IN 1974, RICHARD BURTON was making a movie called The Klansman. His drinking was out of control, and he seemed doom-eager, talking -- in his cups -- almost wistfully of death. Here's an eyewitness description of Burton on the set: "His thin wrists branch out of a baggy shirt. His loose brown trousers are an old man's trousers. . . On his face is a dazed grin, as if he's been shocked awake under these heavy lights in the midst of surgery."
Those lines (by a reporter named Robert Kerwin) are quoted by Hollis Alpert in Burton. Alpert himself doesn't write half so interestingly. Here's a sample of his prose: "He had just about all he had hungered for -- fame, riches and the love of one of the world's most beautiful women. He felt dissatisfied. Something was missing in his life -- Elizabeth."
Still, people don't buy this kind of biography for the literary quality, they buy it for the dirt. Of which there is plenty. So no more cavilling about the flaws -- Alpert's movie magazine style or the fact that the book has no index. Let's get down to the story.
It's got everything -- sex, scandal, alcoholism, and what director Mike Nichols calls "large, romantic self-destruction." It would make a great mini-series.
Richard Jenkins was born in Wales, the 12th child of a coal miner. He renamed himself Burton after the acting coach who helped him escape the mines and mills of his village.
Burton drank early and womanized early. He was a bad husband to his first wife, the patient Sybil Williams, but she was only the first in a long line of women he would betray.
He not only kissed, he told. He once gave Joan Collins (herself no keeper of romantic secrets) a list of all the actresses he had seduced. His reputation for philandering was so well-known that some nosey parker approached Raymond Massey (who had acted in a picture with Burton) and asked if there was any lady Burton had missed.
"Yes, Marie Dressler."
"But she's dead."
"I know," Massey said.
In his youth, Burton bragged that he would one day be a great classical actor, ready to "take on" Laurence Olivier, but there is testimony in this book that suggests he was often afraid he might be a fraud, "untalented and hopeless."
He buried the fears in booze and bluster, claiming the only reason the Queen of England didn't give him a knighthood (as she had Olivier and John Gielgud) was that he lived in Switzerland and refused to pay English taxes.
He could charm, and he could appall. He could recite poetry by the hour (in Welsh, when he was drunk), and his voice was a remarkable instrument. Many directors -- Gielgud, Peter Glenville, Emlyn Williams -- thought he was a brilliant performer, but onstage, he was a bit oratorical for someAmerican tastes. According to Patricia Bosworth, who wrote Montgomery Clift, Clift saw Burton's Hamlet on Broadway and came away saying Burton was "a phony actor." Clift was also cynical about Burton's hugely publicized romance with Elizabeth Taylor. "Richard wants to be famous at any cost," he said.
Jack Brodsky, a publicist who worked on Cleopatra, told Hollis Alpert virtually the same thing. Brodsky described the first day on the set and Burton's posing with Taylor for pictures. Afterward, Brodsky asked for pictures of Burton alone.
"I saw him staring at Elizabeth," Brodsky remembered, "with a strange expression. Something a little envious, a little greedy in his eyes. 'They don't want me,' he said, 'they just want Elizabeth Taylor.' I had the sense that he was struck, at that moment, by the glamour of her stardom, the kind he would have wanted for himself."
Well, he got it, and the money ("I want to be rich, rich, rich," he said) too. The Burtons were conspicuous consumers. They had a yacht, they had a jet, they had a banana plantation and a horse farm and a TV network. Their secretary had a secretary. They had children and animals and, when they traveled, 136 pieces of luggage traveled with them.
She cut his hair, chose his clothes, bought him leatherbound books. But he longed for glory, and that she couldn't give him. The English said he'd sold out for profit, and it was a profit without honor in his own country where they sneer at actors who would rather be rich than play Lear.
Burton made trashy movies, took the money, blamed the public. "I've learned you can't become a great actor nowadays," he told Kenneth Tynan. "It's impossible. You aren't allowed to develop in peace."
A lot of people didn't buy that argument. In 1970 Vincent Canby did a piece called "Whatever Happened to Richard Burton?" "We all talk too easily," he wrote, "about corruption by power and material success, especially as it relates to his career, and the failure of a once promising actor. It may be, however, that this is all that Burton ever could have been, that no one has been corrupted, only remarkably lucky for a lot longer than anyone in his right mind could reasonably hope for."
In 1984, at the age of 58, Richard Burton died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He left most of his estate to his fourth wife. (His fifth, if you count Elizabeth Taylor twice.) The estate came to about $6 million.
If he sold out, at least he sold out big.