Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.
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Under Milkwood [version 2] (1963) BBC radio
The classic 1963 BBC production starring Richard Burton as the Narrator/First Voice.
‘Under Milk Wood’ features an all-knowing narrator who invites the audience to listen to the dreams and innermost thoughts of the inhabitants of a fictional small Welsh fishing village called Llareggub. His voice conjures up the intimate dreams and lives of the inhabitants in a remarkable way. Its bawdy and beautiful, and the colourful language and characters create a rich pastoral which, once heard, touches the listener with its poetry and haunts the imagination for ever.
Burton’s inimitable performance was digitally remastered in 2003 and mixed with new performances of all the other parts to create a magical, fresh visit by the BBC to the unique but universal world of Llareggub.
Footnote: – In order to integrate the new performances more seamlessly, The BBC used the 1963 recording rather than the 1954 broadcast for extra flexibility because in the former, Burton performed both First and Second Voice and the recording was in better condition and less affected by extraneous noise.
Dylan Thomas himself was originally going to play First Voice but Burton proved to be inspired casting. Cleverdon produced a new version of the play in 1963, again featuring Richard Burton as the narrator and then in 2003 his voice was used to play the same role in a production by Alison Hindell.
In an innovative move, the 21st century remake was also streamed for listeners with 5.1 surround sound facilities; the first BBC radio drama to benefit from such technology.
Jeff Wayne’s musical version of ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1978)
It very nearly bankruptd its creator but producer Jeff Wayne’s visionary talent was ultimately rewarded with a thirteen million selling double album and a highly successful stage musical.
The lynchpin was Burton who voiced ‘The Journalist’, the man who narrates the story in this musical re-telling of HG Wells’ classic sci-fi story. His resonate voice, heavily reverbed in the final mix, lends a huge amount of gravitas to the production, yet his inclusion in the cast was extremely fortuitous. Burton was in New York at the time starring in Peter Shaffer’s Tony award winning play ‘Equus’ and desparate to land the actor’s services, Wayne had his script and a covering letter delivered to the actor via the stage door. Amongst the star’s reading material for downtime between performances was Well’s classic novel and the producer’s hopeful missive struck a chord. Burton had thoroughly enjoyed the book, and informing Wayne that “It was meant to be”, the star duly signed on the dotted line.
Fortified with a steady supply of Coors beer and singular focus, his projected four day recording stint in California was whittled down to one. To this day, Wayne speaks in fulsome terms of the day long session, as Burton poured his heart and soul into the work, frequently requesting retakes when Jeff was perfectly happy with the first effort.
My closest childhood friend had the original vinyl double album and I purchased the remastered CD edition in 2005.
Unquestionably, he left an indelible imprint upon the project, and with the blessing of his family and the wonders of twenty first century technology, was resurrected in 2011 to appear as a hologram in the stage production of the musical.
Look back in anger (1958)
Two of the finest actors of their generation, Burton and O’Toole, square off in this splendid production of Jean Anouilh’s 1959 play. A high-class costume drama with a substantive historical basis, Becket is the true story of the friendship between King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Thomas à Becket (Richard Burton), a royal courtier and confidante whom Henry appoints as Archbishop of Canterbury. As Becket takes his duties with the Church seriously, he finds himself increasingly at odds with the King, who finally orders the death of his once-close companion when he continues to defy the throne.
The basic theme of separation of church and state still reverberates today, whilst the top-notch production values ensure Becket’s place as one of Britain’s better historical epics
O’Toole may have taken the plaudits but it’s nonetheless a restrained and highly regarded performance from Burton. The movie itself was a slow burn, only breaking even during its theatrical run, yet home video rentals eventually made millions of dollars for Paramount Pictures.
The spy who came in from the cold (1965)
From the master of spy thrillers, John Le Carré’s ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’ is a gripping story of love and betrayal at the height of the Cold War, a unique blend of international espionage and British “kitchen sink” drama.
Burton’s character, Alec Leamas is 40 and wasted, a classic burnout case forced to accept his role as “the lowest currency of the Cold War”, who in turn, attracts the most unsavory of human beings who will change alliances at the whims of their superiors, carrying out orders with no regard for any sort of internal moral compass.
