Burton: Stage or Film Star?

In the late 1950s, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier, so taken by Richard Burton‘s voice and acting, proclaimed he could become the best stage actor of the 20th century. Being a film star seemed unseemly by comparison. Which would Burton rather be? To which, according to Furious Love authors, Sam Kashner and biographer Nancy Schoenberger, Richard replied, “Both.”

Richard Burton reprised his role in Hamlet and gave over 160 performances in 1964 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. If you watch the “To Be or Not to Be” video below you can see how the two British heavy-hitters could think so. Richard Burton’s masculinity exudes confidence and virility. On stage, his tempo slows and speeds, his pitch rises and falls, and his presence mesmerizes. His memory for reciting poetry was impressive, and he could say the famous soliloquy backward if asked.

In Furious Lovewhich is turning out to be an interesting biography, is about the influence of Elizabeth Taylor on him. Richard transformed from stage acting sensation to film star due to their notorious love affair evolving into a toxic love that would define the phrase “madly in love.”

Image result for furious love book richard burton images

I really don’t care to hash up and discuss that toxicity. If you are unaware of their thirteen years together, in summary, they boozed, screamed, slapped, fought, swore, and shagged a lot. Their lustful appetites turned the pair into a global, tabloid extravaganza.

Elizabeth Taylor was the highest paid female film star in show business by 1960 when Richard Burton and she fell in love on the set of Cleopatra. It took three years to make and was hacked and edited into a sprawling mess to the point that it put the kibosh on the career of director Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve). He would blame their affair and its subsequent distractions the reason the film was the bumbling elephant that it was. For my winter project, I haven’t watched Cleopatra yet. The 5h 20m running time has me intimidated. I might skip to the intermission and watch the latter half…

Anyway, Richard was in awe of her film star reputation, but he didn’t understand why Elizabeth just stood there. “She doesn’t do anything!” Burton told Mankiewicz. He replied, “Ah, just wait. Look, look at her on film.” Richard learned from Elizabeth that acting in a film called for subtlety. Try acting in film as you would on stage and they’ll say you’re chewing the scenery in a second.

It appears to me that as I continue to watch Richard Burton films, he seems to swing back and forth between that stage actor where he is brilliant and the film actor that seems at times too conservative. For example, take Becket (1964). Richard Burton was nominated seven times for an Oscar during his career. This film was one of them. In it, Burton underplays his character next to the bouncy Peter O’Toole, a true scene chewer.

Becket is a wonderful film. I wondered while watching Richard Burton’s performance if he didn’t grapple with his stage sensibilities and his acting in the film. Was it erratic? Do you prefer Richard Burton who comes to life and pure energy spills forth out of his mouth and eyes? Or do you prefer Richard whose voice becomes monotone and he seems to be in a body cast? Ha! I guess you know which one I prefer. In other words, it is interesting for me to notice how he delivers his lines. Should he be theatrical or does he convey his character best by curbing his enthusiasm?

Image result for look back in anger images richard burton

I watched the 1959 kitchen sink play adaptation Look Back in Anger and loved it, especially that fantastic opening directed by Tony Richardson. Jimmy Porter is a young man in Britain who boils under the surface. He is trapped in the drudgery of his life and takes out his frustrations on his pretty wife who cringes and eventually throws in the towel on the marriage and goes home with Daddy. While I didn’t care for Mary Uhr‘s uninspired performance in Where Eagles Dare, in this film, she is convincing as the pregnant, battered wife. I just watched The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and was surprised to see Claire Bloom again. What a coincidence. She’s a fine actress in both films. Watch this clip and tell me if you think Richard Burton’s portrayal of Jimmy is over the top or just right. 4/5  TCM scene clip “The Proper Time”

When Burton performs a play adaptation, these are my favorite performances, so far. I picked Richard Burton because there are a lot of films I haven’t seen. Maybe my opinion will change as I watch more of his films. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is forthcoming in a post of its own. However, one of my favorite Richard Burton performances is in The Night of the Iguana, a story by Tennessee Williams and directed by John Huston. You can read more about the film found here: Night of the Iguana film spotlight

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He’s theatrical and fun to watch. Burton luxuriates in the Puerto Vallarta setting with three bewitching women (with Elizabeth standing guard on the set) and delivers his lines with enthusiasm. I am glad Burton did not go for subtelty in the role of Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, who has troubles living up to the standards expected of a man of the cloth, specifically when it comes to sexual appropriateness. Seriously, what man wouldn’t be tempted by Sue Lyon?  4.5

45 thoughts on “Burton: Stage or Film Star?

