This latest biography by Tom Rubython attempts to delve into the life of arguably the most successful Welsh actor of all time. And God Created Burton takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride through history that spans from late nineteenth century Wales, through the golden age of Hollywood, to Richard Burton’s untimely funeral in 1984. It is Rubython’s third major biographical work and follows on from books about the lives of Formula 1 racing drivers Ayrton Senna and James Hunt.
Tackling the life and times of Richard Burton would be no mean feat for any biographer; especially as numerous other works already exist, including the popular Melvyn Bragg version. I was sceptical that the author would be able to find an original take on Burton’s life and feared reading a re-hash of the all-too familiar tales of excessive drinking and his love affair with Elizabeth Taylor.
I was right to be cautious. Of course, you cannot write a book about Richard Burton and not address these points and, to his credit, Rubython’s version is far more detailed in these areas than many other Burton biographies. However, it does seem a shame that more pages are not dedicated the actor’s work in film and theatre. Although he was often accused of ‘selling out’ to Hollywood, Burton enjoyed a long and varied career. Despite the fact that he was no stranger to the occasional ‘turkey’ or ‘dry patch’, his achievements and accolades should not be underestimated. He produced some of the most critically acclaimed performances of all time, won multiple awards and could recite Shakespeare in a manner rarely witnessed since. Thanks to the colourful nature of Burton’s life, Rubython certainly had a wealth of material to draw on, but he has let the more titillating details of the actor’s personal life overshadow what he managed to achieve professionally. Of course, the same could also be said of Burton’s work while he was alive.
All that said, this biography still makes for an addictive read. The actor’s penchant for women and, with devastating consequences, for alcohol is certainly no secret and this book reveals some fascinating anecdotes about both. While working with filmmaker Andrew Sinclair on Under Milk Wood, Burton proclaimed proudly that he would be staying sober until they had completed the film. Sinclair asked him to ‘define sober’, to which Burton replied ‘only one bottle of vodka a day. I am sober on two, but when drinking it’s three or more.’
The alcoholism, combined with his libidinous behaviour, made Burton the epitome of the Hollywood ‘bad boy’. Despite his often dishevelled appearance and lack of self-control, Burton’s charm and good-looks still managed to draw the world’s most beautiful women. His most famous love affairs are here (Taylor, Bloom, Strasberg, etc.) but there are also details about his less famous flings, including a brief liaison with Mary Ure who was married to writer John Osborne at the time. This took place when Burton and Ure were working together on her husband’s new film, Look Back Anger. A tangled web indeed.
At 800-plus pages, this biography is not exactly commuter- or handbag-friendly, but if you’re a Burton fan or just appreciate the intricacies of a remarkable life, then you should find this both a fascinating and absorbing read.
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