One Man And His Liver

Elizabeth Taylor visits the set of ‘Villain’, 1971.

I became very drunk later and shouted a lot. At E. [Elizabeth Taylor.] I don’t know what about. Just plain sloshed.
Richard Burton diary entry from 1966.

Burton arrived drunk and stayed drunk throughout the film.
From RICH: The Life of Richard Burton by Melvyn Bragg, describing Burton’s condition during the making of The Klansman.

There were some murmurings of disquiet after last week’s entry: too much food, not enough booze, I was told. As a way of making amends, I would like to take a quick look at the later career of Richard Burton, which gives us an opportunity to drink the green room dry. Not the glorious early career at Stratford or the Old Vic or on the BBC Third Programme, or his achievements on film in the fifties and early sixties (Look Back In Anger, Becket, Night Of The Iguana, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold) …. No, we’re looking at the fag end of his imperial ‘Burton and Taylor’ phase, a maelstrom of fame, excess, a sea of drink, and a lot of ‘failed art’ (to borrow John Waters’s comment on Boom! – see below). Melvyn Bragg’s affectionate biography of Burton offers a fair degree of mitigation for the shambles of his later career. Bragg adduces Burton’s problems with sciatica and problems with his many wives (and of course E.T. in particular) as significant factors, but ultimately can’t avoid the conclusion that he acted badly in so many bad films because he was an alcoholic. This is not quite the blindingly obvious assertion that it appears to be for the simple reason that some legendary thespian soaks were (past tense: who could get away with it now?) very good at staying sober – or at least appearing to be sober – when working. But Burton’s screen performances were all-too-often occluded by drink.

My interest in Burton was piqued because someone I follow on Instagram recently posted a series of fabulously lurid stills from Bluebeard, a 1972 Europudding starring Burton and a trolley’s worth of doomed cheesecake. Helpfully, as is often the case with unloved films financed by bankrupt companies and officially hidden from view, some enterprising person has posted the entire thing on YouTube. I tried watching it but didn’t get far. All you really need to know is that the filmmakers attached a blue false beard to Burton’s face, which no doubt contributed to his cosmically weary – or simply embarrassed – performance. From Bluebeard I went back a few years, to Boom!a film from 1968 which features 40-something Burton playing ‘a young poet’ alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Noel Coward, all three seemingly determined to defecate upon their reputations. (The script derives from an unsuccessful play by Tennessee Williams and was directed by Joseph Losey, thus making it a significant turd on their CVs as well.) That stupefying film seems to mark the beginning of the end for ‘Dick and Liz’, in professional terms at least; they were to remain the most famous, probably the richest, couple in the world for a few years yet. And Burton went on making bad films. The Klansman, a 1974 film about the Ku-Klux Klan, appears – if the YouTube clips are anything to go by – to be Burton’s absolute nadir. If he looks hungover in Bluebeard, in The Klansman he appears to have suffered a stroke. A reporter for The Chicago Tribune Magazine described Burton (not yet fifty) on set: The once robust and forceful face has a powdery pallor. The irises are bright blue but the white are deeply red, with only flecks of white. On his face is a dazed grin as if he’s been shocked awake under those heavy lights in the midst of surgery.’ This was hardly surprising, given that he was on at least a couple of bottles of vodka a day at that point. This clip shows Burton attempting to perform an action scene when he is clearly incapacitated and has command of only one arm. Declared in imminent danger of death, he was taken to hospital where he spent six weeks drying out; and it was around this time Taylor served him with papers for divorce. The Klansman also starred Lee Marvin, no-one’s idea of a blushing flower yet even he was struck by the recklessness of his co-star’s drinking. Marvin offered a compassionate view: ‘The man’s suffering. Who knows what it is?’ (Incidentally, O.J. Simpson also features in The Klansman; in a strangely prophetic scene, glimpsed in the trailer, he holds Burton’s character as a hostage in a car.) Burton himself offered varying reasons for why he drank, including a primal compulsion he attributed to his Celtic roots, and the gnawing suspicion that acting was, for a man, an inherently homosexual pursuit. This last seems to have been a real anxiety and Gore Vidal is quoted as hearing Burton deliver ‘an extravagant aria’ as to why he, Richard Burton, wasn’t a homosexual. Vidal claimed to cut him off with ‘Who cares Richard? Let’s talk about dermatology. Now there’s a subject!

Burton and friend in ‘Bluebeard’. There are many things that could be said about that beard but I have decided that I am not going to say any of them.

