I only ever heard my mother admit twice to fancying other men. One, remarkably, was Saddam Hussein, the other was Richard Burton, and of each she said, ‘He’s a good-looking old man.’ She said this the way only a Welsh Baptist matron could: grimly, and because she was secure in the knowledge that she was not likely to meet either in chapel or on the streets of Carmarthen.
Richard Burton, once of Port Talbot, later of the Dorchester Hotel, was cat-nip to women. He had a face ravaged by acne and his feet smelt, but he managed to sleep with the most beautiful leading ladies of his time, something his latest biographer quotes Stanley Baker, his fellow thespian and Welshman, as saying was ‘absolutely essential’ for an actor. Sadly, Baker did not say this. What he did say was that it was essential ‘to establish some sort of emotional rapport with an actress if any sort of performance is to be given on screen’ — which is not quite the same thing at all.
But Burton must have taken his advice, for he did — usually by first reciting Dylan Thomas to them at full blast (which didn’t work with Lassie, nor apparently with Julie Andrews, though she admitted later it had been a close-run thing). As for the rest, oh God, as for the rest . . . When he was making Look Back in Anger he was sleeping with both his leading ladies, Claire Bloom and Mary Ure, then married to John Osborne. He was also managing to fit in up to 100 cigarettes and three bottles of vodka a day, which meant he could not remember some of the films he made. Which is lucky, for some were also among the worst ever made. During The Klansman, Burton could not stand without help, but, according to Tom Rubython, local women were still passing through his trailer ‘like on a conveyor belt’, and the husband of one of them came after him with a shotgun.
Read as medical, or case, history, or just black comedy, this is fascinating stuff; for how Burton managed to survive not only his collapsing career but live to be 58 is a great mystery. Rubython does not mess about: in his book the women are mostly named (though not the 14-year-old for whom Burton arranged an abortion) and the benders chronicled, with the result that the screen roles —Alexander the Great, Caesar and Thomas Becket amongst them — fade beside the off-screen shenanigans of the Welsh-speaking miner’s son who played them. This is Burton’s 12th biography in 17 years.
It is 800 pages long and is published by the author’s own firm, which he set up for this purpose. Its index is so long and the print so small it could only be read by a hunting eagle. Beadily, I read on and on.
All I know about the man is what I was told by Gwydion Thomas, the poet R. S. Thomas’s son, who, a talented actor at Oxford, was recruited by Burton to appear in his film of Faustus. On set, when served tea, Burton, he recalled with awe, had to have the cup glued to the saucer, because his hands shook so much the rattle was picked up on sound.
Then there was an extraordinary lunch after the actor had asked to meet Gwydion’s father. In the course of this, R. S. Thomas tried to interest Elizabeth Taylor in small talk. The poet did this by broaching the subject of flat-fish. ‘And have you tried plaice?’ he asked the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Gwydion, watching Burton try to get off with his then girlfriend, was left with the impression that he had strayed into the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Reading this biography I felt the same.
But it was the march-past of the women that enthralled me. According to Rubython, Burton’s success rate in his younger years was 95 per cent. How does he know? Was he padding beside him with a pocket calculator? Or that he bedded the chorus line of Camelot? Or that, with two very small children, it was a source of gloom to Burton that for two months he had slept with only one woman, his wife? Or, again, that with his wife appearing in a West End play, Burton spent his wedding night with the maid, before passing out? How does he know any of this? We are not told.
Yet the book bristles with credentials. Roger Moore and Robert Hardy contribute a foreword and a prologue; earlier biographers like Melvyn Bragg and Penny Junor are quoted at length, the latter adjudged ‘brilliant’, and, what is more, photographs of the two appear, something I had never seen before.
Believe me, you will never have read anything quite like this.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 2, 2011Tags: Biography, Book review, Film, Hollywood, Non-fiction, Richard buton