
I think Mr. Thompson was deeply shocked when I told him that acting on stage or films, apart from one or two high moments of nervous excitement, was sheer drudgery. That if I retired from acting professionally tomorrow that I would never appear in the local amateur dramatic society for the sheer love of it. Could he not understand the indignity and the boredom of having to learn the writings of another man, which nine times out of ten was indifferent, when you are forty-three years old, are fairly widely read, drag yourself off to work day after day with a long lingering regretful look behind you at the book you’re interested in. . . . They will never understand that E and I are not “dedicated” and that my “first love” (God how many times have I read that?) is not the stage. It is a book with lovely words in it. When I retire which I must do before long I shall write a screaming diatribe against the whole false world of journalism and show business.
Burton was not exaggerating his love of reading: he went through about three books a day, everything from Ulysses to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to nature books to biographies of J. B. S. Haldane, George Custer (“Unreadable. It is as if the writer was not only bad but a homosexual madly in love with Custer”), and Queen Victoria (“To my astonishment I find the book written very racily, and the subject, absolutely absorbing. . . . There was more, obviously, to the dwarf Queen than met the eye”). His great passion was poetry. A man whose university education extended to a six months’ short course program at Oxford University during World War II, Burton was avid for intellectual stimulation; he admitted that his greatest pipe dream was to be a fellow at All Souls, and when he was invited to spend a term at Oxford teaching English poetry to undergraduates he went mad with excitement.
But despite these literary ambitions Burton was fatally hooked on the celebrity culture he claimed to scorn. He reveled in having landed the world’s top girl and he gloated at the attention Elizabeth got when bedecked in the jewels he had bought her, baubles that included the Krupp Diamond, the La Peregrina Pearl (a wedding gift from Philip of Spain to Mary Tudor), and the famous Taylor–Burton diamond, weighing in at more than sixty-nine carats. He was dazzled by his luxurious yacht, the Kalizma (named for three of the Burtons’s children, Kate, Liza, and Maria):
The Monet is in the living room or salon, the Picasso and the Van Gogh are in the dining room. The Epstein bust of Churchill is brooding over the salon and there is a Vlaminck on the wall of the stairwell to the kids’ cabins. . . . We didn’t go to bed until 3:30 because we were so excited at the joy of the boat. I can’t as ’twere stop touching it and staring at it, as if it were a beautiful baby or puppy-dog. Something you can’t believe is your very own.
You can hear the distinct tones of the poor boy made good; this was a rags-to-riches story that rivals any. For Burton was the twelfth child of a coal miner in a Glamorgan valley; only his unusual intelligence and talent, and the interest and support of a teacher, Philip Burton (whose name the young Richard Jenkins eventually took), kept him from following his father and older brothers into the mines. As the bright cynosure at the center of the celebrity whirlwind, Burton viewed its frenzy with the jaundiced eye of an outsider and, while he never forgot his origins, he had no wish to return to obscurity. “I like being famous,” he reflected in 1970. “I wonder how I’ll feel when I’m not. After twenty years of it now and a further few years I suppose it will feel very strange to be Richard Jenkins again as it were.”
The gossip in these diaries, for those of us who are still interested in stars of that era, is spectacular. Rex Harrison, at premieres and other special events, “always wears a toupée and makes up with ‘Man Tan.’ ” Mrs. Rex Harrison, the actress Rachel Roberts, “who is always pretty good value for a diary, showed everybody her pubic hairs, and as a dessert lay down on the floor in a mini-skirt and showed her bum to anyone who cared to have a glance.” Lucille Ball, who in the wake of the great diamond ring purchase of 1970 had persuaded the Burtons to appear on her sitcom Here’s Lucy, gets a particularly brutal drubbing: “Those who had told us that Lucille Ball was ‘very wearing’ were not exaggerating. She is a monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humor. . . . Milady Balls can thank her lucky stars that I am not drinking.” (I was inspired by this diatribe to track down the episode in question on YouTube and am here to say that in this case Burton was wrong: Milady Balls knew what she was doing and the schtick she concocted was very funny, to the point where it seemed to me that Taylor might have had a career in farce had she chosen to go in for it.)
For an actor of his caliber, Burton seemed surprisingly uninterested in the craft of acting. Mostly he complained about the exertions of his trade: while filming The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth, for example, he describes a week in which “we waded through wool, ran through bats, swung on trapezes, threw each other around.” A gig in the 1971 film Raid on Rommel was even more punishing: “climbing in and out of tanks and lorries and running across the sand and diving into various holes when explosions are supposed to be going off.” On the rare occasions when Burton did expound on acting techniques, his observations tended to be amusing if not terribly enlightening:
I do not wish to compete with Olivier or Gielgud and Scofield and Redgrave etc. as they are too “actory” for my liking. Apart from occasional performances, few and far between, I don’t believe a word they say. Larry is the past-master of professional artificiality. A mass of affectations. So is Paul. John is always the same and when it fits the part he is very watchable, but when it doesn’t it can only be described as regrettable. They have splendid presences and are very hard-working and genuinely love their jobs. I cannot match the two latter qualities. And do not wish to.