This last point is intriguing when viewing Burton’s attempts at playing gay characters. Staircase is a disastrous attempt to cast Burton and Rex Harrison as a pair of ageing hairdressers; but Villain, from 1971, is really interesting. Burton plays a Ronnie Kray-like gangster (he loves his mum) in drab early seventies London. Burton is very entertaining in a film that plays like a sort of feature-length episode of The Sweeney, and is none the worse for it. Burton’s camp menace is genuinely unnerving, and the viewer is especially fearful for pretty young Ian McShane who plays his boyfriend. It is a sort of pre-Thatcher precursor of The Long Good Friday, and in recent years its reputation has grown in stature. But the turkeys kept on coming, irredeemable dreck like The Assassination of Trotsky (Losey again), Hammersmith Is Out (which for a long time I thought was a La Cage Aux Folles-type comedy set in west London), a redundant remake of Brief Encounter, and so on. Towards the end, his drinking under some sort of control, there were occasional bright spots, like his turn in Equus, recreating his Broadway performance as the play’s psychiatrist, the title role in Tony Palmer’s biographical mini-series Wagner, and his last film was a well-received version of Orwell’s 1984. He died in the real 1984, a mere fifty- eight years old. Burton’s career is what happens when mega-success meets a monumental addiction to drink. But Burton’s diaries have been published, and they are confessional, insightful and frequently, inadvertently, hilarious. Domestic life with Elizabeth Taylor is the stuff of situation comedy. Sometimes the excess is of a weirdly suburban variety, e.g.: ‘Both E. and I went mad last night and started eating Callard and Bowsers Liquorice Fingers. I must have eaten a pound or so …‘. (This last is worthy of John Shuttleworth.) Elsewhere, the diaries can be genuinely moving. Above all, you like the man. The comments on the business of acting are invaluable; and perhaps the most touching passage is one in which he praises a fellow performer, a man who he declares – with a touch of awe – to be the best actor in the world: Michael Hordern.

Promo material for ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’; Richard Burton sharing a bottle of wine with his favourite colleague.

See also: TV Drunks

Drunks On Stage

Programme for the Almeida Theatre’s 1998 production, starring Kevin Spacey, which subsequently transferred to The Old Vic and Broadway.

A long train journey recently saw me packing a copy of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh for some not-very-light reading. My copy of the play is the size of a short novel so it’s no wonder that productions frequently last nearly five hours when performed un-cut. Iceman is set in a lower Manhattan dive, circa 1912, and concerns a group of dead-end drunks who have their feeble illusions stripped away by a glad- handing travelling salesman. O’Neill wrote it in the 1940s and I am told that it owes a lot to Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, although it also draws on O’Neill’s experiences of Greenwich Village just before the Great War. A prime slab of American High Earnestness, its merits are undermined by O’Neill’s overt striving for profundity and his relentlessly emphatic, frequently preposterous, dialogue. And it has a lot of dialogue: O’Neill countered charges of repetition and verbosity by saying that bums in their cups repeat themselves over and over again. (He’s dead right there, I know that I do.) But the big speeches offer plenty of room for actors to show off, and big stars are attracted to the play by virtue of its scenery-chewing potential. The part of the salesman, Hickey, has been played in recent years by Denzel Washington, Nathan Lane, and, once upon-a- time, in London and on Broadway, by Kevin Spacey, in that long-lost period when he was the saviour of the Old Vic rather than a monster of Me Too. With a good cast and a good production, the play can appear better than it really is. But in spite of the interesting themes and setting, O’Neill is too overwrought for my taste. So if Iceman isn’t the definitive play about drinking that it thinks it is, where else should we look?

Programme for the original, 1972, London production, with Alan Bates in the title role.

The other book I had with me on the train was a Faber edition of plays by Simon Gray. Gray the playwright seems a bit neglected these days. His elegant and entertaining stage works do not fit the current trend for theatre as a form of social outreach. Like O’Neill, Gray wrote autobiographical plays that replayed certain themes: family, childhood trauma replayed in adulthood, marital infidelity, cognitive decline, and alcoholism. Usually the setting is a backwater of academic or literary life. Perhaps his best-known play is Butley, which sees Ben Butley – a chaotic English professor at a London university – conjuring displays of self-destructive bravado, his drinking fuelling his overall disintegration. It is a great part for an actor and the character has certain similarities to Hickey in Iceman; in fact, the afore-mentioned Nathan Lane also scored a hit with Butley on Broadway in 2006. But Gray is witty and urbane rather than ponderous and sweaty, and Butley wears its nihilism lightly, managing to be very funny within a scenario that isn’t funny at all. Likewise, Close Of Play, whilst more stylised, contains one of the bleakest descriptions of alcoholic decline you can find anywhere, punctuated by moments of perfectly-timed comic business. (My favourite is the moment when a self-confessed alcoholic’s short and shaky bid for sobriety is terminated by his stepmother giving him a bottle of Scotch.) The drinking in Otherwise Engaged is less central, but structurally important; moments of epiphany are marked by characters throwing tumblers of whiskey in each other’s faces. Gray’s writing is very autobiographical; and as performances of his plays dwindled, he gained a considerable reputation as a memoirist, with works like The Smoking Diaries reaching a public that knew little of his writing for the stage. He was candid about the life that fed the drama, about the failure of his first marriage, the death of his brother from alcohol, and his own drinking. Here is an extract from an introduction he wrote to that Faber edition of plays, discussing the production history of The Holy Terror:

