THEATRICAL THROWBACK THURSDAY: A Richard Burton Remembrance
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the death of world renowned stage and screen star Richard Burton and today we celebrate his lasting legacy in honor of the date of his passing.
Good Night, Sweet Prince
"The only thing in life is language. Not love. Not anything else," acclaimed actor Richard Burton once said of his affection for language and its prime importance in his life and work. Accordingly, word became body when looking at his career choices - the astounding assortment of noted playwrights, actors and directors that Burton collaborated with over the course of his accomplished career is simply amazing to behold. William Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to Noel Coward and far beyond, Burton's deep love for language informed many of his most notable performances and undoubtedly shaped his selection of collaborators and co-stars - not the least of which was unquestionably frequent ally Elizabeth Taylor, who would go on to be his wife (more than once) and share in the glory of many of the most memorable words he spoke onstage and onscreen.
Early on, Burton found success in a YMCA production of George Bernard Shaw's classic comedy PYGMALION before eventually making his West End debut in Emlyn Williams's DRUID'S REST in 1944. He soon filmed his first movie shortly thereafter, THE LAST DAYS OF DOLWYN, followed by other screen appearances in British films of the period. He returned to the stage frequently throughout the 1950s and 1960s, appearing alongside acting stalwarts John Gielgud and Claire Bloom in THE LADY'S NOT FOR BURNING as well as made a major mark with his first major Shakespeare role as Prince Hal in the Stratford mounting of HENRY IV, PART 1 in 1951. Additionally, Burton essayed characters in THE TEMPEST, KING JOHN, TWELFTH NIGHT, HENRY V and more. Concurrently, Burton landed his first Hollywood lead in MY COUSIN RACHEL, a virtual unknown intriguingly suggested for the part by the author of the novel upon which the film was based herself, Daphne Du Maurier. Subsequently, Burton received his first Academy Award nomination for the film, as well as won the Golden Globe for Best Newcomer (Male). Blockbuster THE ROBE followed soon after that and Burton looked likely to leave his stage roots behind given his newfound Hollywood success, yet he proceeded to pursue his theatrical career with passionate relish all the same.
Burton claimed the title roles in the Old Vic productions of Shakespeare's HAMLET and CORIOLANUS the same year as THE ROBE, then going on to alternate with John Neville in the roles of Iago and Othello in OTHELLO, as well. It would be his return to HAMLET the next decade on Broadway that would cement him as one of the most well-regarded thespians of the age, but before that he committed unforgettable turns in the music-themed TIME REMEMBERED, for which he received a Tony Award nomination, as well as the Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner and Moss Hart musical smash hit CAMELOT. Nevertheless, HAMLET was the crowning achievement of this period and the production was thankfully preserved on film, as we shall see today.
It was 12 years before the next Richard Burton stage appearance, byway of the daring and daunting EQUUS by Peter Shaffer, which he would also reprise in the Sidney Lumet film. Nonetheless, during the intervening years, Burton managed to virtually create a cinematic equivalent of a theatre career with the film adaptations of a handful of major dramas - John Osborne's LOOK BACK IN ANGER, Jean Anouilh's BECKET, Christopher Marlowe's FAUSTUS, Maxwell Anderson's ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS, Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and two Tennessee Williams movie versions: THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA and BOOM! (the latter from THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE). Plus, Burton re-teamed with Taylor for Noel Coward's PRIVATE LIVES onstage a few years before his death, bringing his theatre-themed career full circle.
Words, words, words - all Burton cared about, apparently, and that love shining through in so many of his moving and incredible performances, many still available to view today. The rest? As HAMLET informs, "The rest is silence."
So, now, let's take a look back at Richard Burton in HAMLET opposite John Gielgud in this classic clip.
What is your personal favorite Richard Burton performance of all? Furthermore, do you think he excelled more onstage or onscreen? Furthermore, who was your favorite match-up for his titanic talent? Clearly, Burton's passion for prose informed so many delectable turns in so many spectacular productions - both onstage and onscreen - as to leave behind a veritable cornucopia of treasures to savor for generations both young and old. "To be or not to be?" Thanks to film, Burton always will be - and be one of the very best.