Wednesday 17 July 2019

Richard Burton: A life in drink

Richard Burton: Prince of Players, By Michael Munn

By roger lewis

Cardiff used to be a fearsomely homophobic city and it was against this background that Richard Walter Jenkins -- later Burton -- grew up. Such were his feelings of guilt about being an actor that he turned to drink. "I drank because I was afraid of being a homosexual," he said. "I drank because I hated wearing make-up."

At rehearsals, Burton's Thermos flask would contain whisky: "He'd pour it into a plastic cup and blow on it, pretending it was hot tea," reports Michael Munn. Once, with Lee Marvin, he drank 17 consecutive dry Martinis.

Munn knew his subject, and says he witnessed him rolling around in spasms from epileptic fits -- which Burton refused to tell the doctors about. Surely these were alcoholic seizures? When Burton was operated on for arthritis, his spinal column was coated with crystallised alcohol. His kidneys were shot, his liver cirrhotic, there were ulcers, and he couldn't remember his lines. By the time he died of a haemorrhage in 1984, aged 58, he looked about 100. Five packets of cigarettes a day hadn't helped.

He was born in 1925, the 12th child of an out-of-work Welsh miner. His mother died when he was two, so an elder married sister took him in. Short and stocky, quick with his fists, he was nevertheless attracted to literature. In this he was encouraged by a teacher at Port Talbot Secondary School, an "eccentric bachelor" called Philip Burton who "took him into his personal care". Young Jenkins was legally adopted and assumed his guardian's surname.

Philip Burton coached his protege in Shakespeare -- he was on hand when he played Hamlet for Gielgud and Petruchio for Zeffirelli -- and got him into Exeter College, Oxford. Here Burton appeared in plays where, the actor Robert Hardy says, he "shone. I mean, really shone," and "drank an awful lot".

Burton married the 18-year old Sybil Williams, yet his tomcatting became compulsive. Marilyn Monroe, Jean Simmons, Lana Turner, Claire Bloom and Susan Strasberg are listed. "I was like a hungry bear with salmon jumping into my paws," he remembered.

Then came Elizabeth Taylor, a true threat to his marriage. Sybil attempted suicide. But Taylor had "the most fabulous pair of tits," Burton said, in mitigation. When he tried to reconcile with Sybil, Taylor attempted suicide -- an episode glossed by the studio as "food poisoning".

The Burton and Taylor alliance was vulgar and messy, replete with yachts, jewels and drunken fights. "I just adored fighting with Richard," said Taylor. "I need a strong man." Her sparring partner found life more wearisome. "She had all these bloody rings on. It was like being hit with a knuckle-duster."

Burton was also fed up with Taylor's dogs, her parrot, and the way that pain from piles would make her cry in her sleep. They were divorced, got married again and divorced again. Burton went on to marry other women and make dozens of pictures, but he deteriorated fast.

The received view is that he threw his career away, but he was at his best when playing defeated. He was peerless as priests going to seed in Graham Greene and Tennessee Williams adaptations.

Though he remained sentimental about Wales ("I grew up among heroes who went down the pit, who played rugby, told stories, sang songs of war" and so on), his real attitude to the place can be deduced from his will, which stipulated he be buried in Switzerland.

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