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

Gene Hackman: The French Connection & The Conversation

This year’s winter project featuring a classic male actor I am sketchy about is Gene Hackman. Based upon recommendations, I’m starting off with a strong pair that many have remarked were Gene’s best-known or favorite performance.

Competing against The Last Picture Show at the 1972 Oscars, The French Connection won the major awards of the night: Best Picture Philip D’Antoni, Best Actor in a Leading Role Gene Hackman, Best Director William Friedkin, Best Adapted Screenplay Ernest Tidyman, and Best Film Editing Gerald B. GreenbergRoy Scheider was nominated for Best Supporting Role, but he lost to Ben Johnson (LPS).

I have read that this was a film that set a precedent in police dramas or at least led the charge in portraying cops of dubious morality as the anti-hero. In the 1970s, television shows continued the trend to supply squeaky-clean officers catching the bad guy, but films such as Dirty Harry(1971), Serpico (1973), and The Seven-Ups(1973) show tainted cops ruthlessly taking charge of their urban backdrop. In the case of The French Connection, New York City never looked rawer or more treacherous. In this way, the buddy pair, Popeye (Hackman) and Cloudy (Scheider) fit right in chasing down gangsters, druggies, and deadbeats of the city. 4/5

What stood out:

1. The filming of the ugly alleys, subways, and desecrated buildings of NYC and the beautiful seaside port of Marseille, France was a fine contrast.

2. Roy Scheider’s bubbly performance was his second-best. (All That Jazz, #1)

3. Popeye’s obsession with catching the French kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) drew me in and held my attention.

4. The disgusting building where the climax was shot. The echoes, the shadows, and the reflections–you could smell the mold, feel the contaminated, cold air seep into your skin while Popeye sloshed around the debris. What a visceral experience.

5. Based on a true story, it was an intriguing, albeit, dreary story.

The Conversation is a 1974 American mystery thriller film written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and included a fantastic supporting team by John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr, and Robert Duvall. 

Gene Hackman has the reputation for playing characters that were hard-shelled jerks over his career. His voice is icy to listen to, his jaws set, and his characters won’t budge. Gene Hackman does this well, but I prefer his characters when they have a vulnerable side. Gene Hackman was perfect in this role as the surveillance expert, Harry Caul. He can’t help the fact he must live a lonely life, isolated and inadequate around others, unable to commit to friendships or relationships with females. His eyes suggest he was a product of the system, and his dislike for himself bubbles to the surface, and that’s a tricky acting job. 4.5/5.

What stood out: 

  1. Francis Ford Coppola‘s direction. The opening shot of the San Francisco city Union Square with happy citizens soaking up the midday sun, the mime leading your eyes, and the fuzzy conversation between Ann (Cindy Williams) and her lover Mark (Frederic Forrest).
  2. The ending shot of Harry Caul’s stripped apartment that suggested Caul’s paranoid demise instigated by his own obsessions.
  3. The jazzy piano score composed and performed by David Shire.
  4. The stellar supporting cast by everyone. It was great to see Harrison Ford as the young, smug executive. Teri Garr as the probing, sweet lover of Harry and the sad dance in the parking garage by the ambitious floozie Meridith by Elizabeth MacRae. Robert Duvall’s role was small but powerful as the jealous husband, “The Director”. Hotel toilets take on a new, repugnant level in cinema.
  5. The surprise twist at the end. Francis Ford Coppola’s script was smart and his narrative compact and interesting.  I was surprised how much I liked this film.

Winter Project: The Final Five of Steve McQueen

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Thanks to everyone for joining me while I explored the filmography of actor Steve McQueen. The 60s and 70s movie icon had a slew of great films to his credit. Since both parents had died at age fifty, with a sardonic sense of humor, he was sure he wouldn’t pass the half-century mark. His prediction came true. He died at 50 from Mesothelioma on November 7, 1980. Breathing the asbestos filaments located in several workplaces and in his racing helmets and suits, the industrial disease raced throughout his body in the final months of his life. He never thought he’d live long. That helped explain his drive and insatiable hunger for life. He negotiated and made millions per film including a percentage of the gross proceeds. He had full control of the directors, actors, and say of his films. Most know he was stubborn and egotistical, but his generosity and kindness extended in equal measure to his two children who loved him unconditionally and to friends with whom he had established long relationships.

