Friday, March 25, 2011

My Log 244: Richard Burton, instead of becoming the greatest actor of his time, became Elizabeth Taylor’s paramour

One of Elizabeth Taylor’s major achievements --- if that is the word --- was to solidify a tragic error made by her co-star, husband and obsessed lover, Richard Burton, which denied Burton the elevated status that lay before him as the greatest British actor of his time.

I remember seeing Burton play in a small London theatre early in the 1950s in a play by Lillian Hellman ---- Montserrat ---- after which T.C. Worsley, the eminent critic of the New Statesman magazine posed a pregnant question about Burton.

This remarkably gifted young actor stood at a crossroads, wrote Worsley, and now had to choose which path he would follow in his career: was he going to dedicate himself to becoming the greatest actor on the British stage, a role for which his talents suited him, or was he destined to depend on his personality tricks, and become merely a star? Was he, in other words, to become the latest in the line of pre-eminent actors that Britiain has given over the years to the theatre ---- from Irving, forward to Gielgud, through Olivier, Richardson, Redgrave, many others ----- or was he to take the easier path, depending on personality tricks, and thus become merely a star, rather than a notable actor?

We know the decision he came to: that great voice, that amazing presence, he directed towards Hollywood and the movies. And once there, starring with the beautiful Taylor, he chose, with bells on, to become the consort of the pre-eminent Hollywood star of his time.

That he drank himself to death in doing so would appear to indicate that he was not altogether happy in his choice. But the fact is, Taylor apparently so entranced him that he played the courtier to her queen as the major role in his life.

Thus, the British stage was robbed of a man who stood ready, with his superb gifts, to become its leader. Instead, he gave us some remarkable performances in films --- mostly notably, in the Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? --- but he frittered away his talents in a succession of other trivial films, while, off-screen, he frittered away the immense sums he made in gloriously vulgar presents to his lover, Elizabeth Taylor.

Ah, well, such are the decisions sometimes made by people who do not live up to the great gifts bestowed on them by nature. He no doubt became notorious for his extravagant lifestyle, but there was little evidence that he took much satisfaction in that status.

Mark up one success to the temptress whose larger-than-life persona has been so celebrated in recent days since her death.

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