A year later … it opened at the Promenade Theatre in New York, in a production that you would have described as eccentric if you hadn’t know that the director drank quite a bit before each day’s rehearsals and quite a bit after them, and more than a bit during them, while never losing the conviction, however many times he stumbled down the aisle and tumbled over the seats, often with a lighted cigarette in his mouth and another, also lighted, in the hand that wasn’t holding a champagne bottle, that he was in full command of his faculties, and that his genius for cutting through to the centre of things had never burned more fiercely – so, when he had trouble moving the actors around the furniture, he cut the furniture; and thus, when he had trouble deciding between different lighting effects, he cut the lighting. So and thus, on the press night the audience found themselves confronted by unnerved actors performing in house lights on a mainly empty set, and the actors could see not only the individual faces of the audience, but also the tops of the heads of the critics as they bent over the pads on their knees. The director himself, by the way, frightened, triumphant and drunk, was also highly visible and all over the place, now at the back of the stalls, now at the top of an aisle, now in the dress circle – if I’d been one of the actors I’d have stepped off the stage in the middle of my scene and murdered him, right there, under the house-lights, in full view of the critics: the report in the next morning’s New York Times might at least have marginalised the review.

Gray’s observations lead us into another area, something of a taboo in theatrical circles: genuine, on-stage drunkenness, whether deliberate or accidental. I have heard, anecdotally, that the great Irish actor Patrick Magee, Samuel Beckett’s favourite advocate of his own work, had a policy of drinking before going on stage, and it seems that this was not uncommon. [NB: See comments section.] A bit like 19th century French train drivers grabbing a calvados before their first shift, or Aeroflot pilots drinking vodka before a flight. I suppose, like everything else, that you have to know how to judge your capacity; and in any case, being pissed on-stage is now a sackable offence. Back in the 1970s, I heard a story concerning an actor who was found passed out in his dressing room during a prestigious Shakespeare production in one of the big venues. His colleagues managed to rouse him just in time for his entrance, and he staggered and extemporised through his part in idiosyncratic fashion. From the blankness of his mind he conjured his own, unique, form of blank verse; one example was: ‘Forsooth! He hath flaunt his SHUM!

Sydney Lumet’s TV version of The Iceman Cometh, from 1960.

Incidentally … The Iceman Cometh was first performed in 1946 and caught the attention of Raymond Chandler, who subsequently wrote to his publisher to point out that the play used the title of his 1939 novel The Big Sleep as a synonym for death. Chandler was convinced that O’Neill took the expression from him in the belief that it was authentic underworld slang, whereas Chandler insisted that he invented the phrase. Chandler noted: ‘The whole tenor of his writing in the play shows that he knows very little about his subject.‘ This might be a bit unfair but it invites a comparison between the styles of the two writers, how Chandler’s dialogue sings and how O’Neill’s lines land with a dull thud. But you can make up your own mind about Iceman by watching the vintage TV version in the above link: directed by the great Sydney Lumet, and starring Jason Robards as Hickey (a star-making turn for him), it makes a good a case as any for the play and keeps it relatively brisk at three hours and twenty minutes. This production also features a very young Robert Redford, in a rare appearance as an unsympathetic character.

Eugene O’Neill having an absolutely smashing time on holiday with his wife Agnes and daughter Oona. (Oona ended up married to Charlie Chaplin; see: Stomping At The Savoy (Part Two).)

Summers In The Dark

David Hemmings, Nikon in hand, prowls Maryon Park in search of … what? ‘Blow Up’, 1966.

The abrupt blooming of London after a November-like May has produced a palpable frisson of excitement in the city, all that pent-up energy seeking release from Covid morbidity. Suddenly, London is beautiful again. It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to put on a pair of white strides, grab a Nikon and a velvet jacket, jump into a vintage Rolls, and drive around town in search of nothing in particular.

Directed by the austere Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (a man who didn’t do jokes), Blow Up features David Hemmings playing fashion photographer ‘Thomas’ abstractedly investigating a murder he may or may not have photographed. Thomas is a composite figure, a confection drawing on contemporary fashion photographers John French and John Cowan (whose studio doubles as Thomas’s in the film), as well as more obvious models like Donovan and Bailey. The film is a remarkable time capsule of London in 1965. Unlikely spots in Peckham, Woolwich, Stockwell, and the bomb-scarred City are rendered significant and hypnotic, whilst groovy goings on ‘up West’ look deeply silly. The piazza of the Economist Building on St James’s St., a prime example of 1960s Brutalism, is buzzed by a Land Rover full of mimes, who then proceed to drive across London in a vastly irritating form of ‘happening’ (a distant echo of the Bright Young Things who capered so pointlessly in the West End of the 1920s). Or that scene in ‘Ricky Tick’s club (a real club but the interior is a sound stage at Elstree) wherein The Yardbirds pretend to be The Who – Jeff Beck smashing his guitar on film as he never did on stage – before a zombified crowd. This vignette is only slightly more comic when you discover that the lone female dancer in the stripy leggings is the young Janet Street Porter. 