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The Cincinnati Kid (1965) After Papillon, this would be runner up as my favorite Steve McQueen film.  Edward G. Robinson is Laney “The Man” who teaches “The Kid”(McQueen) a few lessons about life. In the game of 5 Card Stud, what are the odds two men are dealt a Straight Flush vs. a Full House? Read about THE LAST HAND here. Add Ann Margaret as the sexy temptress and Tuesday Weld as the good girl and stir in Karl Malden as Shooter, the puppet and chump into the mix. The music, the tension, and Steve convincing as “The Kid”, made it a thoroughly enjoyable film.  4.5/5

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The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen are sizzling hot (It’s rated PG) in this billionaire bank caper. The split screen 60s technique, the dune buggy ride on the beach, the fashions, and that famous chess game scene full of sexual innuendos–it’s the stuff that made an Austin Powers parody possible.  It was the first time McQueen broke away from his poor anti-hero to represent the high-class anti-hero. Alone on his own plateau, this film helped cement McQueen as an icon of alpha male coolness. 4/5

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The Getaway (1972). This Sam Peckinpah film flows with interesting cinematography like close-ups, the loud machines grinding in the prison interior, the chase scenes, and the interior shot of a car with BBQ ribs, food fight. While Ali McGraw‘s performance left me cold, Sally Struthers and Slim Pickens were the best characters of the movie. 4/5

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The Towering Inferno (1974). It was the highest-grossing disaster movies of the seventies. They came to see the cast: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, O.J. Simpson, Rober Wagner, Jennifer Jones, and Susan Blakely. The star power, the escape plans, the collapse of the skyscraper was engaging enough, but it can’t compete with The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the winner of the best disaster film of the decade. It took Steve fourteen years to beat out his blonde eyed rival, Paul Newman, for top-bill, but McQueen solved the problem of leading man by having his name listed first while Paul’s would be set slightly higher.  3/5

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Papillon (1973). Franklin J. Schaffner was known as an innovative television director/producer in the early years of T.V. by employing film techniques within the new medium of television. He was known in the film industry for popular films like Planet of the Apes (1968), and for Patton (1970). Schaffner’s best contribution and my top prison film is the one and only classic, Papillon (1973). Listen to the Oscar-nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith. Lovely.  

Almost all great films begin with great novels. Papillon (1969) was written as an autobiographical account by Henri Charrière. In 1931, he was sentenced in Paris for a crime he did not commit and exiled to a penal colony in French Guiana. Over the course of many years, Papillon, named for the butterfly tattooed on his chest, attempted to escape. Eventually, he was sent to the inescapable Devil’s Island surrounded by hungry piranhas, sharks, and crocodiles.  Henri Charrière’s story is an audacious human account demonstrating what conviction and willpower can do. His book became an instant success.

Steve McQueen gives his best performance of his career as Henri. His relationship with the inmate, Dega, played by Dustin Hoffman, is dynamic and heartfelt. It’s the cinematography that wows me. The use of black and white or the lack of sound show the solitary confinement of Papillon’s situation perfectly. When Papillon hallucinates, his dreams are horrific and the camera angles portray a true nightmare.

I find it amazing this film was not nominated for anything at the Oscars in 1974 except for Best Score which did not win. What were the contenders that year? The StingSerpico, and The Exorcist.  Yes, all great films, but, I still think Papillon is just as good. Certainly, Hoffman and McQueen deserved recognition for their roles. What an underrated film.5.5

“Blame is for God and small children.” – Dega

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