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.”

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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?

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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

Are you not entertained? Chekhov

Anton Chekhov‘s characters suffer. They lament because life is a waste, or they suffer from the sharp blade of unrequited love. Life is a jail sentence, and each stage is a desperate attempt at happiness that rarely endures. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite stories by him.

(1860-1904) 205 short stories, fourteen plays, and several novels and novellas.

“The Kiss”

A shy soldier with no experience with women is forced to attend a party when something miraculous happens. Taking a wrong turn in the mansion, he finds himself in a study in complete darkness.

Ryabovitch stood still in hesitation. . . . At that moment, to his surprise, he heard hurried footsteps and the rustling of a dress, a breathless feminine voice whispered “At last!” And two soft, fragrant, unmistakably feminine arms were clasped about his neck; a warm cheek was pressed to his cheek, and simultaneously there was the sound of a kiss. But at once the bestower of the kiss uttered a faint shriek and skipped back from him, as it seemed to Ryabovitch, with aversion. He, too, almost shrieked and rushed towards the gleam of light at the door. . . .

     When he went back into the drawing-room his heart was beating and his hands were trembling so noticeably that he made haste to hide them behind his back. At first, he was tormented by shame and dread that the whole drawing-room knew that he had just been kissed and embraced by a woman. He shrank into himself and looked uneasily about him, but as he became convinced that people were dancing and talking as calmly as ever, he gave himself up entirely to the new sensation which he had never experienced before in his life. Something strange was happening to him. . . . His neck, round which soft, fragrant arms had so lately been clasped, seemed to him to be anointed with oil; on his left cheek near his mustache where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops, and the more he rubbed the place the more distinct was the chilly sensation; all over, from head to foot, he was full of a strange new feeling which grew stronger and stronger. . . . He wanted to dance, to talk, to run into the garden, to laugh aloud. . . . He quite forgot that he was round-shouldered and uninteresting, that he had lynx-like whiskers and an “undistinguished appearance” (that was how his appearance had been described by some ladies whose conversation he had accidentally overheard). When Von Rabbek’s wife happened to pass by him, he gave her such a broad and friendly smile that she stood still and looked at him inquiringly.

     “I like your house immensely!” he said, setting his spectacles straight.

Here’s a link to read the story in its entirety found on East of the Web.com

A single incident transforms Ryabovitch. From his dutiful existence, conditioned and dull, he intercepts the force of surprise and experiences the warmth of attraction. A soul unaware of how starved it is for romance and attention. One moment unmindful. The next, the flicker bursts to flame. I like stories written around turning point moments in life.

The Lady with the Dog (1960) 

Yalta. Who wouldn’t fall in love? Anna Sergeyevna (Iya Savvina) is a young wife and alone. She parades around the boardwalk with her fluffy white dog looking beautiful. She attracts the handsome, older banker Dmitriy Dmitrich Gurov (Aleksey Batalov), who is also married and alone. The two experience a passionate affair. When responsibilities separate them, Gurov returns home to his privileged life no longer satisfied. I don’t think Chekhov is saying we should dishonor our reputations and responsibilities. I think he means that we choose our lives and then find we are eventually stuck in them. His story may feel dated to viewers today, but his truths about love and relationships are universal.     

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

Louis Malle directed this twist on Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Theater director Andre Gregory and his actors, including Wallace Shawn as Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena, arrive at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York’s Times Square, making casual conversation among themselves. While still wearing their street clothes, the actors perform the play on a nearly blank stage. Julianne Moore is young and gorgeous as her presence tempts the frustrated Vanya. His life has been wasted behind the shadow of others. The film has a slow start which gains momentum and eventually becomes exciting. Chekhov’s language is mesmerizing. The questions raised by Vanya stay with you long after the film is over. Not sure I buy Wallace Shawn as Vanya, but Julianne Moore was marvelous. 3.8/5

The Seagull (2018) 

