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Toward a radical middle

a time for fear
Friday, July 11, 2003  
Richey # 1

Glad that Mark @ k-punk picked up the Burton baton - my grandparents would've enjoyed this discussion because they both loved Burton, he was a big favourite. Among a whole galaxy of stars: Barry John, Gerald Davis, JPR Williams, Merv the Swerve, Dylan Thomas, Shirley Bassy, Frank Sinatra, Tony Hancock, Bilko, Tommy Cooper, John McEnroe, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracey, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. My grandparents had excellent taste. My mum went to Pontrhydyfen to see Elizabeth Taylor arrive at Burton's sister's house the day before his funeral, and she has a Polaroid of Liz outside a red-brick Welsh terrace row in a bright pink frock, looking really pretty and really silly. Apparently Burton used to take Taylor down the Minor's Arms in Pontrhydyfen for boozing sessions with the locals, although possibly not in outfits like that.

Of all his contemporaries Burton has something that really endures beyond the rest: serpentine Richard Harris is too slithery and unsympathetic, Oliver Reed is too boorish and bloated (but hilarious), Terence Stamp is too prissy and precious, Peter O'Toole is too kitsch and hysterical (and never really recovered from Noel Coward calling him "Florence of Arabia"), Michael Caine got the best films (Get Carter, Zulu - although Burton's in that too, the Welsh connection I guess, South Wales Borderers fought in that battle, Caine is fantastic in it because he's so camp), but ultimately he's too transparent, self-regarding and insubstantial. And don't start me on what followed: Anthony Hopkins and Richard Attenborough. (David Attenborough, on the other hand, do start me on: a man of brilliance, and much substance, and he can act better than his brother, he can act all nonchalant and English when a tiger is ripping his tent apart, and that I admire.)

So what is it? Maybe it's guilt: he had this big guilt complex about drinking and womanising, and about leaving his first wife and their retarded child for Taylor. Maybe it's the sense of loss: he lost his mother who died early, and then lost his father to drift and drinking. Maybe the lack of security, solidity, one home to stay in: he was always drifting between houses and family members, then between Port Talbot and Pontrhydyfen, then between countries (he yearned for home: think of the similarity between South Wales valleys and Switzerland, his eventual home (no, seriously), even Taylor looks like a Welsh girl: dark, petite, prone to puppy-fat, violently pretty eyes) etc. Maybe he was ashamed: he used to say in interviews that he didn't feel proud of being an actor, that all he did was dress up and prance around in make-up and fancy dress, and that what he really wanted was to get a cap playing rugby for Wales.

Who knows what it is? History and biography dissolve on screen, in role. Roles are transformed and transcended by great stars, and great stars let a role transform them and transcend them. With great movie actors and actresses a performative essence is often distiled in and transmitted through the eyes: tempest swirls in the iris, or eyelids flashing, or falling, unbearable sadness contracting in the pupil, or bright joy bursting through the cornea. Garbo's eyes look away and onto some intense, brooding horizon of purples, dark blues and pitch blacks, cold Scandinavian passion: longing and tragedy that is never redressed or expressed. A glacial gaze that cannot be broken, penetrated, or returned. Burton has the eyes of a hounded dog, beautiful eyes assaulted by shame, indignity, fear, contempt; they appeal for mercy or supplication, and when they don't get it, or when they do and don't want it, the shadows form again, the squint sets, cavernous crinckles form, the gaze hits the floor, or the wall behind you, or a door to the side. Burton's eyes want to escape something, everything...his eyes distil hate and fear, of what surrounds him, but most poignantly of himself. It's like he can barely bring himself to look at the outside world, but he can't bring himself to look inside either. Eyes caught in a trap, torn both ways, struck with an existential, pitiable terror that somehow bestows an incredible sense of dignity. And from the eyes this secret screen language spreads across the body: the walk, the poise and posture, vocal ticks and traits, chemistry and erotic charisma. This is something accidental, natural, a bundle of characteristics that fall together in some disorder, and find order in exaggeration on the movie screen, the body organ-ising itself on film as it disrupts and configures a role to its own specifications and desires. Think of Garbo's masculine glide, or Burton's handsome and haggard hunch. Or Garbo's deep, mysterious, absurd Swedish accent, both tragic and comic ("I tank I go home now"), and Burton's rich, melodious voice, full of poetic intonations, majestic control of music and metre, but elocution barely keeping a South Wales accent at bay, Shakespearian grandeur edged with Welsh lilt and sway.

It's funny that I keep putting Garbo and Burton together all the time, they aren't really connected at all. They met once, a meeting Burton recalled like this: While attending a party at which one of the guests was Garbo, I curiously asked her, 'Could you do me a great favour? May I kiss your knee?' She replied, 'Certainly,' and I leaned over and did so. It was an experience I'll never forget." They have some similarities: Garbo came from a poor peasant background in Sweden, Burton from a poor mining background in Wales, so cultural displacement and Hollywood alienation were common experiences for both of them. Also, Garbo and Burton weren't in very good films: their greatness relies on an inate ability to bring something else, some mercurial property, some pervasive aura, to any number of studio vehicles and follies. They both had that very rare ability to make almost any film good just by being in it, a quality that has little to do with acting, and everything to do with charisma, instinct, and chance.

12:45 AM

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