He travels deep into the heart of Communist Germany with a very public cover as an embittered, drunken ex-agent, intent on betyraying his country, a task he will perform with his usual cynical professionalism, in order to pique the interest of enemies who might encourage him to defect and sell his secrets. In the meantime, he must reconcile the romantic overtures of a communist influenced librarian with grocery shopping and other civilian simplicities.
As the storyline unfolds, Leamas has clearly set out to leak false information in order to frame an enemy agent only to realise that he himself might not be privy to the real mission objective.
Location shooting in Ireland and England doubles credibly for East Berlin, lending a depressing air of credibility throughout, thanks in great part to the bleak black and white photography by Oswald Morris. It’s a dispiriting affair, redolent with double-crosses and double-double crosses, conceivably as far removed as possible from the world of dry martinis and exotic locations so readily associated with the Bond franchise. Burton is tailor made for the role and garnered some of the best notices of his career.
The taming of the Shrew (1967)
Zeffirelli’s comic italian style, the vaste ornate sets and lavish costumes, Taylor spilling out of a clenched bodice, the marital ‘horseplay’, the decimation of Shakespeare’s original play in favour of a knockabout romp – It couldn’t fail and the public agreed; eschewing their normal fee, the Burtons netted a cool US$4.8m, enough to leave Columbia Pictures still handsomely in profit. It was the culmination of a three picture sequence that put the welshman at the very top of his game.
Where Eagles dare (1968)
Burton’s box office blockbuster, ably assisted by the the new gunslinging hot shot Clint Eastwood and old flame Mary Ure. Intent on winning World war II over the course of a single weekend, the special ops trio invoke chaos and mayhem inside the german fortified “Schloss Adler” castle in an attempt to liberate a high ranking american official.
Shot on location in Austria and Baveria, the production utilised some of the top moviemaking professionals including British stuntman Alf Joint, who had previously roughed it up with Sean Connery in the ‘Goldfinger’ pre-title sequence. He doubled for Burton in various sequences including the fight atop the cable car whilst award-winning conductor and composer Ron Goodwin produced another arresting score.
It’s a rollicking and wildly improbable yarn but that adds to its charm; if the Germans really had been that inept, the war would have been over within months.
Burton’s a man on a mission and his coded reports to British intelligence – ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy, Broadsword calling Danny Boy, over’ have passed into film folklore.
Some interesting recollections of the man on set are available at:
The unofficial website with star biographies and a forum.
Anne of a thousand days (1969)
There was a time when giving birth to a daughter rather than a son and heir for the King of England could lose you your head. Burton certainly lost his on set with the french-canadian actress Geneviève Bujold, his ‘obsessive dalliance’ driving home the first stake into the heart of his marriage to Taylor. He was fortunate to secure her discretion but she took the acting plaudits for her role as Anne Boleyn, winning a Golden Globe for her first english speaking part. For his part, Burton wasn’t going to run off into the sunset with her – he was stupid but not THAT stupid; nevertheless, all that lay ahead after filming wrapped was a year of inactivity and a worsening marriage. Henry VIII himself, might well have had more to say on the matter, especially the actor’s disinclination to dye his beard and hair red, an obvious historical faux pas that presumably helped to incite the generally critical reviews of the movie. His golden period at the box office was over.
Burton’s cinematic swansong and a fortuitous one at that; first choice Paul Schofield’s broken leg offering the prospect of a significant supporting role and the comparative ease of a mere three week shoot.
Encouraging the talismanic welshman to ‘lose’ his theatrical voice, the British filmmaker Michael Radford coaxes an understated yet memorable performance from Burton as the torturer O’Brien. Following thirty years on from the controversial BBC television adaption, 1984, adapted from the George Orwell novel, is set in post-atomic war London, the capital city of the repressive totalitarian state of Oceania. Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a government bureaucrat whose job is rewriting history and erasing people from existence. While his co-worker Parsons (Gregor Fisher) seems content to follow the state’s laws, Winston starts to write in a secret diary despite the fact the “Big Brother” is watching everyone at all times by way of monitors. He silently suffers and tries to comprehend his oppression, which forbids individual human behaviors such as free thinking and sex. He meets Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), who works for the Ministry of Truth, and they engage in a stoic love affair. They are soon found out, and Winston is interrogated and tortured by his former friend O’Brien
Failing to overcome opposition from Virgin Films over the proposed monochrome shoot, Radford and cinematographer Roger Deakins eventually opted for a little-known film processing technique called Bleach bypass to create the distinctive washed-out look of the film’s color visuals. In keeping with Orwell’s vision of the future, the overall effect is bleak, today’s proliferation of CCTV suggesting a disturbing prescience to his writing.
