Documentary Review, 'In from the Cold? The World of Richard Burton'

By: 
Ben Miles

Recording artist Loretta Lynn, the country music icon, had a motion picture made based on her life. It was titled “A Coal Miner’s Daughter.” The famed actor Richard Burton’s biography could be called “A Coal Miner’s Son.” Because as Tony Palmer’s 1988 documentary makes evident, the early circumstances of Burton’s life were as challenging as Ms. Lynn’s.

Furthermore, Burton’s father was a coal miner whose family resided in Wales. Richard was the twelfth of thirteen children born to the Welsh-speaking family of Richard Walter Jenkins Sr. and Edith Maude Jenkins, who died when Richard was two-years old; his mother succumbed to postpartum infections shortly after the birth of the family’s 13th child.

Richard was later taken in under the guardianship of schoolmaster and vocal coach Philip Burton, taking his surname, a name that rose to international fame as Richard Burton, a gifted stage and film actor whose acclaim and admiration as a thespian is rivaled only by his reputation as a hard drinking womanizer – he was married five times, twice in a row to violet-eyed screen legend Elizabeth Taylor.

But was Burton a great actor? Yes. With a mellifluous baritone voice, which he helped develop by screaming at the hilltops for long periods of each day of his life as a young actor in training. But is he in the pantheon of performers such as Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, his fellow Welch-man Albert Finley and John Gielgud? Indeed, Gielgud directed Burton in the well noted Broadway production of “Hamlet,” a role for which Burton was nominated for a Tony Award.

Perhaps Burton’s reputation as an actor has been tarnished due do the enmity he seemed to provoke in so many people, including fellow performers and tabloid writers. Famed actor Lauren Becall, interviewed for the film, expresses mild contempt for Burton, reducing him to little more than a self-centered and audacious flirt.

Director Mike Nichols, who directed Burton and Taylor in “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf,” the film version of Edward Albee’s excruciating play examining a dysfunctional marriage, offered a more compassionate and philosophical perspective. In this documentary, he conjectured that Burton was not able to distinguish between “seeming and being,” a challenge that many a performer has had to confront.

In this informative life story, we come to know that Burton had little formal training as an actor, but learned primarily through the doing – doing what is tantamount to an apprenticeship as a Royal Air Force (RAF) cadet while attending Oxford University’s Exeter college on a six-month scholarship while preparing to be an RAF pilot. Ultimately his poor vision did not permit success as a pilot and he was soon relegated to navigator training.

Nevertheless, Burton used his time at the Oxford College to make his mark as an actor. And, he did make an impression, where he caught the attention of London’s West End theater luminaries, including John Gielgud, who suggested that Burton contact him after his service in the RAF was complete.

Later, after a litany of small film roles and praised stage performances, Burton did go on to make the role of “Hamlet” his own on the Broadway stage, under the direction of Sir John Gielgud. According to fellow actor Alfred Drake, who played king Claudius in opposite Mr. Burton’s “Hamlet,” “He (Burton) had a theory that Hamlet could be played a hundred ways and he tested every one of them…”

So yes, Richard Burton is considered to be by many measures – award nominations and the accolades of fellow performers – to be among the greatest and most skilled actors of the English-speaking world. But his self-destructive inclinations, from chain smoking, to alcoholism, to addiction to pain prescriptions have left a dent in his reputation, which still lingers long after his death in 1984 at the age of 58.

“In from the Cold? The World of Richard Burton” is currently streaming on Amazon + and is one hour and 55 minutes of engrossing information about an accomplished and controversial figure of the 20th Century.

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