A flame of love never quenched

Sat, Aug 14, 2010, 01:00

The love affair of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – brought back to life by a new book on their relationship – both fascinated and infuriated. Here, actor GABRIEL BYRNEremembers Burton and his role as one half of Hollywood’s most enduring couple

HE WAS the new crowned prince of the British stage, pretender to the throne of the king, Laurence Olivier. A pock-faced, roaring boy possessed of a golden voice and a tender-eyed sexual ferocity. From the beginning his singular talent was recognised. “A young Welsh boy shines out with greatness and brings to the stage with him the stillness of a cathedral,” wrote the critic Kenneth Tynan.

Richard Jenkins was born in 1925 in Wales, the son of a miner. He was six when his mother died. He sold sacks of coal from house to house at the age of 10 and meanwhile, with stones in his mouth to strengthen the tongue muscles, he shouted and whispered Shakespeare and Yeats into the wind on a hill, and dreamed of worlds beyond the lulled and huddled town of Pontrhydyfen. Worlds beyond the mines and the lungrot and foreshortened days, the hymning of the chapels, the morbid conviviality of the pubs.

He was encouraged by a teacher, Philip Burton, by whom he was adopted and whose name he took.

He left soon after, in a third class carriage to join the Royal Air Force (the war had come), then Oxford, and later the Old Vic Theater. He returned a film star in a red sports car earning more in a week than his father did in his life. He was cock of the walk, young and easy, lauded and honoured, a prince of the apple towns. Drink flowed, in those sky blue days, and he wooed whomever he would with his wicked eye, and all the girls fell “nine pins down”, in the words of Dylan Thomas.

There was rugby, and drink and Hamlet and Winston Churchill, who came back stage at interval. “May I use your lavatory, my Lord Hamlet?” growled the old bulldog. But even then, Burton was beginning to question who he was.

He showed me once a poem he’d written in those days – with an apology: “It’s adolescent doggerel,” he said.

Who is he who watches

From within the mirror there

Is it myself or is it him

That other me?

Fame he knew, didn’t change who you fundamentally are, it changes others, but he often spoke of the actor’s conflicted sense of self. Burton’s journey was always the seeking of a return to self. A self increasingly mirrored by others in a fractured reality on stage and on the street. Once, Alec Guinness was asked how one plays a king. “Oh my dear, you don’t. Everyone else does.” Fame, he felt, is a sweet poison one drinks of first in eager sips, then in needful gulps. Then came the loathing of it and the profound ambivalence of its waning.

For Burton, it brought with it an unsettling sense of mortality. It became as necessary as air, but it could never be grasped and he felt like a man attempting to empty the ocean with a fork; its beginning, like everything, was its end.

Despite the crowds, the acclaim, Burton was a solitary mister. Ostensibly gregarious, one sensed a profound loneliness and in the later years, prematurely enfeebled, the eyes became haunted by pain both physical and emotional, though to the end, the gentleness and tenderness of spirit remained. He felt the world was too much with him, getting and spending, as Wordsworth wrote, that this immense fame had laid waste his powers.

Drink brought surcease, made sense of conflict, for the moment. And it brought forth torrents of words, Shakespeare, Dryden, Chaucer, Dylan Thomas, and his own. And he flung them around like a drunken sailor. The sound of words soothed him, because sometimes he knew the sound makes its own sense. Its own music. And sometimes, for the moment, that was enough. Inevitably, acting became a drudgery. What he really wanted to be was a writer, a writer like Dylan Thomas his hero, in his art and sullen craft. Listening to Burton’s stunning definitive rendition of Under Milk Wood, this is how the wish fulfilled poet would sound. And this is how Burton, the wish fulfilled actor, would write. They were echoes of each other.

RICHARD BURTON BELIEVEDin fate – one of his favorite novels was Appointment in Samarraby John O’Hara. And on June 17th, 1962, he met his fate, the love of his lifetime, Elizabeth Taylor, a former child star, who, at eight years old, had told Louis B Mayer to go to hell. And now at 29, a divorced, widowed and then-married film star. She was possessed of an eerie preternatural beauty. The film was Cleopatra.

“You are my destiny,” he writes, in one of the many passionate and lyrical letters quoted in Furious Love, this excellent biography by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. All his life, all her life, he felt, had led them to this moment – on a set, in Rome, when he, trembling in hangover, lifted a glass of water to his mouth. Her impression of him until then was of a vain, arrogant, cocksman full of drunken rodomontade, too sure of his talent, who’d told a friend: “I must don my armour once more to play opposite Ms Tits.”