The Richard Burton Diaries (edited by Chris Williams) 2012
Essential to a wider understanding of his personality but nonetheless, a disjointed, unfulfilled literary experience; rather like his professional life.
Very few of his contemporaries escape verbal crucifixion. Opera’s greatest diva, Maria Callas, is “a bore” whilst Laurence Olivier is a “shallow little man with a mediocre intelligence.” Marlon Brando is a “sober self-indulgent obese fart,” while Lucille Ball is “a monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humour.” He loathed the success of Julie Andrews, who he says rode the coat tails of “The Horrible Sound of Music” to an undeserved long career. She reportedly remained the only female co-star immune to his charms so there may have been a hint of sour grapes about her success.
Michael Parkinson “lost his talent as a promising writer,” and photographer Terry O’Neill is “very little, very scruffy.” The Duke of Windsor is “gaga”, while his wife is “the most vulgar woman I’ve ever met” – this said to her face. In fairness, he’d have taken all the ripostes aimed in his direction had the diaries been published during his lifetime.
Borrow it but don’t buy it; there are worthier volumes deserving of your hard earned money.
And God created Burton (Tom Rubython) 2011
It’s somewhat lacking in critical analysis of his filmed oevre and there are legendary excesses that must be revisited. Nevertheless, Rubython’s version is far more detailed than previous biographical works and the actor’s lifetime journey amounts to an arresting read.
Richard Burton - The Official Website
The official Burton website and a useful starting point for the uninitiated with comprehensive listings for his film, audio and theatrical work.
The Richard Burton Museum
In 2011, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama opened £22.5m worth of new facilities, including a 160-seat theatre named after Burton. A bronze bust of the actor, given to the college by Elizabeth Taylor, now stands at the theatre entrance. That same year, a permanent exhibition opened at the college which sheds new light on Burton’s early life in Wales.
More instantly accessible is the online Burton museum, a truly magnificent website featuring an abundance of artefacts, including rare theatre programmes, film memorabilia, a compendium of the actor’s work with the BBC, and a collection of his writings,
Last update: 12/7/16
Reading extracts from the Richard Burton diaries, I was drawn to one particular comment that seemed to epitomise the unrealised potential of his great talent. In one of the more lucid moments in time for such a chronic alcoholic, he concedes that he and his wife share an attitude to acting, and to life: “Both Eliz[abeth] and I agreed solemnly that we never want to work again but simply loll our lives away in a sort of eternal Sunday.” And then he adds: “Quite right too. We are both bone-lazy.”
His fellow actor Dirk Bogarde, was not the recipient of universally positive reviews for every written work he published, be it his four volume autobiography, novels or literary reviews, yet he engineered a systematic and sustainable work schedule of typing each and every morning at his home in France and ultimately produced a literary body of work. Burton, born Richard Walter Jenkins, was incapable of adhering to such a disciplined ethic. It was partly the drink but it was also an eternal malaise; a form of wilful self destruction. Yet amidst the apathy, there was that imperious, darkly satanic, magisterial voice, honed to near perfection as a student by his mentor Phillip Burton.
Even the most devout admirers of the talismatic welsh actor would admit that his film oeuvre amounts to little more than a collection of mainly missed opportunities and unrealised concepts. Recalling his humble roots, Michael Caine would supplement his quality work on “Sleuth” by sauntering through certain ‘junk’ movies in order to upgrade his swimming pool. We could forgive the East End barrow boy making hay whilst the financial sun shone, but in the case of Burton, it felt more like an artistic betrayal. Referring back to his diary again, the key to his understanding of acting is in his remark that “my first love is not the stage, but a book with lovely words in it.” Perhaps this insight explains why his screen acting is so disappointing; when he’s being rhetorical then he’s without peer, but when he’s in character, he’s simply intoning words, narcissistically resonating them through his superb vocal instrument. This is oratory, not acting and the overall performance remains variable; his performance in “The Sandpiper” (1965), an obvious case in point. When he delivers his leaving speech to the school assembly, he conveys every nuance of his commanding stage presence, yet in the love scenes with Laura (Elizabeth Taylor) he falters, there’s less assuredness in his delivery and the combustible elements in his real life marriage are conspicuous by their absence. His character disapproves of Laura’s moral stance, yet permits his actions to compromise his professional standing and previously long term monogamous marriage. The relationship never rings true and with his paramour’s all too obvious bohemian existence, the affair should have amounted to little more than a dalliance on his part.
