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Richard Burton Was a Great Writer

The Richard Burton Diaries
Edited by Chris Williams
(Yale University Press, 693 pp., $35)

JUNE 14, 1969, and for a dawn moment he was calm, remembering Wordsworth and Dylan Thomas: “I love my wife. I love her dearly. Honest. Talk about the beauty, silent, bare.... Sitting on the Thames with the river imitating a blue-grey ghost. My God the very houses seem asleep. And all that mighty heart is lying still.”

When he published his excellent biography of Richard Burton in 1988, Melvyn Bragg admitted in the first sentence of his foreword that “in writing this book I have discovered a much grander, much bigger, an altogether more compelling man than I had anticipated.” That was a tribute to Burton himself, and a thank you to all those survivors ready (if not determined) to talk about him, to letters and to business papers, but above all to the notebooks and diaries that the actor had accumulated. Chris Williams reckons that they run nearly 400,000 words, and he says that Bragg quoted (with full permission) about a fifth of what he was able to see. That was more than enough to persuade anyone that Richard Burton was a constant reader and a natural writer, as well as the actor, husband, alcoholic, and remorseless self-destructive we had heard about. He was only fifty-eight when he died, which is one reason why so many contemporaries and even elders were still alive.

So what sort of actor was he? On the one hand, he was tormented by the job. This is August 4, 1969: “I loathe loathe loathe acting. In studios. In England. I shudder at the thought of going to work with the same horror as a bank-clerk must loathe that stinking tube-journey every morning and the rush-hour madness at night. I loathe it, hate it, despise, despise, for Christ’s sake, it.” That was the year he made Anne of the Thousand Days, on which he at least flirted with Geneviève Bujold, and the year in which Where Eagles Dare (an adventure film that has many enthusiasts) earned him around $7 million. Yet he could also rejoice in the way “Burton-and-Taylor” had become their own film studio, able to do whatever they liked. In fourteen years under contract, he had enjoyed only Alexander the Great and Look Back in Anger.

But on July 26, 1969 (a week before all the loathing), he and Elizabeth did a bit of score-keeping. For herself, she was pleased with National VelvetA Place in the SunCat on a Hot Tin RoofBUtterfield 8Suddenly Last SummerWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?BoomSecret CeremonyThe Taming of the Shrew, and Doctor Faustus (“for her eyes and her breasts alone,” Burton added). For himself, he was proud of BecketWoolfThe Spy Who Came in from the ColdShrewBoomThe Night of the IguanaFaustus, and Staircase.

We may not share every choice, but those lists show he cared about and felt every prediction of doom out of Britain that he had forsaken Shakespeare, the Old Vic, and draft beer for Hollywood and Switzerland, and given up a devoted Welsh wife, Sybil, the mother of his children, the embodiment of the mining communities from which he came, for Liz, Taylor, Herself. He understood the deal: he agonized over it for a year and let it fuel self-loathing. But the diaries leave no doubt that he loved Taylor and cared for her better than he ever cared for anyone else, especially himself.

For some years, despite the racket and frenzy of being a headliner in the media (their affair and marriage was a turning point in the degradation of the press, deserving of Kate Middleton’s attention), they were such lovers that I doubt divorce, re-marriage, and re-divorce, jewels, or absurd fuss, really got in the way. His heart was in it, and so was hers. But Taylor was one of those inclined to fall in love with every man she took to her bed, while Burton started off from a pit of contempt and misanthropy. That began with himself; but he was generous and eloquent in pouring it over others. With Elizabeth, however, there were years, he said, when he missed her even when she went to the bathroom.

That’s not just sexual companionship or drinking together. It’s not just the stardom and the money that being with her brought him. It was someone to talk to, to fight with, to reconcile with. It was a shared wit, the way she taught him about movie acting and he led her into books, Wales, and rugby. Doctor Faustus and The Taming of the Shrew may look pretty odd now and hard to watch. The Sandpiper was always awful, and the famous Cleopatra is forlornly respectable when it should be as crazed as the mood of its making. Boom has not lasted. But Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is very good and truly wounding, and it would never have been made without Burton and Taylor.

Taylor won her second Oscar as Martha. (BUtterfield 8 had been the first—a kindly get-well card in her illness.) Burton was nominated, but lost to his friend Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons. The awards are barely mentioned in the diaries, and neither Burton nor Taylor attended the event. But we do have on everlasting videotape the moment at the Awards in 1977, when Burton was nominated for Equus. It was his seventh nomination, and as Sylvester Stallone read out the envelope’s contents, he said, “Richard ...” Burton was beginning to leave his seat when “Dreyfuss” was added (for The Goodbye Girl), and then we saw the mortified gallows humor of an actor who had the technique to stifle chagrin in amusement.