“You’re too fat,” was his opening line, “but has anybody ever told you you’re a very pretty girl?” And she gave him the cold fisheye. Yet in that moment he seemed so vulnerable, quivering with grog blossoms of drink all over his face. She helped him lift the water to his mouth and she also fell nine pins down. Lust became infatuation, which became love. The words they spoke as Anthony and Cleopatra became theirs: “Without you this is not a world I want to live in,” and he answers, “Everything that I want to love or hold or have or be is here with me now”.

Both married, their love affair became world headlines, condemned by the Vatican, an illicit passion, which enraptured a scandalised and voyeuristic public. “We live in a blaze of floodlights all day long. Paparazzi falling out of trees, dressed as priests. We weren’t safe in the bloody toilet.”

They were as famous as the Kennedys, their lives a tabloid frenzy, envied and despised in equal measure. They were judged as gaudy, excessive (the yachts, the diamonds, the houses, the entourage), wasteful, foolish and vain glorious. But in the still moments of their lives together, there was the guilt and pain of broken marriages, children’s hurt, her suicide attempts and – always – the drink, its euphoria and merciless aftermath with all the demons that beset them in their golden cage.

The public’s need to create a latter day Cathy and Heathcliff, to mythologise their story (he was reading the novel in Vienna and thought the cruel and romantic Heathcliff a product of Emily Brontë’s repressed sexual fantasies and Cathy the idealised feminine self). Burton and Taylor’s own story fed on our yearnings and longing for a doubtful notion of romantic love. They came together. They fought. They loved. They left each other. To love is to suffer; they were haunted by each other always. They found safe harbour together and sustained in their capsized world a love we both envied and identified with.

And she toned the somewhat flamboyant acting style he brought from the theatre. She does nothing, on camera, he wondered; yet the rushes revealed she did everything. She taught him that in stillness before the camera is revelation.

But he was happiest reading, writing and talking.

He was the best-read actor I’ve ever met and he could talk for Wales. The Irish, said Oscar Wilde, are the greatest talkers since the Greeks, and we joked that the Welsh were really Irishmen who couldn’t swim.

Long after acting had lost its allure for him, I attended a small dinner in Vienna. Present were the great knights of the English theatre. Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Laurence Olivier. Richard who until then had sworn off drink, now sat in the presence of the man who’d once famously asked him if he wished to be a great actor or a star. Both, he had replied.

Haunted by the idea that he had betrayed his legacy as the most important stage actor of his time, obsessed with the legend of Faust, he feared he had sold his soul.

“Well, Larry,” he slurred, “look where we ended. You doing Polaroid commercials and me a tabloid caricature.”

But he was a magnificent man in her words, a kind gentle, generous, funny, gifted man. I don’t know if he ever found that man in the mirror he’d written about all those years ago.

Just once, I met her and fell like everyone else into those blue-grey, sometimes violet eyes, but what she spoke of was him. And how, long after they parted, she’d walked on to the stage where he was giving a public reading and whispered “I love you” in Welsh. Yes, time held him green and dying, but Richard Burton for sure sang passionately in his chains, like the sea.

I like to believe that in the last days, the restless spirit found contentment, that he was becalmed. And she has the memory of their love and the knowledge that they had never really stopped loving each other.

Love turned upside down is love for all that.

Once, we waited to film a scene in Budapest. An unseasonal snow dusted the echoing street. “Do you know the word Hyraeth? It’s Welsh for homesickness.”

A lovely word. To be sick for home. I like to imagine he was not just speaking of Wales, but of her.

Now retired, Elizabeth Taylor was knighted in 2003 for her contribution to film. Dame Elizabeth lives in Los Angeles and is one of the worlds foremost Aids activists.

Richard Burton was nominated for seven Academy Awards but never won. He had married again, in 1983, but on August 5th 1984, he passed away suddenly in his sleep. He was 58 years old.

He is buried in the village of Celigny, Switzerland.


Gabriel Byrne has starred in more than 40 films. In 2009 he won the Golden Globe for his performance in HBO’s In Treatment. In March of this year, he was appointed Irelands first cultural ambassador.

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century(JR Books Ltd, £20)