Understanding Burton’s aversion to protracted stage runs on Broadway and more substantial film roles goes to the heart of prosperity and the resultant loss of professional drive and ambition. There are exceptions but he was not amongst them. At the core of the problem was his attitude to acting for Burton’s dearest ambition was to be a scholar and to live for literature. His involvement with Taylor and his rapidly accumulating wealth stripped him of much of his personal drive. Gary Raymond, who starred alongside Burton in ‘Look Back in Anger,’ is quoted as saying; “He was mad about actors and acting, Richard. Great fun to be with, very outgoing. But then he was obsessed about the commercial side of the acting business, what could be made out of it. Richard told me once, ‘I sometimes get more pleasure out of a company report than a script’. He really said that”.
For centuries, external motivators were powerful and compelling; starvation and predation were constant threats; days and nights alternated between searing sunlight and freezing darkness. Our nomadic forebears were compelled to conserve energy, and expending minimal effort became de rigeur.
Today this position is greatly reversed with abundant sources of energy and few directly compelling motivators. Most of us are not parched or hunted by homicidal predators. Enter ego concerns, predinner martinis, window-shopping, and the mixed blessing of long-term planning.
Our ancestors encountered little delay between desire and action: Feeling thirsty meant looking for water, feeling hungry meant looking for food, and feeling amorous meant looking for mates. Our behaviour required little pre-amble.
As Kalman Glantz, a psychotherapist and the coauthor of Exiles From Eden, points out, laziness emerged only when planning for the future became possible. “Once there was some reason to continue working even though one’s immediate needs were satisfied, some people turned out to be more future-oriented than others. Some people continued to work when they weren’t hungry or cold or thirsty. And those people called others lazy.”
Reviewing the Burton diaries in the fall of 2012, the actor Peter O’Toole compared his drinking compatriot to James Tyrone of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Days Journey Into Night,” positing that both might be amongst the great twentieth century tragedies.
They came from obscure poverty and from the so-called Celtic fringes of the United Kingdom: Tyrone from Ireland, Burton from Wales. Both emerged suddenly and forcefully as actors with the vocal command and physical presence that would allow them to define the great Shakespeare roles for a new generation. Both succumbed to the lures of enormous wealth and inordinate fame. Tyrone’s trap was the endless money to be made from repeating his turn as Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, Burton’s the flood of Hollywood dollars that sprang from the equally long-running melodrama of his partnership with Elizabeth Taylor. For both men, critics developed an almost identical narrative, a secular version of the Garden of Eden. They ate the apple of temptation and were expelled from the paradise of great art.
It’s an interesting summation yet Burton singularly failed to hold his profession in high esteem and much of his behaviour bordered on being boorish at best and self destructive at worst.
He retained a never ending interest in women throughout most of his adult life as the following link testifies.
Philip Burton maintained that Richard never liked this quality within himself. In the final analysis, the sexual act can be symbolic of something deep and meaningful, or as inconsequential as a one night stand. The opportunity for dalliances on set with co-stars carries some credence but the rest of the fable sounds like press fabrication.
His constant self gratification may well have hidden long held insecurities; his diary entry for 3 November 1966 hinting at the inner turmoil beneath the outwardly mobile swagger.
‘For some reason I worried a lot about E this morning, whether she loved me or not and how awful it would be to lose her etc. I worked myself up into a rare state of misery and was absurdly relieved when she telephoned from the studio. What’s the matter with me?’
