The life of Hollywood superstar and thespian Richard Jenkins, known to the world as Richard Burton, was a carnival of eclectic antics. He enjoyed dinners with the Rothschilds and drinks with the Kennedys. He attended Princess Grace of Monaco’s 40th birthday party. He made the winning $1.1 million bid for the ‘Taylor-Burton Diamond’ from the telephone of a Buckinghamshire pub. He had a term as a don at Oxford University and an engagement to Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. He was sued by producer Richard Zanuck for $55 million. And yet, once among the wealthiest and most famous actors in the world, and one half of the most glamorous couple in show business history, Burton has all but vanished.
After establishing himself in British television and film during his 20s, and already enjoying renown in the theatre, particularly as a Thespian actor, Burton absconded to Hollywood to star in My Cousin Rachel (1952). However, his first American films were denied the acclaim of his work on stage, and Burton rallied back to The Old Vic Theatre. He starred in many lauded Shakespearean productions throughout the 1950s, but persevered in his courtship of Hollywood, sensing financial (if not creative) success elsewhere. He subsequently appeared in the sword and sandal epics The Robe (1953) and Alexander the Great (1956) amidst a spree of dramas and war films. After several missteps and disappointments, and a marathon run in Camelot on Broadway which, along with Sir John Gielgud’s Hamlet in 1964, confirmed him as one of the theatrical legends of the age, Burton dominated Hollywood in the 1960s. His first major screen performance of the decade was as Mark Anthony in Cleopatra (1963), the film whose production ignited show business’ defining romance, that between Burton and his future wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Burton then followed Cleopatra with a parade of critical and artistic successes which arguably constitute the strongest filmography of any actor of the ‘60s. He starred opposite Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964), and played a lascivious priest in The Night of the Iguana (1964). He played secret agent Alec Leamas in John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), and featured with Taylor in the most lauded of all their many collaborations, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). He played Petruchio in a screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967), then rounded out the decade as a commando in the cult classic Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), the latter earning him his fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, his fourth in six years.
By the early 1970s, however, most of Burton’s early films already seemed quaint and affected when compared to the grittier releases of what became known as New Hollywood. Many others had simply been forgotten. More embarrassingly, Burton (along with many of his contemporaries) had become eclipsed by a generation of younger, more naturalistic actors - Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and later Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. His box office pomp wilted and he could no longer command his customary fees and gross percentages. Often depressed and disillusioned, ravaged by alcoholism, and embroiled in the calamities of his romantic life, he became less scrupulous in his choice of roles. In an interview given in 1983, barely a year before his death, he admitted, “I’ve done the most utter rubbish in order to have somewhere to go in the morning.”
At last, Burton returned to star in the theatre, taking over the lead role in Equus on Broadway, his first stage appearance in more than a decade. The film adaptation of Equus (1977) went some way to salvaging his esteem, but other than the miniseries Wagner (1983) and a well-received adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (1984), he produced no more notable films. His reputation near enough completely eroded, Burton’s late projects were generally excoriated by critics and shunned by audiences, and he died of a cerebral haemorrhage in a Geneva hospital in August 1984. His career is remembered simply as the ascent and slow, degrading decline of a failed prodigy.
How could a man of Burton’s talent and intelligence, who quite feasibly could have become the greatest screen actor of the century, disappear from the public eye? One of several possible reasons is his mercenary attitude towards acting. As far as Burton was concerned, “the fundamental basis of being an actor is simply to make money.” In this, he was an unquestionable success. At the height of his fame, he was able to demand gigantic fees for his performances, and often received large shares of the gross receipts. There are even passages in his diaries in which he calculates roughly how much money he and Taylor will need to sustain their lifestyle - naturally, this included such hobby horses as maintaining their multitude of villas, satisfying Taylor’s gluttonous appetite for jewellery, and the purchases of Elizabeth, their private jet, and Kalizma, their private yacht. But much as he enjoyed the money he made from his roles, Burton was frequently pestered by critics insinuating that he had misspent his talent and neglected the prestige of the theatre in favour of the greater profits to be made from starring in popular, but unexceptional films.
More than this, despite his tremendous gift, Burton had little genuine interest in acting, and voiced disdain for his craft throughout his life, both in public and in private. Speaking of future projects in a joint interview with Taylor, he once said, “It seems to me, to continue acting until you’re seventy years old, learning other people’s words and trotting them out all the time, is faintly undignified.” Indeed, his frustration was such that he once wrote, “What they [critics] don’t understand is our life-long attitudes to our jobs. […] acting on stage or films […] was sheer drudgery. […] Could he [Life writer Thomas Thompson] not understand the indignity and the boredom of having to learn the writings of another man”.
Comments such as these go some way to explaining his less prudent choices of film roles, and disregard for his critics, but we should not assume that Burton’s reputation ebbed purely as a result of cynicism and complacency. We should remember that he was preoccupied by aspirations in another field for much of his professional life. Even in his early forties, Burton was contemplating “a choice. That is, whether to continue acting, or whether to not act and do something else that I have in mind, which I’d rather not reveal.” Burton here refers to his longing to begin a literary project. As he noted in his diary, “my first love […] is not the stage. It is a book with lovely words in it.” We needn’t elaborate on his love of Shakespeare and its influence on his theatrical career, and it is no coincidence that almost all of his best films are based either on a play or a novel. Even a number of little-known projects betray his literary tastes. In 1954, he featured in a radio broadcast of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, another in 1963, and appeared in Andrew Sinclair’s screen adaptation of the same name (1972). He starred in one of the most acclaimed of the British ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the late-50s and early-60s, Look Back in Anger (1959), based on the play by John Osbourne, and also in Osbourne’s A Subject of Scandal and Concern (1960) when it was filmed for the BBC.