IT WAS A SCENE from a Burton film. He had triumphed as Henry V on stage and he never had a greater or more dogging success than Arthur in Camelot. But he was happiest being unhappy: Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Leith in Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory, Trotsky for Joseph Losey, and even a bleak, commanding O’Brien in the film of 1984. He had a profound Welsh voice, good enough for a manic-depressive Hamlet and for the songs in Camelot. He had done Under Milk Wood on the radio, as the narrator, and he contributed a fine voice-over for his friend Stanley Baker’s film Zulu (a Welsh regiment against the Zulu). He played Churchill on television in Walk With Destiny, with Virginia McKenna as Clemmie, and without any sense of impersonation he had Churchill’s grim rhythm, but not his boyish hope.

That sardonic intimation of failure may have been what led him on in life, and what took him from Sybil and the National Theatre to Elizabeth and so many dire films. As Lee Marvin, his co-star on the wretched The Klansman, said: “The man’s suffering. Who knows what it is.” And who knows why, in 1970, just before Elizabeth went into the hospital for an operation, they agreed to be guest stars on “Here’s Lucy,” the latest version of Lucille Ball. Perhaps it was so that Burton could vent in the diary:

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 humour. She is not ‘wearing’ to us because I suppose we refuse to be worn. I am coldly sarcastic with her to the point of outright contempt but she hears only what she wants to hear. She is a tired old woman [Ball was fifty-eight at the time] and lives entirely on that weekly show which she has been doing and successfully doing for 19 years. Nineteen solid years of double-takes and pratfalls and desperate up-staging and cutting out other people’s laughs if she can, nervously watching the ‘ratings’ as she does so. A machine of enormous energy, which driven by a stupid driver who has forgotten that a machine runs on oil as well as gasoline and who has neglected the former, is creaking badly towards a final convulsive seize-up. I loathed her the first day. I loathed her the second day and the third. I loathe her today but I also pity her.

Why does she do all this, he asks—for money? But then why were Burton and Taylor doing Ball’s show? By 1970, they didn’t need the money. Did Burton do it exactly because it was the kind of thing that John Gielgud would never have done? Gielgud had directed Burton early on and predicted great things for him. Burton had modeled himself on Gielgud, though he was amused that no one noticed this. The two men were very different; but lying awake in the small hours of the morning and wondering whose company he would prefer, he came to Gielgud and thought, “A strong contender for the Burton stakes, but I have a feeling that he finds me uncomfortable.” (His eventual soulmates proved to be Noel Coward and Mike Nichols.)

Gielgud always said he was not a movie star, like Burton. Yet Gielgud made Alain Resnais’s Providence as a dying novelist (an ideal part for Burton), a film that may survive in glory long after JackpotExorcist II: The HereticThe Medusa TouchThe Wild Geese, and Breakthrough, some of the films Burton consented to in those years. John Huston asked Burton to play the consul in Under the Volcano, but the actor was tied up on stage with Private Lives, a weird, lucrative reunion with Taylor.

Gielgud never married or had so many children to look after, whereas Burton had a couple of his own and a brood attached to Elizabeth. Gielgud did not drink much more than Malvern water, and he did not have the habit of buying exotic jewels. He could not have played Antony, or George, or Petrucchio. But Gielgud never stopped working on his way to reaching 92, sometimes in lead roles but often in small parts to help a project along. He was not a manic-depressive or a self-destructive, yet he would direct Burton as Hamlet, no matter that the Welshman was out of stage condition, boozing and bored—and not doing it the way Gielgud had done it.

IT IS EASY TO FORGET  how working-class Richard was, the son of a miner and the twelfth of thirteen children. His mother died delivering the thirteenth child, and thereafter Richard Jenkins depended on an older sister and then a local teacher who saw his promise. That man’s name was Philip Burton, and when he virtually adopted Richard the young man changed his name to Burton. He was by then a navigator in the Royal Air Force, where “Burton” had another meaning. “Gone for a Burton,” or having gone out to get a pint of Burton’s ale, was used to describe fliers who never came back from an operation.