They loved to drink, spend and travel. Money can’t buy happiness but most of us would rather be miserable in wealth. Over the course of their marriage, they would make tens of millions co-starring in films. In the modern world of inflated Hollywood salaries, it is comparatively easy to dismiss the kind of money that Taylor and Burton made in the 1960s and ’70s yet in ‘real terms’ the figures were impressive. The couple spent with the vulgar panache of Greek shipping magnates.
For Burton, though, there was little joy in it. “I have never quite got over the fact that I thought and I’m afraid I still do think, that ‘acting’ for a man—a really proper man—is sissified and faintly ridiculous,” Burton once wrote to Taylor. “I will do this film . . . out of sheer cupidity—desire for money. I will unquestionably do many more. But my heart, unlike yours, is not in it.”
His wife may initially, have been the larger earner but Burton was shrewd enough to avoid reliance on conventional investment routes in order to preserve their wealth. As early as 1963, the billionaire and philanthropic investor, Warren Buffet, wrote a letter to the investors in his hedge fund, The Buffett Partnership, Ltd., in which he laid out some of the fundamental tenets of his investment philosophy as it relates to taxation. As he saw it at the time, the only way to tax wealth was to increase inflation, thus making stored wealth worth less. The Burtons were in Britain at the time the Wilson Government devalued sterling and the prevailing mood of the country only increased his commitment to investing in diamonds.
The Central Selling Organization has built up diamond prices over the years as the best hedge against inflation. It has insured the value of the purchasers’ funds against all rises and falls of currencies around the world. It has the stamp of approval of no government, but has been increasingly accepted as international currency. Diamonds are recognized by numerous banks as stable collateral for loans. Unlike property, they have portability. An individual can carry a million dollars worth of diamonds in his pocket and sell them anywhere in the world. It is impossible to do this with any other investment type.
In addition, diamonds appear to be relatively immune to currency fluctuations. Investment in diamonds is essentially a sign of scepticism about the world’s political situation. Most of the individuals in the diamond business are convinced that the market can go in only one direction – and that is up.
Investing in gold, on the other hand, is risky. Its price can fluctuate widely, and at times, the price of gold can rise to a point where it offers little protection and a lot of price risk. Diamonds are totally controlled with their prices based on the world’s strongest currency or gold, whichever is most valuable. therefore, diamonds offer a built-in resistance to devaluation. As currencies lose their value. Diamonds automatically adjust upward. In the recession year of 1970, Richard Burton would have been aware that diamond prices levelled off but did not drop. Just as now, it was then axiomatic that diamonds never go down in price. In recessionary times, fewer sales may be made, but in general, the prices are not lowered. His diary entry for 11 October 1968 estimated valuations for investments in diamonds, emeralds, properties, paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet,Urillo etc, accounting for roughly one quarter of their total worth by the end of 1969 i.e. $21.2m.
Some examples of Burton’s favourite purchases for his then wife Elizabeth Taylor can be viewed via the following link -
Throughout the years, his drinking and nicotine intake was legendary. A little over four years before he died he appeared on the top rated Dick Cavett US tv show. Asked if he considered himself an alcoholic, Burton replied: “I’m not quite sure I am one, but if not, I’m very near. I certainly can’t say I’ve beaten it”.
“It’s a dreadful disease and anyone with it has my deepest sympathies. I only hope they have a wife like mine. Without her enormous assistance I might very easily be dead.”
However, the mood took a decidedly sombre tone when Cavett asked Burton if he could ever tell when he’d had enough.
“No-one really knows which drink it is that’ll take them over the edge from a hearty, laughing social drinker to a morose, hung-over wretched creature who creaks and sweats through nightmares where it’s always November, always raining and always three in the morning,” he sighed.
“There’s nowhere to go, nothing to do but reach out for a cigarette and think about all the horrible things you’ve done and the shame you’ve brought to other people.”
Then, Burton turned to toast the audience with his glass.
“This is Coca-Cola, by the way,” he smiled. “Unless Dick’s laced it with something.”
The events of his last weekend are recalled in the following link.