Do you like love triangles? Then you’d enjoy The Seagull. Age and unrequited love are major themes in this Chekhov play adaptation. Saoirse Ronan gives a satisfying performance as the ingenue Irena who falls for older Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) who is the lover of Russian diva Irina (Annette Bening). The cast delivered but none better than Elisabeth Moss who makes the most of her tragic character, Masha. I thought the execution of time by director Mayer disjointed. But I enjoyed the subtle interplay between the characters even though the large personalities were melodramatic to the point of distraction–but that just might be the camera editing which at times seemed choppy. Overall, the setting, the cast, the plot by Chekhov is an entertaining dark comedy. 4.5

What are your favorite adaptations, short stories or plays by Chekhov? 

Are You Not Entertained? A Pair of Movies and a Book

Here are a couple of movies and a recent book I can recommend to you.

You go right ahead and dislike Tom Cruise. Even if you sit in that camp, surely you can admire the star for performing his own stunts? What an exhilarating time I had watching the recent franchise installment written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. There a lot of reviews out there about Fallout, so read a good one by blogging buddy, Keith, found  HERE. Why is it good? It’s devoid of CGI, fast cuts, and the action sequences are shot on location. The team feels like a family and the twists and turns keep you predicting. Mentally and visually the audience is engaged. Are you interested in how films are created? I found these two video clips recorded on British television, The Graham Norton Show, with the principal characters, Tom Cruise, Rebecca Furguson, Simon Pegg, and Henry Cavill insightful.The first discussion surrounds the stunts and the second clip focuses on how Tom broke his ankle during production. Fallout is worth the price of admission and is the perfect summer adrenaline rush. 4.5/5.

The Royal Tailor (2014)

Lee Won-suk is a South Korean director whose 2014 film The Royal Tailor is one of the more beautiful films I’ve watched in a while. The story centers around jealousy, friendship, and betrayal during the Joseon dynasty of Korea (1392-1898). In the King’s palace, the Royal attire is run by austere Jo Dol-seok (Han Suk-kyu). For thirty years he has worked his way up from a commoner to the esteemed position as the head tailor. The neglected Queen (Park Shin-hye) needs a dress in a pinch and hires the innovative and charming young tailor, Lee Gong-jin (Ko-Soo). He falls in love with the Queen and becomes an unlikely friend. He introduces vivid colors and new styles which threaten the traditional offerings by Dol-seok, the head tailor. What’s worse, the young designer, Gong-jin, admires and likes Dol-seok, who secretly tries to understand his rival’s magical approach to creating designs. It is impossible to dislike the cheery young man. The story is more than a story about textiles (although one can’t help but be enraptured by the embroidery and see the costumes as art forms); the ache and betrayal felt by the royal tailor whose cerebral, traditional gowns can’t compete with the passionate, progressive creations of Gong-jin are heart-breaking. Highly recommended. 4.8/5

BOOKS 

Author Patrick DeWitt wrote a witty tale that felt like a Mark Twain fable with quirky characters and outrageous scenes the two brothers find themselves in. But the comedy is darker. There’s a sadness one can’t help feel for the narrator Eli who follows his raucous brother. They are assassins and it’s 1851 as they travel from Oregon to California. There is a quiet morality to Eli. He instantly falls in love with a whore and gives her all his money. He cares for a boy they find orphaned and is concerned for him. He saves his horse that most would kill. In the ruthless West, Eli is a lonely, lost soul and Dewitt creates a real voice in Eli. If you like dark comedy, you would appreciate this easy to read and beautifully written period novel. 4.5/5

And so I picked this novel because I saw the trailer in the theater and I liked the looks of the cast and the storyline. I wonder if they can translate the beauty and horror of the plot and the delicate yet ruthless brothers whose last name is Sisters. That’s the hard part about turning books into film. The imagination does a much better job creating an alternate reality that you can suspend your disbelief on. It’s a lot harder capturing the magic of words on a page to the film. I am hopeful.

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