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  1. While the book “Furious Love” does indeed include the tumultuous relationship between Burton and Taylor, I enjoyed just how much it delved into his career – the choices he made, the yearning for the stage but the lure of the $$$ from the big screen – a tortured individual indeed.

  2. Couldn’t open the link to The Proper Time, too many redirects whatever that means 🙂
    Skipping to the intermission and just watching the 2nd half ??? 🤪 Is The Sandpiper on your list, or The Medusa Touch?

    1. Yes, they are on the list. Oh, rats that the proper time didn’t show. If you went to Turner Classic Films website and entered “The Proper Time” you’d see a scene. Sorry it didn’t come through.

  3. I confess I might be tempted by Sue Lyon, but I’m sure I would have preferred the experience of Ava Gardner at the time. 🙂

    For me, Burton never escaped theatrical roots at all, and never truly became a ‘film actor’. The same could be said for Lawrence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and quite a few others. But that wasn’t always a bad thing, and especially useful in historical epics, which have a theatricality by their very nature. I agree about ‘Look Back In Anger, and also about Claire Bloom, who was often faultless.

    But don’t write off the full experience of Cleopatra just yet. The money was well-spent in terms of visual splendour. Taylor looks gorgeous as the Queen, and the soap opera feel just adds to those hours of rather glorious nonsense, helping it along. As part of cinema history, it’s as important as ‘Gone With The Wind’. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete, for vouching for Cleopatra. I have to find a day when I’m off of work to devote 5 hours to it. You are correct, I believe, to state that many great stage actors couldn’t separate the stage presence. I would also offer that stage roles were meatier and allow a fine actor a lot to work with. Anyway, I was curious if the influence of Elizabeth with regards to finding a film persona was actual. Sometimes Burton seems wooden to me. But not when it’s a play!

    1. I wonder if that’s the record? I can’t think of any other film that is that long. With this project, I haven’t watched them both on the screen yet (I was too young to watch WAVW or Cleopatra) and so I’m watching him first and then will watch the films they made together. Thank you, Alex, for stopping by today.

  4. You chose a great talent and quite an interesting character off screen too !! Burton (IMO) commanded any scene he was part of and obviously learned a lot of Elizabeth, because all he ever had to do was ‘just stand there’!!

  5. I look at the titles in this post and think of a time when we took such movies, their actors, and writers for granted. Today, we have movies based on comic books. What does that say about our society and our culture?

    1. I agree. I am nostalgic for complicated, beautiful prose and tight narration. You are right. It is a shame that the machine only produces reboot and drag out a film into too many sequels.
      It’s really all about money and what the studios expect in the profit margin. I think that’s why I have a lot of respect for indie films and gosh, I admire the up and coming streaming channels that put out a lot of high quality! It really has changed the game .

  6. Actors from the British Isles and Canada, for the most part, have their roots in stage acting before they gravitate to movies. Just the opposite for actors in the US. The move from stage to movies is just a matter of toning down.
    The move from movies to stage requires so much more. Voice projection, the ability to memorize the part completely, instead of one scene at a time. The up’s and down’ s of the reaction of a live audience in real time.
    Burton was well grounded as an actor on stage. He respected good scripts and stories in the movies. When he felt the picture was fluff, he didn’t always bother to exert himself. Contrast his work in a small, but powerful, movie, based on a play by Osbourne, Look Back In Anger to his along- for- the- ride in Where Eagles Dare, based on an escapist novel byMacLean.

    1. Well said, Don. Absolutely Richard Burton benefited from his training and experience as a stage actor. I don’t hear very often of actors performing on stage. Except for the best film actors. Burton had an amazing memory, apparently. He was the youngest of a large family and born to a Welsh miner. He was plucked by a man name Burton who became his mentor and taught him how to speak English properly. So he took his name. He was guilt ridden for being the one son who escaped the mines and throughout his life supported his family and town back in Wales. I think his desire to be a film star was an emotional desire. He was at the top of his stage game. He didn’t need the movies. He wanted the money and prestige. Elizabeth catupulted his world into the stratosphere with blistering results.

  7. I’ve seen Cleopatra and I didn’t think it was that bad a film. It could have had its place in a box set with The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah and similar films. I think it receives a lot of relatively unfair criticism when you look at many other epics from the 50s and 60s.