Although he never wrote a major work himself, Burton’s literary ambitions were at least partly fruitful. Playbill magazine commissioned his essay on Hamlet (The Prince of Denmark) which was printed in 1964. A Christmas Story was published by Heinemann in 1965. He was commissioned to write about Welsh rugby (The Last Time I Played Rugby, 1970) for The Observer, and had pieces published in Vogue magazine about his life with Taylor. Who Cares About Wales? I Care appeared in Look in 1969, and in 1974 he wrote articles for The New York Times and TV Guide lampooning Winston Churchill amongst other world leaders of the Second World War. Tellingly, the acclaim some of these pieces received pleased Burton much more than any praise given to his stage and screen performances. He pondered in his diary, “Why do notices and things similar about what little writing I do thrill me and notices for acting leave me totally indifferent?”
But even when weighed against his desire to invest time and energy in writing, the modern filmgoer seems to have even less interest in Burton’s screen career than he did. Although his memory is perhaps better preserved in the world of theatre, one can judge how deeply Burton has retreated into obscurity when one compares him to Lawrence Olivier, whose reputation has nothing if not inflated with time- the Olivier Awards are named in his honour, he has become a byword for excellence in stage acting, and he remains the only actor to receive an Academy Award for a performance in a Shakespearean adaptation, winning Best Actor for Hamlet (1948). Burton’s reputation, by contrast, has almost entirely diminished. This fate is more mystifying still when one remembers that at one point Burton was heralded as a possible successor to Olivier, a comparison which dogged him for much of his career. When questioned about his hiatus in the theatre, and the calibre of the roles he had taken in the meantime, he often had to remind his detractors that he had no affinity with his profession, and sometimes insinuated that he attached no weight to the demands and expectations heaped upon him as a young Thespian. In 1977, for instance, he was asked, “Is it true […] that the screen has really been an irrelevance in your life? That if you’d concentrated on the stage, we might have had a magnificent, Olivier-type actor?” then promptly replied, “Yes, well, I don’t know if I want to be a magnificent, Olivier-type actor.”
Burton’s downfall was not entirely due to his disinterest in his own work. Marlon Brando’s contempt for acting, for instance, was possibly even more intense than Burton’s. Moreover, Brando’s nine-year break from films might easily be compared to Burton’s hiatus in the theatre. During the 1960s, Brando starred in a run of commercial flops, and his late films, again like Burton’s, were lampooned by critics, and rarely proved popular with audiences. And yet, Brando is still almost universally regarded as one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century.
Neither should we attribute Burton’s obscurity to his theatrical acting style becoming outmoded. Although it undoubtedly contributed to his being usurped as the world’s most famous and most coveted male star, this is not in itself a threat to any actor’s legacy. Every acting style is gradually displaced by a new one - those of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and James Stewart, for instance, were obsolete by the time Burton entered his prime in the mid-60s, but all three of them are preserved by posterity in a handful of classic performances. And perhaps this is what Burton’s legacy is missing.
Brando is immortalised by his performances in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979). De Niro is remembered as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980). Nicholson is remembered as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). O’Toole, despite a screen career of over fifty years, is remembered for playing the role of T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). All of these films, to a greater or lesser extent, are defined by the performances of their lead actors. But Burton never contributed a performance which has dominated the reputation of one of his great films; he never contributed a performance which became the signature of his career in the way that Don Corleone has become a signature of Brando’s, or in the way that Jake LaMotta has become a signature of DeNiro’s. Consequently, Burton never became an enduring cultural icon. Even in the role of George in Virginia Woolf, perhaps the pinnacle of his screen career, he was soon dwarfed by Elizabeth Taylor. The Academy Award for Best Actress which Taylor won for her performance as Martha assured her stature as a screen legend, and Virginia Woolf is now associated with her legacy, not Burton’s. No one summed up his fate better than Burton himself when he commented in Vogue magazine: “travelling with Elizabeth has its compensations. […] Porters and stewards […] reward her with enormous over-attention and therefore I get a little on the side.”
One unhappily wonders what Burton might have achieved had he not persistently flouted both his critics and plaudits. Although, one suspects that for Burton, his was not so much a career as an escapade. Indeed, Anthony Quayle, who directed him in Shakespeare’s Henry V, supposedly said of him, “He wasn’t that concerned in contributing to great art [...] He was concerned with the odyssey of Richard Burton.” The more one learns about him, the easier this is to believe. But even if all his roles really were simply a means of acquiring the money and power necessary for enjoying himself, Burton still produced one of the most accomplished, most colourful and varied careers in acting history. He was a titan of both the theatre and film; he mastered many of the most demanding roles in the theatrical canon; he starred in grand historical epics and realist dramas, gloomy espionage thrillers and bawdy Shakespearean adaptations, war films, horrors, comedies, biopics and musicals; he gave his voice to radio plays, documentaries, and spoken word poetry albums. And as if we needed to be reminded, neither the triumphs nor the catastrophes would have moved him. Indeed, when in 1977 he was questioned on whether he regretted the recent freefalls in his career and personal life, Burton replied, “Je ne regrette rien. […] I wouldn’t have missed my life for anything. I think I’ve led a most extraordinary, lucky life.”
Quotations from Richard Burton’s diaries were taken from The Richard Burton Diaries (2012), edited by Chris Williams, Yale University Press.
Burton’s article The Trials of Travels With Liz appeared in Vogue magazine, April 1971, under its original title, Travels With Liz.
Quotations from Richard Burton’s recorded interviews can be found by following these video links: