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

Winter Project: Richard Burton, Spy

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My choice for this winter’s project to educate myself on the films and story behind an actor whose filmography I know little about is Richard Burton. I am reading Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s novel Furious Love and watching a lot of Richard Burton films based on recommendations from my great blogging buddies.

I chose to group them by genre than by chronological order. Here’s the first pair to talk about.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

Directed by Martin Ritt

Starring Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack

Won the BAFTA for Best British Film

Synopsis:

At the height of the Cold War, British spy Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is nearly ready to retire, but first, he has to take on one last dangerous assignment. Going deep undercover, he poses as a drunken, disgraced former MI5 agent in East Germany to gain information about colleagues who have been captured. When he is thrown in jail and interrogated, Leamas finds himself caught in a sinister labyrinth of plots and counter-plots unlike anything in his long career.

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The picture starts slowly but gains rapid momentum after the love interest and job assignment is established. When Leamas decides to infiltrate behind enemy lines to retrieve information, the movie became interesting. What did I like best about the film? The plot twists, the trial, the overall setting, and cinematography. I predicted Claire Bloom‘s character Nan Perry would show up at the fortress. When Nan entered the trial room, I felt her bewilderment.  The subtle emotion from Leamas as he realizes her life is in his hands was moving. It’s the ending that got to me. I was surprised at how sad and right his final decision was.  It was the perfect way to end the movie. 4/5

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Directed by Brian G. Hutton

Screenplay by Alistair MacLean

Starring Clint Eastwood and Mary Ure 

Synopsis:

A crack team of Allied soldiers stages a daring rescue during World War II. A U.S. general is being held captive in an imposing castle fort, high in the Bavarian Alps. The plan calls for Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), Maj. Smith (Richard Burton) and other operatives to parachute down wearing Nazi disguises. They’ll penetrate the mountain outpost while undercover operatives aid them from within. But their mission changes when they discover that there’s a traitor in their midst.

There’s a lot to like and laugh about with this film. The best part is the commendable cinematography set in the winter landscape in Bavaria. I enjoyed Eastwood and Burton marching around the snow and the filming location in Werfen, Austria was breathtaking. I thought it unlikely that their secret plan was to invade Hohenwerfen Castle, and their special ops team march right into the hornet’s nest as the only soldiers in the entire town wearing white parkas. Can’t say I approved of the decision for all actors to speak English, as well as the other German officers, but then the low ranking soldiers speak German when they were on their smoke breaks and talking among themselves seemed like a mistake to me.

Burton and Eastwood steal a ride on top of a cable car as it ascends the castle. That was clever. No one notices them. This happens throughout the film. I thought Burton was miscast in the film. He looked dazed and puffy standing next to Clint Eastwood. Clint looked out of place with his angry stare. Burton lacked chemistry with his sex kitten partner in crime, Mary (Mary Ure) who lay down every time he barked at her to spread her legs. She had an interesting spot in the film as a female special forces soldier. She parachutes down from the plane. She shoots the gun and saves the dynamic duo with a rope strategically place for them to climb up a vertical wall. But her character lacked any personality. Too bad.

The escape scene was impractical and staged. There’s enough dynamite to blow up the Alps, so for those who like action and machine gun fights, there’s a lot here to like. I enjoyed the plot twist in the great chamber when Burton’s character changes it up and confuses the Gestapo and the German officers before Clint blows them away.  The film has a long running time of almost two and a half hours. I think director Hutton should have cut out a few scenes to keep it the narrative tighter. Despite the holes, I enjoyed the action overall. 3.5/5.

The Favourite (2018) More aggravating than entertaining

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I’m just an idiot standing around with no purpose looking like Tom Cruise.

I love historical dramas. It had all the ingredients of fine entertainment. Instead, I scratched my head with bewilderment at the end of it. Fellow-bloggers liked it a lot and many gave it high marks. But for me, I felt more aggravated than satisfied. Be my guest and disagree. Spoiler-alert! 

The Favourite (2018)  

A dark comedy? Yes. Did I leave the theater utterly depressed? Yes. For some, adding modernity to the early 1700s narrative makes Yorgos Lanthimosis‘s latest effort absurd. (The modern dancing, the overuse of the “C” word) is a time warp that doesn’t work. Absurd? No. Incongruent and jarring?Yes. Was the tone of his film to show the ludicrous lifestyle of the nobility? If so, he succeeded. Was his goal to show class-conflict and reveal the sordid details behind the curtains of Queen Anne’s bed? To illustrate an atypical love triangle between two female cousins whose ambition are Machiavellian? He succeeded. On the surface, it seems like a winner. So why was I turned off by the two cousins who battled to win the Queen’s favor, hence, ensure the power of court affairs and financial stability?

It has something to do with a trend in the entertainment industry. Hail to the stories of women who are strong and resourceful. Yes. But I feel there’s an exaggeration taking place at the expense of men. More films than ever showcase women as corrupt, aggressive, and savage while men are utter idiots. In The Favourite, for example, the scene where the naked man dances to avoid being hit by oranges by the rest of the men in the room. Whenever you have a black and white situation — all men are ridiculous and useless — or women are sex toys or dumb blondes– you’ve reached the same level, the basement. While I enjoy the actors Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, I found their characters repugnant and could not root for either one. Eventually, I became bored.

As far as cinematography, I thought the ultra-wide fisheye lens shots clever and in line with absurdism. The final scene was outstanding with the rabbits. She who steps on the rabbits is stepped on by the foot of the queen. Trapped and caged, all players in the love-triangle lose. The best reason to see The Favourite is for the outstanding acting job by Olivia Colman as Queen Anne of Britain. So while I can see how one could make a case for its virtues, overall, it’s not a film I would ever watch again. 3.0

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