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‘Richard Burton Diaries’ reveal acting giant nagged by insecurities

Dennis King Published: November 29, 2012

The much-hyped release of Lifetime’s tantalizing biopic “Liz & Dick” brings the carousing, larger-than-life Welsh thespian Richard Burton back into the national spotlight, and some of the resulting public curiosity should rightfully fall to the recently released volume “The Richard Burton Diaries” (Yale University Press, $35).

This handsomely mounted, intelligently annotated collection of Burton’s personal diary entries – ranging from his teen years in 1939 to 1983, the year before his death – paints a revealing and intimate portrait of an artist that many remember mainly for his prodigious drinking, his suave womanizing and his lavish, bedazzling playboy lifestyle.

But from these hand-written pages (deftly edited by Welsh history professor Chris Williams) emerges a thoughtful, highly literate and multi-dimensional man, a man keenly observant but often nagged by monumental insecurity and deep-seeded doubts about the worthiness of his art.

Richard Burton was born Richard Jenkins in 1925 in the tiny village of Ponthydyfen, South Wales. The son of a coal miner, he was the 12th of 13 children who grew up in sooty, grinding poverty. From that humble beginning, he went on to become one of the world’s great Shakespearean actors and enjoyed a screen career highlighted by grand performances in such hits as “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Cleopatra.”

It was on the set of “Cleopatra” in 1963 that Burton fell in love with co-star Elizabeth Taylor and began one of the most sensational, tempestuous and highly publicized periods of his eventful life. The premiere Hollywood couple of the era, they were married between 1964 and 1974, scandalously divorced and remarried in 1974 for another year.

In his diary entries, Burton touches on his relationships with poet and fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas and playwright Edward Albee, as well as fellow Shakespeareans John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier and actresses Claire Bloom and Olivia de Havilland.

In his own words, Burton struggles to reconcile his youthful dreams with his unfulfilled potential. At other times, he boasts of his achievements and aims for grander challenges. In more mundane moments, he ponders his weight, bemoans his epic drinking bouts or worries over the complications of his relationship with Liz.

Offering further insight into Burton’s marriage to the equally iconic Liz are diary notations contributed by Taylor herself, who offers her own candid comments on her husband’s diary observations.

Revealing a starkly different side of the man from the hard-drinking carouser of popular memory, Burton’s diaries are filled with unguarded thoughts and naked emotions that show a fine, flawed but devoted artist in all his imperfect glory.

A typical example is this pained comment from August 1971, at the height of his celebrity, on his acting life: “My lack of interest in my own career, past, present or future, is almost total. All my life I think I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor, and the older I get the more ashamed I get. And I think it resolves itself into a firm belief that the person who’s doing the acting is somebody else.”

- Dennis King