Theatre in Wales

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Richard Burton

Actor Theatre Book

Michael Munn , J R Books , December 5, 2009
Actor Theatre Book by Michael Munn “Richard Burton” is a sprightly, readable 246 pages. It ends with a list in full of the acting career, across stage, film and television. Its subtitle is “Prince of Players” and it is written from a position of respect and affection. The author occupies a particular position. He is described as a writer, actor, director, former journalist and Hollywood publicist. He is also the author of twenty-one books on the film industry. The titles include “Hollywood Rogues: the Off-screen Antics of Hollywood's Hellraisers” and “the Hollywood Connection: the Mafia and the Movie Business- the Explosive Story.”

So Michael Munn is not a Humphrey Carpenter. But his crisp book has the advantage of personal testimony. It is probable that his last role of publicist brought him much incidental material. His list of interviewees is formidable. Fifty-eight in all the roster of names speak for itself: Caine, Coward, Eastwood, Gielgud, Guinness, Hordern, Huston, Manciewicz, Ure. At the end: “Most important of all is Richard Burton who I knew between 1969 and 1984.”

Munn certainly knew his subject. He also inserts himself frequently into his book. His opening line distinguishes that he did not know Burton as a close friend but as a good friend. He is at pains to stress friendship on other occasions. Ava Gardner is also claimed as a friend. He first saw Burton at age sixteen and he was on the set of “Anne of a Thousand Days.” Munn played a policeman as an extra in “Villain” and was an extra in the sorry remake of “Brief Encounter.”

His final page recounts the last time they met. “How are you for cash?” Burton asked him. He always did this and this time handed him a stash of notes. When Munn stepped outside the studio he found they came to £500. The relationship certainly was true and many paragraphs begin “Rich told me..” He is often in the company of his most regular source, and frequent reference, Brook Williams, son of Emlyn.

Munn knows cinema and he is generous in appreciation of the film roles. If he is blisteringly honest about “the Klansman” he applauds “Beckett”, “the Sandpiper”, “the Night of the Iguana” and even “Cleopatra.” The six hour version is a piece of cinema restoration that, if accomplished, will reveal it in its true fullness. He cites the best film critics, Judith Crist and Pauline Kael, economically but always fairly. His is not the view of the uncritical fan. There is an irony in his description of “the Spy Who Came in from the Cold”. Burton was unhappy with the whole approach of director Martin Ritt in what is usually regarded as his most durable film.

The historical aides of interest are numerous. Philip Burton had another protegé in Owen Jones. Jones won a scholarship to RADA and played Shakespeare at the Old Vic. He died in 1943 in service in the RAF. Munn's description of Burton and the Jenkins-to-be-Burton has a tabloid directness to it. “They seemed an unlikely pair. Philip was always very clean and tidy, and Richard was always a mess, with socks that stank of sweat.”

Philip Burton propelled the young actor to Oxford. Munn quotes Nevill Coghill's student record card “This boy is a genius and will be a great actor.” It would not be written this way today but it continues “He is outstandingly handsome and robust, very masculine and with deep inward fire, and extremely reserved.” The last is a surprise after various tales of youthful escapades.

Munn did not see the early theatre performances. He cites Kenneth Tynan on Burton's Prince Hal to Anthony Quayle's Falstaff: “Burton is still a brimming pool, running disturbingly deep; at twenty-five he commands a repose and can make silence garrulous.” Tynan is enrolled again when Burton played Henry as monarch. The role won him the Evening Standard Best Actor award in January 1956. Tynan wrote “within this actor there is always something reserved, a rooted solitude which his Welsh blood tinges with mystery. Inside those limits he is master.”

In the film industry women feature heavily. Munn is with Burton and Brook Williams in 1978. An affair with Marilyn Monroe is his enquiry. “How the bloody hell did you know about that?” asks Burton followed by “Bloody Ava Gardner! She always knows too much.” Then follows a page of quotation which, if its transcription is accurate, means that a tape recorder must have been present. The friend-reporter role is ambiguous.

The tales from Hollywood make a contrast with the book-lined quiet house in Celigny. Munn reports that Burton had no interest in visual art. In Las Vegas Burton incites Sinatra with mention of some of his friends. But it is counter-posed with an observation from John Huston “there's a kind of spirituality in Richard that is flawed.” Burton,-“he once told me”, says Munn- said “I'm the best bad priest in the business.”

The most revealing aspect of Munn's book is the degree of pain that Burton suffered. It is known that in late life he had to undergo a perilous operation for a spine coated in crystals of alcohol. The alcohol had a cause. It had started, Munn says, when a prank of a laced drink caused the student Burton to fall down a staircase. The event was the cause on and off of pain for the rest of his life and Munn records later effects on stage and film sets.

But this physical pain was corollary to a mental equivalent. His daughter Jessica and the accident that happened to his adored brother Ifor were cause for mental anguish. But Munn takes it a step further. He recounts a car drive- “I was working for Warner Brothers at the time”- after a pub lunch together in Hampshire. Burton asks him to pull over and suffers a kind of seizure. “I sat there cradling him, not knowing what to do.”

Munn extrapolates the scene to Burton admitting a history of attacks. Munn wonders about epilepsy. “Is that what it is, do you think?” says Burton to the twenty-three year old. “I'm too scared to want to know.” Munn says Burton said that he drank for fear of seizures and in the belief that alcohol was a preventative. If the story is genuine it adds an element of fear to an already known life of volatile but haunted brilliance.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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