I recently purchased Tom Rubython’s biography “And God created Burton” for the knockdown price of £3.50 – in perfect condition mind you, even though my wife felt I’d been extravagant by my standards! Still, when I showed her the size of the book she understood. It’s a monolithic tome, over 800 pages, requiring some able support from a chair cushion whilst reading unless of course you’re ‘in training’. The book’s inside flap offers a taster of what is to come, a near exhausting journey for even a venerable power reader such as myself:
‘A sweeping saga spanning 1898 to 1984 stretching from the mining fields of South Wales to the film sets of Hollywood and from the playhouses of Cardiff to the grand theatres of Broadway – this new and far reaching biography rakes over the coals of the life of Britain’s greatest ever actor, Richard Burton. And how one extraordinary man had three fathers, three mothers, seven brothers, six sisters and four wives, and how he loved them all. And how that man earned US$75 million from the start of his career in 1951 to when he died in 1984; the equivalent of US$1.5 billion in today’s money, making him the highest-paid actor in Hollywood history. From the Back Cover And God Created Burton is the first complete biography of the greatest Welshman ever to have lived. The man conquered Hollywood like no other British actor, before or since. His achievements were considered all the greater as they were accomplished in the era of such great British actors as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud as well as great American stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and Cary Grant. Burton’s achievement was even more pronounced as his prowess uniquely spanned theatre, film and television unlike any other actor before him. In the end, he became a genuine legend in his own lifetime and in the mid-sixties, for one year, he stood at the very pinnacle of Hollywood as the world’s most bankable actor. He also loved and lost some the most beautiful and talented actresses of the era, including Elizabeth Taylor, Claire Bloom and Susan Strasberg. But he could have achieved even more if it had not been for his addiction to alcohol, a fate inherited from his father and which stayed with him right to the end of his days, eventually killing him and tarnishing an otherwise extraordinary career’.
If there is a single defining moment that plunges a heavy drinker into the very depths of alcoholism, then for Burton, that moment involved one of his brothers, a simmering fued over his public treatment of first wife Cybil and the threat of a manslaughter charge.
According to biographer, Tom Rubython, Burton’s brother Ivor, was the most moral, upright and honest man Richard knew and the breakup of his first marriage and the scandal of his affair with Elizabeth Taylor led to a two year estrangement between the siblings.
The brothers were eventually reconciled and in 1968 were holidaying together. After a heavy night of drinking together, Ivor slipped and fell against a windowsill at Richard’s house in Celigny, Switzerland, breaking his neck.
The injury left him permanently paralysed from the neck down and confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He died on 19th March 1972 and singularly failed to relay his version of events to family members throughout his remaining days. For Richard, who idolised his brother and treated him as a father figure, the accident was more than he could bear.
Unfortunately, various versions of what happened would not have held up under close scrutiny from the Swiss police yet what remains certain is that Burton disappeared for ten days, only returning once he knew Ivor would survive. Rubython’s theory that a fight had taken place between the brothers is highly plausible. It would be just one of a series of terrible incidences that rendered 1968 a year to forget for the Burtons. Perhaps looking back over the preceding six years, he had simply joined the big league only to find himself floundering out of his depth.
Burton had been married to first wife Sybil, when he met Elizabeth Taylor. Accustomed as he was to the pursuit of every leading lady he worked with, ‘the world’s most beautiful woman’ was a challenge too far. When their affair became public knowledge, his wife sought attention/attempted suicide depending on whose interpretation you believe, and when he returned to his family life Taylor acted likewise, an episode glossed over by the studio as “food poisoning.” After nine months back in his marriage, (Burton was content to insult everyone’s intelligence by stating categorically that he had not been intimate with Taylor throughout this period – this being a woman who hadn’t been without a man since she was seventeen), the couple were reunited, this time seemingly for good. Taylor had “the most fabulous pair of tits,” Burton said, in mitigation, and one can only hope this comment was indicative of his welsh humour, for surely such an erudite, loquacious and intelligent man would not have destroyed his family unit for a pair of mammary glands?
Condemned by the Vatican for “erotic vagrancy,” the Burton and Taylor alliance was vulgar and messy, replete with yachts, jewels and drunken fights.
“I just adored fighting with Richard,” said Taylor._ “I need a strong man.”_ Her sparring partner found life more wearisome. “She had all these bloody rings on. It was like being hit with a knuckle-duster.”
