Richard Burton (1925-1984) b. Pontrhydfen, Wales.
Burton’s career is rather too conveniently divided into periods: Before and After Cleopatra. Before Cleopatra (1963) he is characterised as an actor of great power and passion; after, he is merely a celebrity. The fact that the fall turns around a woman – and not only a woman, but Elizabeth Taylor – and around an abandon of theatrical integrity in favour of Hollywood stardom, strengthens the suspicion that Burton may be the most mythologised of British actors.
Certainly, his stage career in the 1940s and 1950s suggests a potential never fully realised. But his cinema career was always uneven and much of the best was saved to the last. He was suitably heroic in a number of Hollywood epics, notably The Robe (1953) and Alexander the Great (1956); he was miscast in Look Back in Anger (1959) in an attempt to bring some of his acquired Hollywood glamour to the kitchen sink’; while Nicholas Ray in Amere victoire/Bitter Victory (1957) perhaps recognised a kindred spirit in Burton’s characteristic blend of insolence, sensitivity and sadness.
After the fall, he produced some of his best cinematic performances in roles that were far removed from the heroism of his youth – the disillusioned, self destructive and weary cynicism of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, (1966), The Night of the Iguana (1964) and The Comedians (1967). He played the aging Trotsky in Joseph Losey‘s The Assassination of Trotsky (1972) and in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and, poignantly, in his last film, Mike Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), completed just before his death, he exposed some of the more fragile qualities, which the strength of his famous theatrical voice had often concealed.