Richard Burton as Mark Antony in "Cleopatra"
Richard Burton had three careers, if not four or five, as a movie star. He started out in the British film industry in the late 1940s as a juvenile lead, before going to Hollywood to co-star with Olivia DeHavilland in My Cousin Rachel (1952), for which he received his first of seven Oscar nominations.
Burton made a big splash in the Hollywood of the early '50s, partying with Humphrey Bogart and his Rat Pack. In 1953, he lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Anthony Quinn, but that year he starred in the blockbuster The Robe (1953), the first American film shot in CinemaScope. He won a Best Actor nomination for his role as the Roman centurion who converts to Christianity. (Up against Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, he lost to William Holden, a popular box office star well-liked in Hollywood.)
It seemed that Richard Burton had arrived as a movie star of the first rank. He had signed a seven-year contract at 20th Century-Fox that would eventually bring him his first million dollars, a considerable sum in the 1950s. However, he failed to "click" as a star. None of his subsequent movies were hits.
By the end of his Fox contract at the end of the decade, Burton was a middling lead in Hollywood and his native Britain. The rap on him was that he was a great actor, but it didn't come across on screen. Cleopatra, and Elizabeth Taylor, would change that in the 1960s.
New Decade, New Career
When Richard Burton accepted the role of Mark Antony in Cleopatra, he was dismissive, saying he had to go to Rome (where the movie was being shot) to "Strap on my breastplate to play opposite Miss Tits." Miss Tits would become the second Mrs. Richard Burton.
Cleopatra (1963) was the most expensive movie ever made. Even though the notoriety of the Burton-Taylor romance and Taylor's Top Ten Box Office stardom meant the picture made lots of money, it could not recoup its costs. Cleopatra nearly bankrupted 20th Century-Fox.
While Cleopatra nearly destroyed the movie studio that produced it, it made Elizabeth Taylor a couple of million dollars and generated a media sensation. Taylor and Burton emerged as the most famous couple in the world, when both she and her co-star shed their respective spouses and married in 1964.
The notoriety from the scandal surrounding their affair (Taylor actually was denounced in the U.S. Congress as an adulteress) did not hamper their careers, as it would have just a few years before. (Ingrid Bergman, who also was denounced as an adulteress in Congress for her adulterous affair with Italian movie director Roberto Rosselini, was exiled from Hollywood for half-a-decade.) Instead, in the new decade, their adulterous affair made them the most famous couple in the world. Liz and Dick were the first modern celebrities.
Elizabeth Taylor had been a top box office draws, the first actress to make $1 million for a film (Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, was paid just $100,000 a film), and her success mojo rubbed off on Richard Burton. He won back-to-back Best Actor Oscar nominations in 1965 and 1966 for Beckett and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
Burton had been the favorite to take home the Academy Award for Spy, but lost out to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou, one of the great upsets of Oscar history.
Richard Burton in the mid-1960s made the list of the Top 10 Box office stars, and his salary soon soared to the level of Marlon Brando and Paul Newman: $750,000 per film, against a percentage of the gross. He had made it. He finally was a super star. He had "come off" on film."
The third phase of his career had proven to be a great success.
Peak and Decline
In 1966, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf was a watershed picture, breaking down the Hollywood Production Code that had prohibited foul language and prurient behavior to be put up on an American cinema screen. A huge hit, Woolf proved to be the apex of both Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s careers.
Burton and Taylor both were nominated for Academy Awards, his fifth nomination. However, he lost to his erstwhile stage rival, Paul Scofield (they had headlined together at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon in the early '50s), who was memorable in A Man for All Seasons. Liz Taylor won her second Oscar.
They would never be so popular again. Though they racked up major earnings from their up-front deals, per diems and perentages in the range of half-a-billion 2009 dollars during the 10 years they were together, Taylor’s career immediately went into decline after Woolf.
