The Richard Burton Diaries edited by Chris Williams; Yale University Press, 704 pages ($35).
It’s Nov. 16, 1966. Richard Burton writes this in his diary about Eddie Fisher, whose marriage to Elizabeth Taylor collapsed when Burton and Taylor starred in Joseph Mankiewicz’s epic bore “Cleopatra.”: “We’ve just heard from the Press that E. Fisher is suing E [Lizabeth] for divorce … I tried to comfort E re Eddie – She is so ashamed of herself for having married such an obvious fool. He really is beneath contempt – a gruesome little man and smug as a boot.”
Here, from 1980, is Burton worrying about a recent conversation he’d had with his “Becket” co-star Peter O’Toole over O’Toole’s being roasted by London critics for his performance in “Macbeth”: “Prayed to God I hadn’t sounded like a false sympathizer secretly rejoicing in his critical debacle. But no, I comforted myself he knows I too have been through the fire and understand. And by God I have too. It’s again inexplicable that a few of us – O’Toole, Sinatra, Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand et. al. carry something sanguicolus and the parasite is called 'press-envy’ –especially in our own countries. Why is it? Because we take risks and run against the conventional.”
How many other working actors, epic drinkers and chronicled jet-setters would have offhandedly used the word “sanguicolus” (living in the blood) in a diary? Here in what is, hands down, one of the great entertainment books of 2012, you’ve got the enthralling results of more than two years of hard labor by editor Chris Williams melding the on-again, off-again diary of his era’s most fascinating failure, a man almost universally lamented by peers for never fulfilling his extraordinary gifts, simultaneously a genuinely poetic intellectual and just as genuine vulgarian.
Burton laments his alcohol consumption, says at least once that he doesn’t even like the stuff and dies before reaching 60, looking very old (he doubted he’d make 30). In 1971, he wrote this:” My lack of interest in my own career, past present or future is almost total. All my life, I think I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor and the older I get the more ashamed I get.” The secret’s out.
– Jeff Simon