Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hello, Mr. Burton: Becket & Anne of the Thousand Days

I have a lot of favorite actors (Paul Newman, Stewart Granger, Cary Grant, to name a few), and they all seem to have one common characteristic that drives them to me – their wonderful voices. I could listen to them talk all day long and never get tired of it. One very strong member of that amazingly-voiced-actors club is Richard Burton. So yummy...even if he was a drunk. So, today I thought I’d talk about two of my favorite films of his, the two films that brought him to my attention in the first place – “Becket” (1964) and “Anne of the Thousand Days” (1969).

Both of these films I first saw way back in grade school (way, way back). It’s actually funny how many classic films and actors I was introduced to, not through my own accord or a family or friend, but through the Texas public school system. And considering both these films may not be that historically accurate…yea to public education! But they are still so enjoyable to watch, even for my 10-year-old self, and shouldn’t be missed.

First up is “Becket” starring Burton and good friend Peter O’Toole (another great voice). It tells the story of the friendship, and then eventual betrayal, between King Henry II (O’Toole) and Thomas Becket (Burton). This film was actually how the two stars met, but they found a kindred spirit in each…or should I say spirits. They bonded mainly after work, drinking until dawn. The two did try to stay sober for the film, but it only lasted a week before finally they showed up to work plastered. They were filming the scene where Henry appoints Becket as England’s new Lord Chancellor. Luckily, there was little dialogue but O’Toole did have to put a ring on Burton’s finger, who described it as “like trying to thread a needle wearing boxing gloves.”

Burton was a little reluctant to accept the role of Becket at first, for he didn’t think it right to portray a Saint, or at least it wasn’t right that HE portrayed one. But luckily he changed his mind, and it resulted in one of the most intense and underplayed roles of his career. At the time, he had just married Elizabeth Taylor, and she was having a huge influence on him, both in his personal life and his career. He credits her with helping him truly transition between stage acting and screen acting, teaching him that on screen, less is more. She was also the one to get him to take the role of Becket, as well as play Hamlet again in 1964.

“Becket” is based on the play “Becket or the Honour of God” by Jean Anouilh. It appeared on Broadway with Laurence Olivier as Becket and Anthony Quinn as Henry II, and in London’s West End with Eric Porter and Christopher Plummer in the respective roles before it made the leap to the silver screen. O’Toole was originally cast to play Henry in the London production but had to break his contract to start rehearsals for “Lawrence of Arabia.” The film was also a critical darling, earning 10 Oscar nominations, including one for each of its two stars and Best Picture, but lost out to all but one – Best Adapted Screenplay.

“Anne of the Thousand Days” is also based on a play, this one by Maxwell Anderson from 1948. It tells the story of the romance between King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife. Burton had convinced Hal B. Wallis, the producer of “Becket” and many other period films, to purchase the rights to the play. While talking about it prior to filming, however, Elizabeth Taylor started to get excited as well. Finally, at lunch with the gentlemen, Taylor announced that she wanted to play Anne, she had to play Anne. At 37 years old though, she was too old to play the 18 year old heroine. Wallis didn’t know how to tell her this though, so Burton leaned over and said to her, “Sorry, luv. You're too long in the tooth."

Even though Burton did help Wallis with the idea for “Anne,” Burton was  reluctant to do this film. He had been doing period pieces for some many years now that he was getting tired of putting on the costumes and such. As he said, “The unfortunate thing is that everyone wants me to play a prince or a king ... I'm always wearing a nightdress or a short skirt or something odd. I don't want to do them, I don't like them, I hate getting made up for them, I hate my hair being curled in the mornings, I hate tights, I hate boots, I hate everything. I'd like to be in a lounge suit, I'd like to be a sort of Welsh Rex Harrison and do nothing except lounge against a bar with a gin and tonic in my hand.”

He disliked his performance in “Anne” and was extremely surprised that it garnered him another Academy Award nomination (his sixth). His performance is beautiful, though, one not to miss. Extremely powerful, of which Hollywood took note…but not enough. He lost out on the Oscar again, to John Wayne for the original “True Grit.” He would only get one more Oscar nomination in his life, for “Equus” in 1977, only to lose out again, this time to Richard Dreyfuss in “The Goodbye Girl.” He would share the Academy record for most nominations by an actor without a win with his “Becket” costar and drinking buddy O’Toole until 2007 when O’Toole surpassed him with a loss for “Venus.”

Whatever his credits, his lifestyle, his persona, no one can deny he was an amazingly power performer. He was the first of the new Hollywood fame that revels in the spotlight more than the art itself. He even said about himself once, “I rather like my reputation, actually, that of a spoiled genius from the Welsh gutter, a drunk, a womanizer; it's rather an attractive image.” He had the talent though, cherished words like no other, and almost sang ever word with his beautiful deep voice. So watch and listen to an amazing actor this week. “Becket” is an instant streamer on Netflix and “Anne of the Thousand Days” can be found on DVD. Have a wonderful rest of your week, everyone, and I’ll be back next week with more fun trivia.

(Post-tidbit: During “Becket,” Burton and Taylor were madly in love, but by the time “Anne” arrived, Burton’s eyes had started to wander. So when rumor got back to Taylor that Burton and Genevieve Bujold, aka Anne, were possibly getting along a little too well on set, Taylor decided to pay a visit to the set. When Bujold heard of this, she was furious and stated aloud “I'm going to give that bitch an acting lesson she'll never forget!"  She then proceeded to give the power final scene of the film between Anne and Henry.)


  1. Mmm, love him (and his voice) in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

  2. Can we talk about voices?

    Anthony Hopkins