Burton was also fed up with Taylor’s dogs, her parrot, and the way that pain from piles would make her scream and cry in her sleep. They were divorced, and got married again in Botswana “by an African District Commissioner from the Tswana Tribe.” Then they divorced again, only this time around, she could barely relieve him of much, having stripped him of virtually his entire assets first time around. The yacht, the house, the jewellery, his extensive range of vintage paintings – she’d had it all, except his non existent Oscar statuette.
The Oscar always eluded Burton and as the 60’s drew to a close, the old movie moguls were being replaced by young businessmen. Conglomerates were taking over the studios, forcing out the streetwise studio chiefs who had made decisions by their gut instincts, thus heralding the demise of expensive epics. It was the low-budget movies by new kids on the block that were making money: ‘Bonnie And Clyde’, ‘The Graduate’, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘Easy Rider.’
Nevertheless, in 1970, there would be one last major assault on the industry’s major prize. Nominated in the best actor category for his most recent role, as Henry VIII in ‘Anne Of The Thousand Days’, Taylor summoned herincomparable star power in an attempt to dazzle the statuette into Richard’s hands, where it belonged.
On April 3, 1970, the Burtons returned to Los Angeles – Frank Sinatra flying them in from Puerto Vallarta in his Gulfstream jet. They checked into their favourite bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel but Tinseltown had changed for ever.
On Oscar night itself, the newly sober Richard looked sleek in his dinner jacket and Elizabeth was stunning in a deep blue-violet chiffon Edith Head gown with a plunging neckline and a ruffled, slit skirt. The ceremony dragged on in its usual way, saving Best Actor for the next-to-last announcement.Burton slouched in his seat, studying a piece of paper, silently moving his lips as he read. Those seated around him thought that perhaps he was memorising his acceptance speech.
Finally, John Wayne’s name was called. The cowboy actor had won his first Oscar after 42 years in the movie business, in effect a lifetime achievement award, thus consigning Burton to another empty handed evening. To make the evening more excruciating for the Burtons, Elizabeth had to follow Richard’s defeat by appearing on stage to present the award for Best Picture.
You could see the disappointment in her face, her genuine heartache when she came out, to great applause, to present the award to ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ just the kind of anti-heroic movie that represented how much Hollywood had changed since she and Richard had first dazzled the world together in ‘Cleopatra.’ Both heavy drinkers; Elizabeth drank to free her emotions, whilst Richard drank to numb his.
Tellingly, this last rejection by the Academy simply served to inflame his commercial instincts; risky, artistic ventures being eschewed in favour of movies that made money. That summer, he took on a macho war epic, ‘Raid On Rommel,’ a mediocre entry in his CV and a clear indicator of the future direction his career would take. There was worse to come with the August ’74 UK location filming for a television remake of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter.” Re-inventing Sophia Loren as a bored suburban housewife was a leap too far, and Burton appeared overcome by the incredulity of it all, his eyes constantly averted, perhaps seeking solace in a nearby bottle. He’d have needed a few stiff ones after the critical reviews.
In 2013, the ‘Posh and Becks’ of their day, (albeit infinitely more talented), are largely unknown by today’s younger generation, a chilling reminder of how transitory fame really is. In 2013, actress Kate Burton said, “I grew up with one of the most famous fathers in the world in the 1960s and ’70s. He passed away in 1984, and as time went on, people didn’t know him. That blew me away.”
Whatever the conflicting opinions about the Burtons, the irrefutable fact remains that five years before his death, the actor purchased a burial plot in the Protestant church at Celiney, Switzerland. He had been compelled to do so in order to maintain his ‘domicile of choice,’ thereby avoiding UK estate duty on his worldwide assets. More tellingly, he also purchased two adjoining plots, presumably to control who would be buried alongside him.
When Elizabeth Taylor eventually passed away in 2011, she was laid to rest at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery in Los Angeles. According to the following link, Burton’s relatives had remained agreeable to her being buried in the Welsh family grave, had she expressed such a desire in her will.
Biographer Tom Rubython asserts that the actor had little desire to be reunited with Taylor in the afterlife, and that, whatever tempestuous love he had felt for her, he had been equally seduced by his rising stock in the film business as a result of their initial affair. Burton’s burial arrangements suggest he was reconciled to a more peaceful existence in the next world, and that could not be achieved with Taylor at his side. The 20th century’s greatest romance? – Let’s get a grip on reality.