Stardust: TCM’s March Star of the Month
By Ed Garea
The Star of the Month for March is Richard Burton, one of the most talented – and tragic – actors ever to appear on stage and in film.
Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins, Jr. in the Welsh village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, on November 10, 1925. He was the 12th of 13 children born to Richard Jenkins, Sr, a coal miner, and Edith Maude Jenkins, who worked as a bartender. His mother died when he was barely two years old and he was raised by an older sister and brother at home. He excelled in athletics, especially rugby, for which he had a passion. He was also the first in his family to attend secondary school, though he dropped out in 1941 to help out the family by working in the mines.
During the war, he served in the Port Talbot Squadron 499 of the Air Training Corps. He also joined the Taibach Youth Center, a youth drama group founded by Meredith Jones. It was led by steel worker and avid amateur thespian Leo Lloyd, who taught Richard the fundamentals of acting. As both Jones and Lloyd saw the latent talent in young Richard they encouraged him to return to school, and with the tutoring help of schoolmaster Philip Burton, whom Richard had known since youth, he passed the exams. In 1943, Philip became Richard’s legal ward and Richard changed his surname to Burton. Also that year Philip petitioned for Richard to enter Exeter College, Oxford as part of a 6-month RAF scholarship program for qualified cadets prior to active service.
While at Exeter, Richard was featured as Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Among those who caught his performance were John Gielgud, Terence Rattigan, and producer Binkie Beaumont. After his discharge from the RAF in 1947 he came to London and looked up Beaumont, who put him under contract. Over the next few years Burton took the London stage by storm, leading critics to label him “the next Laurence Olivier.” He starred as Prince Hal in Anthony Quayle’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2 as part of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. While the play received mixed reviews, Burton received raves.
Producer Alexander Korda signed him to a film contract, then lent him to 20th Century Fox for three films. His first film was the 1952 Gothic romance drama, My Cousin Rachel, with Olivia de Havilland. He followed that with The Desert Rats and The Robe (both 1953). He signed a contract extension with Fox for seven years and seven films and returned to England, where played Hamlet at the Old Vic. He spent the rest of the decade moving back and forth between the stage and the silver screen. Offscreen he had married fellow actor Sybil Williams in 1949, and they had two daughters, Kate and Jessica. His marriage to Sylvia fell apart when he began working with Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Richard divorced Sybil, Elizabeth divorced Eddie Fisher, and the two married in 1964, becoming Hollywood’s most dynamic acting couple. Burton and Taylor’s marriage was stormy, fueled in part by Burton’s out-of-control alcoholism (he was reputed to have polished off five bottles of whiskey or vodka a day). They divorced in 1974, but remarried in 1975, though the remarriage lasted less than a year. He married actress Susan Hunt in 1976. That union lasted until 1982. His last marriage was to Sally Hay, which lasted from July 3, 1983, until his death from a cerebral hemorrhage on August 5, 1984.
Over time his heavy drinking affected the quality of his work and the quality of the films in which he appeared. TCM is devoting the evening from March 6-10 to Burton’s films. At this end we are quite disappointed that some of his more celebrated turkeys, such as The Exorcist, Part II (which has aired here before), Hammersmith Is Out, The Klansman, or The Assassination of Trotsky are not being shown … but there’s always the future.
March 6: Recommended tonight are his first film, My Cousin Rachel (8 pm), The Desert Rats (11:45 pm), and The Robe (3:15 am). Offscreen on My Cousin Rachel, he and Olivia de Havilland had a rather contentious relationship. She couldn’t stand him. The Desert Rats is an excellent war film about Rommel’s siege of Tobruk, with James Mason reprising his role of Rommel. And The Robe is a decent film about the aftermath of the crucifixion of Christ. Burton is a Roman officer who converts to Christianity, Jay Robinson gives a way over-the-top performance as Caligula, and Victor Mature just can’t act.
March 7: Anne Of The Thousand Days (10:15 pm) is a well-acted and scripted film about the ill-fated Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold), whose main mistake was to marry Henry VIII (Burton). Burton is fine, although Bujold steals the film. Look Back in Anger (1 am) is lauded as the first of the “kitchen-sink” dramas with Burton excellent as the embittered part-time trumpeter Jimmy Porter, Mary Ure as his wife, and Claire Bloom as the other woman in their lives. Written by playwright John Osbourne of Britain’s famous “Angry Young Men” of the late ‘50s. The film sparkles with great acting and bristling dialogue. For those who haven’t yet seen this gem, please do so. Record it, for you will want to savor its richness of performance later. Finally, there’s Alexander the Great (5 am) with Burton as the Macedonian conquerer, Frederic March as his father, Philip, and Barry Jones as his teacher, Aristotle. Excellent acting, but it lacks that epic sweep. However, it is better than the monstrosity Oliver Stone later gave us.
March 8: Start with Cleopatra at 8 pm, if only to see Liz and Dick in action. It’s terrible, but compulsive viewing. Next up is The Taming of the Shrew (12:15 am), a lively entry directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Finally, it’s that dull bomb, Doctor Faustus (2:30 am), which shows just how bad it can be when Liz and Dick walk through a film.
March 9: Liz and Dick go the slob route in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? (8 pm). Who knew at the time that it mirrored their private lives? Neither David or I care for this overblown stinker, but if you do, why not drop us a line and tell us where we’re wrong? We’d greatly appreciate it. The V.I.P.S. is a rather constricted film about wealthy passengers stranded in Heathrow Airport who all have personal hurdles to clear. The Sandpiper (12:45 am) is one of the great train wrecks, with Liz and Dick spitting out howler after howler. Finally, the evening ends with The Comedians (3 am), an uninspired attempt to realize Graham Greene’s novel about political intrigue in Haiti, despite some good performances from the stars.
March 10: Begin with Where Eagles Dare (8 pm), a lively war drama with Burton and Clint Eastwood out to rescue an Allied general being held in a fortified mountain castle by the Nazis. Staircase (10:45 pm) is an absolute hoot, with Burton and Rex Harrison playing two old homosexuals, unintentionally funny. Villain (12:30 am is a fine crime drama with Burton as a paranoid crime lord who thinks everyone ales is a potential stool pidgeon. Ian McShane co-stars. Finally, Equus (2:15 am) is an awful adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s awful play with Burton as a tortured psychiatrist called in a treat a sexually repressed young man (Peter Firth) accused of a terrible act of animal cruelty. (He blinded six race horses who had supposedly witnessed his part in a clandestine sexual act in a stable.) Investigating, Burton’s doctor traces the boy’s repressive act to a family clash between his anti-religious father (Colin Blakely) and his very devout mother (Joan Plowright). The lad has transformed his mother’s Christ worship into one of horses. Oh, Brother. It might have been passable somewhat if not for all the acting that goes on, with long soliloquies and other meaningful readings of lines. Avoid if you can and are an animal lover.