    1. Ah, another defender of Cleopatra. Great! In the book, Furious Love, it revealed the dispointments from the perpective of director Joseph Mankiewicz. An epic is hard to watch in one sitting. I’ll get there. Thanks, John.

  8. Cleopatra. Like the Titanic.Unsinkable.

    Seems strange that Cleopatra is rarely – or never – shown on TV??? Taylor was a colossal Star at the time. Perhaps the last of the old time Movie Queens? She was also a brilliant Actress. Beauty, charisma and talent.

    Why is it never shown? It may be an awful movie? but as a curiosity of the excesses of Hollywood in the waning heyday of the Studio era it would probably be interesting to see. I have never seen it either. They never show it.I’ll have to hunt it down now for my own curiosity.

    I recall seeing the Taming of the Shrew, but I was far too young to appreciate Shakespeare or the quality of their Acting. I’ll never catch up on this stuff.

    1. Hi JC. It’s an assignment for me. My Jim is getting bored. “Good God, not another Burton film! I don’t really like him that much.”
      I don’t know why it is never seen on television. Probably because there’s no Christian tie in like The Ten Commandments. It depends on a deal. The Wizard of Oz became elevated in status and popularity because it was shown every year on TV. Same with Gone with the Wind.
      But Cleopatra is so long–I bet that’s the reason.

    1. “Burton was battling against alcoholism and had spent six weeks in hospital for treatment prior to the interview. Parkinson persuaded him to talk candidly about his career, love life and drink problems”.

  9. the origina roadshow length was a 248 minutes. later it was cut to 192 minutes for general rease. this 5 and a half hour so called directos cut is BS. the director died in 1993 and ever authorized such a version. so if you watch it, plese watch the 192 mnute cut if you cant find the unnfinished printe 248 minte originl version. fyi, a directors cut is the assembledge of all the complete scenes the director approved in sequence. from this the director and his editors work to create the theatrical release cut. these director cuts were never intended for public exhibition. a very few movies have been recut after their completiion and, when restored, are improperly referred to as directors cuts–while in fact they are more accurately termed director approved versions. this so called directors cut of cleopatra is a pre release version that was still being edited for general release by the director and editors. avoid it.

    1. Whew! I’m glad you piped in and let me know, Bill. I’m learning about him and it’s unclear what to believe at times. 192 sounds much more doable.
      I’d love to know if you liked ‘Look Back in Anger’. I watched Hamlet. I thought he was great. Expecially impressed with energy sword fighting in the last act.

      1. i loved look back in anger. i also love one of his most maligned films, the klansman, i didnt love sue lyon in iguana. she was perfect. in lolita, but she cant act. kubrick can be terrific with non actors but huston didint know what to do with them. i had a friend who was one of burtons drnking buddies. he told me burton could drink three fifths of vodka and still recite shakespeare letter perfect. one issue i had with your article. burton was a movie star long before he met liz length isnt a problem with cleo, as it is actually 2 movies in one. shaws caesar and cleopara followed by sh akespeares antony and cleopatra. both poor adaptations, feel free to watch part 2 only, as it stands alone.

        1. Yes, I see what you mean; I didn’t mean to give the impression it was his first film. I haven’t seen “The Robe”, for example. J was reacting to what I read in the biography that stressed Burton’s desire to become a big film star and idolized Elizabeth’s status.
          Anyway, I’m not surprised about the drinking bit. His ability to consume alcohol and remain coherent is amazing. That Celtic gene…

  10. One of Burton’s closest friends, I forgot his name, once said that Elizabeth Taylor inadvertently destroyed Burton the artist and Burton the person. The toxicity continued after their divorce. Not sure if the book talks about Burton (reluctantly) accepting to appear on Broadway’s revival of Private Lives, with Liz. It deprived Burton of his last chance at redemption, the film adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Anyhow, I think Cleopatra is an interesting failure. My review: https://diaryofamoviemaniac.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/cleopatra-1963/

    1. I like the “serious acting” tag. I agree with you. But it makes me wonder about today. Actors don’t seriously act anymore? Or is it the type of movies that are shown seem less serious?

      1. I’m very choosy about what I watch these days as I consider the current movie production lacking in substance generally though occasionally I’m surprised. Too old to know the names of most of the new acting recruits. I enjoy watching foreign movies European and Asian with English titles but are selective there too. I like anything to do with history or culture or issues that need to be thought through. My wife is watching the series on “The Crown” at the moment.

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