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

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