There were six months at Oxford before the RAF, and acting lessons, and getting on stage as the war ended and having his breakthrough in 1949 as he acted with Gielgud in Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning. He was making English films and in 1952 he was drawn away to Hollywood to play opposite Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel. He got a supporting actor nomination for that, and a year later an inexplicable lead actor nomination for his Roman centurion in The Robe (the first film made in CinemaScope and the chance for an affair with Jean Simmons). Then he met Gielgud again, for the classical actor was in Los Angeles to play Cassius in Julius Caesar; and after filming, Gielgud was so impressed with Marlon Brando that he invited him to London for a repertory season playing parts of his choosing, so long as Hamlet was one of them. Apparently Gielgud never bothered to ask Burton—and Brando cried off because he had a date to go scuba-diving.

The Burton-Gielgud Hamlet did not happen until 1964, in New York. Initially Gielgud was delighted with the younger actor, with his voice and his energy, “but he does put away the drink, and looks terribly coarse and heavy.” Richard Jenkins had started to drink beer by the time he was twelve, in imitation of his father and other miners. There were times when, under doctor’s orders or on some personal caprice, he stopped, but he disliked doctors and was helpless with addiction. In the diary for 1975 there are six days in a row with just the one word: “Booze.” That could mean three bottles of vodka a day, with wine at dinner, and as many as a hundred cigarettes. Well before the end, with his pock-marked face, he looked like a miner who had never been able to look after himself.

So it is a marvel how much he cared for Taylor. Of course she would outlive him, and she had a stronger constitution. (She had been born to moderate wealth.) But when Burton met her for Cleopatra she had only recently survived a bout with pneumonia, and though she feared doctors and hospitals she collected operations. Burton’s diaries itemize her woes, and largely ignore his own. But it is as a caregiver that this Antony revels in his scarlet woman who kept such a sweet-eyed but rough-mouthed ordinariness against all the fuss of hype and paparazzi. This is June 15, 1969, as Elizabeth recovered from one of her operations:

I awoke this morning at about 7 o’clock. I stared at Elizabeth for a long time. I am worried about her and her little bum and the blood. I held her hand and kissed her very gently. Probably no woman sleeps with such childish beauty as my adorable difficult fractious intolerant wife.

In that series of adjectives we can feel the tumult and the tenderness of their relationship—enough for two marriages and two divorces, and maybe more if he had lived. There could be very different scenes, ones rehearsed in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf:

This morning in the early hours the pot decided to have a go at the kettle and won handle down. E, the pot, gave this particular kettle, me, a savage mauling. I was coldly accused of virtually every sin under the sun. Drunkenness (true) mendacity (true) being boring (true) infidelity (untrue) killing myself fairly quickly (true) pride envy avarice (all true) being ugly (true) having once been handsome (untrue) and any other vice imaginable except homosexuality and ungenerousness.

She might have added, “and perhaps a real writer,” for it is clear that Elizabeth had read many of the diaries and sometimes supplied her own comments.

Alas, or maybe mercifully, the diaries are not complete. Chris Williams, who is their archivist at Swansea University, has done his best, but there are large gaps, and nothing between 1940 and 1960. The schoolboy jottings before 1940 are terse and unrevealing; it could be any sharp kid wondering if he will escape Welsh locality. (Burton did it. He went to Switzerland for tax reasons, but never gave up watching Welsh rugby on television.) There is nothing on the making of Cleopatra and the vast indecision with which Burton decided whether to give up a wife and family and commit to a dangerous empress. Even when his treasured brother Ifor suffers a paralyzing accident when sent ahead by Richard to open up the house in Switzerland, there is no immediate comment. The ruinous guilt over the event comes later.

Is it possible that, when he was at his depths and his heights, Richard was too busy going for a Burton to write about it? Were life, intimacy, and passion subjects he could not talk about even to himself? And yet the reading list—over which there can be no doubts—is constant and enlightening. One of the great moments of his life is being given (by Elizabeth) the full Oxford English Dictionary with the oblong magnifying glass for reading it. His house in Céligny was a small library. He was very proud that a publisher had once offered him $100,000 to write a novel. But he never took up that challenge, and he left just this partial, riveting diary, one of the great books left behind by anyone in the acting profession, and piercing evidence that the very famous, the very rich, the men with jewels and yachts may be haunted outcasts who recognize their own type:

The more I read about man and his maniacal ruthlessness and his murdering envious scatological soul the more I realize that he will never change. Our stupidity is immortal, nothing will change it. The same mistakes, the same prejudices, the same injustice, the same lusts wheel endlessly around the parade-ground of the centuries. Immutable and ineluctable. I wish I could believe in a God of some kind but I simply cannot. My intelligence is too muscular and my imagination stops at the horizon, and I have an idea that the last sound to be heard on this lovely planet will be a man screaming.

David Thomson is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 31, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Gone for a Burton.”