Or, when acting the part of Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days:
Oh, blessed relief, I had to work with Tony Quayle and Michael Hordern. Marvelous pair of pros and no rubbish and cunning as snakes. I held my own I think. They have every shrug, nod, beck, sideways glance and shifting of eyes ever invented. I said to the director that it was somewhat akin to playing between the frying-pan and the fire. All Michael Hordern had to say was “Yes, your Grace.” He must have said four hesitant “yours” and the three words, uttered in his inimitable way became slightly longer than Hamlet. Uncut. They both varied the time of their readings in an unconscious effort to “throw” each other off, and me. But I’m too old a hand. I “threw” them a couple of times too. None said a word to each other about it but all three old bastards knew bloody well that when that camera is purring it’s every man for himself. Of course if you are the “star” or the “money” as the technicians call it you can afford to be magnanimous because the “money” is almost automatically protected but it’s as well to know what the hell you’re up to. And to let them know that you know what they are up to.
Burton did not enjoy the filming process and seemed happiest when living a quiet life with Elizabeth on the Kalizma or in their home in the Swiss Alps where, although there was—as always—plenty of booze, their amusements were simple and even innocuous; during one period in 1965 they spent several hours a day playing Yahtzee, of all things. (In fact during one of their frequent arguments Burton angrily told Elizabeth that the only thing they had in common was Yahtzee.) Food was also a pleasure and, all too often, a trap.
Both E and I went mad last night and started eating Callard and Bowsers Liquorice Fingers. I must have eaten a pound or so and E somewhat less. The results were evident this morning. I had put on 3½ lbs and E 2 lbs. Today we are unrepentant but determined to redress the balance. E longs to be 129 lbs and I to be 170. It can be done. But not perhaps by us.
One of the more appealing characteristics of the Burtons is the time and trouble they took over their children, which was unusual for showbiz parents of the era. Between them they had six: Kate and Jessica Burton, daughters of Burton with his first wife Sybyl; Michael and Christopher Wilding, sons of Elizabeth and her second husband, the British actor Michael Wilding; Liza Todd Burton, daughter of Elizabeth and the deceased Mike Todd, whom Richard adopted; and Maria, a German orphan Richard and Elizabeth had adopted together. The children, their education, and their complicated comings and goings were a constant focus of concern, as were the doings and needs of the members of Burton’s extended family back in Wales, many of whom he supported.
Chris Williams, the editor of this volume, has done an astounding amount of research, tracking down every reference to even the most obscure acquaintances. When it comes to Burton’s early associations in Wales, this could not have been at all easy. Williams is an academic, a professor of Welsh history at Swansea University, and in the manner of most academics he piles on the footnotes with too much gusto; there is no reference, however obvious, that Williams doesn’t feel the need to explain. Agatha Christie, Montgomery Clift, Cary Grant, Barbra Streisand, Leonardo da Vinci: one wonders why a reader who needed to have all these people identified would be interested in ploughing through 600 pages by an actor who, by now, is less well known than any of them. But really important references are unaccountably absent; there is no mention, for instance, that Jessica Burton was autistic—a great and haunting tragedy in Burton’s life.
For it is among his family that Burton is shown to his best advantage. He was not always a perfect parent and not always—God knows!—a perfect husband. But he was a fond one, and it is the little domestic details, in the end, that stick with the reader.
Both E and I did our going to bed exercises last night together. It is difficult to keep a straight face when she is doing her numbers as she goes at it with a solemn ferocity which is hilarious. It is especially droll when we do running on the spot as she has to hold her breasts—one hand on each—for firm as they are, really like a thirty-year-old’s more than a nearly forty-year-old’s, they are pretty big and the resultant wiggle-waggle would be pretty odd as well as bad for her. It’s a very fetching sight and were it open to the public would fetch a lot of people. Like ten million.
During the time they were married Richard left his diary lying about for Elizabeth to read whenever she liked, so we can take flattering little asides such as the one about the firmness of Elizabeth’s breasts with a bit of cynicism. But even without the sweeteners, the picture we find here of the famously volatile Burton marriage is an affectionate one. Nothing in the post-Liz entries comes close to this sort of domestic contentment—and Burton continued the diary, sporadically, until his death. Life went on, but with less love, it seems, and considerably less humor.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 February 2013, on page 69
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