Hemmings/Thomas at the wheel of a Silver Cloud Mk.III. According to IMDb, this vehicle once belonged to Jimmy Savile. I prefer to think that this is not true.

Blow Up is often considered an indigenous product but this is false. Like many key films of the 1960s, it was a result of Britain’s sudden contemporary resonance and shitloads of American money. This is a point worth emphasising. An Italian director and production team, backed by MGM, chose London as an emblem of an international cultural moment. And their other choices were shrewd. A Spanish literary source, a story by Julio Cortazar, was adapted by Edward Bond; they commissioned a jazz score from the young Herbie Hancock; and Don McCullin supplied Thomas’s photographs. (McCullin is as British as they come, but he specialised in global warfare, not fashion.) The Yardbirds onscreen line-up included both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but the band weren’t first choice. Antonioni wanted The Velvet Underground, before they even had a record deal, because he’d seen them in New York as house band for Warhol’s Factory. (The Velvets couldn’t get UK work permits.)

Blow Up was a touchstone for generations of photographers who wanted the lifestyle shown in the film. Hemmings floats around London in his achingly beautiful Silver Cloud convertible, occasionally retrieving his Nikon from the glove box to photograph tramps and strangers in parks, returning to his period-perfect studio on Pottery Lane, W11, for a fashion shoot with Veruschka and erotic encounters with the likes of Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave. That side of it has been comprehensively sent-up (Austin Powers etc.), but the best thing about Blow-Up is its luminous depiction of odd, forgotten corners of London and its feeling for the atmosphere of the city. I can’t think of another film that conveys the sound of London in the summer: the soughing of trees in a park, of footsteps in city streets. It took an Italian auteur with no local knowledge to make a film with such an authentic sense of place. Nearly sixty years on, the film’s London locations have acquired their own folklore: the red houses Thomas drives past in Stockwell, the calm and green of Maryon Park in permanently unfashionable Charlton (Antonioni ordered that park grass be painted green), the dawn over Chelsea Embankment as Thomas leaves a Cheyne Walk party, and so on. (Ian Sinclair devoted a fair bit of Lights Out For The Territory to Antonioni’s treatment of south London.) And the fascination of seeing – or not seeing.  The centrepiece of the film is a 45-minute sequence shadowing Thomas in his studio, obsessively, silently, poring over huge prints, before returning to the darkroom to make yet another ‘blow-up’ to explain what he saw in Maryon Park.  Any photographer will tell you that the level of detail he pulls out of that negative is impossible, but it doesn’t matter: this scene captures better than any other the romance of working in a darkroom, of taking a tiny slice of time and making it something you can hold in your hand. What you make of it after that is up to you.

I suppose I had this image in mind when I got my first job, at 17, working as a press photographer’s darkroom assistant. I remember 1979 as a beautiful summer, which sat oddly with the fact that I was spending most of it in the dark. Also, my employer was based in dusty, unlovely Streatham, not Notting Hill. And the romance of working in a darkroom is contingent on being in control of your working hours – like Thomas in Blow-Up, it’s best to work at night if you can – and choosing what it is you want to print. As a press hack’s dogsbody, I was entrusted with printing indifferent photographs of celebrities at events. (I once spent an entire day printing photographs of John Inman, a task with no attendant glamour whatsoever.) As luck would have it, my older brother lived in Balham, just a couple of stops away from Streatham, so I availed myself of his hospitality more than was really good for me. My brother was a loosely-employed actor in his mid-20s, using his free time to experiment with various kinds of home-brewing. Some of his preparations would have challenged the most grizzled of Fleet Street paps, so my virgin liver didn’t stand a chance. One hot evening saw us drinking lukewarm Holsten Pils in a ratty local pub, before heading back to his maisonette to attack whatever he had left in the flat: dregs of red wine, Pernod and, finally, fatally, his home-brewed mead. The next morning I gamely dragged myself to work and was immediately ordered to run off a dozen snaps of Joanna Lumley, looking radiant at some VIP do or other. Bravely, I stepped into the dark and turned on the red light. Despite the throbbing chaos in my head, I made a good start and got out a few prints; but before long the acrid smell of the fixing solution got to me and I was sick into the wash tray, all over the divine Ms Lumley, who didn’t deserve such an indignity. I was let go soon after that. David Hemmings I was not.