By contrast, Richard Burton, in the late 1960s had two more arrows in his quiver that hit the bull's eye, both released in 1969: Where Eagles Dare was a huge box office hit that made Burton a sizable amount of money due to his percentage deal. He had scored one as a movie star with Eagles, and would score one for art with his portrayal of King Henry VIII in Anne of a Thousand Days.
Anne brought Burton his sixth and penultimate Oscar nomination, his fifth as Best Actor. He lost the Academy Award to the old Hollywood warhorse John Wayne, who still ranks as the greatest box office draw in history. After the Academy Awards ceremony, The Duke thrust his Oscar in Burton’s hands and told him he was the one who should be walking home with the iron that night.
In the new decade of the Seventies, Richard Burton appeared in five flops in a row, and his status as a superstar was over. Due to his talent and notoriety, Burton was still able to command a salary in the range of three-quarters-of-a-million dollars, just as Marlon Brando had been able to up to the end of the 1960s, when flop after flop had destroyed his career until he was resurrected with The Godfather, for which he was paid a humiliating $50,000 plus a percentage he sold back to his studio for $100,000, a horrible business mistake that cost him millions of dollars.
However, unlike Marlon Brando, who became the highest paid star of the 1970s, Richard Burton never had a second go-round as a Top 10 box office star. Brando appeared in the Top Ten in 1972 and 1973, as The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris were huge box office hits. Brando was able to command a salary of $3.7 million against 13% of the gross of Superman for two weeks work, a deal that made him $14 million (approximately $40 million in 2009 dollars).
After Where Eagles Dare in 1969, Richard Burton never appeared in another hit movie.
Star Descending a Staircase
According to Melvyn Bragg's 1988 biography Richard Burton: A Life, the movie Villain (1971) seemingly was the nadir of Richard Burton’s career. (Marlon Brando’s nadir was reached in 1968, with The Night of the Following Day.) It brought to an end the third phase of his career, and ushered in the fourth: A time of downward spiral when he really reached the bottom of the proverbial barrel, with The Klansman.
Villain was a terrible flop and helped erode Burton's status as a box office star. Ironically, Burton was mentioned in James Barlow's 1968 novel, The Burden Of Proof, which the film was based on. In the book, the prosecutor asks a female witnesses if she "likes the actor Richard Burton".
The movie received egregious reviews, and Burton -- whose acting style was predicated upon the precise use of his mellifluous voice -- was particularly savaged for his attempt at a Cockney accent. British critics wondered what Burton, who had toiled in A-list movies for the past two decades, was doing in such a potboiler, a film that was little better than an exploitation picture, in their eyes.
From 1965 through 1970, Burton had been nominated for an Academy Award four times, and his 1969 action picture Where Eagles Dare, he had been a huge smash at the box office. In the 1960s, he had been on the charts of the Top 10 Box Office Stars in North America, a rare honor for a Brit, shared only by Sean Connery and Julie Andrews.
British critics could not understand why he was "slumming it" in Villain. The movie wasn’t even released in the United States. He apparently was just making movies for the money.
Two years before Villain, Burton had played a homosexual hairdresser in the comedy Staircase, which had proved a huge bust at the boss office despite the talents of co-star Rex Harrison (an Academy Award winner) and director Stanley Donen (later the recipient of an honorary Oscar).
A gay love scene between Burton and co-star Ian MacShane was cut from Villain, possibly as it was felt it wouldn't boost ticket sales, as cinema audiences already had not accepted Burton, one of the cinema's most notorious Don Juans, as a homosexual.
Any thought that this was the true nadir of his career was dispelled by his appearance in the 1974 Ku Klux Klan meller The Klansman, in which he appeared with Oscar-winner Lee Marvin (who had beaten Burton out for the iron in ’66 and remained in the Top Ten Box Office Stars into the early '70s) plus O.J. Simpson, then known as an American football legend.
During the shooting in rural northern California, the alcoholic Burton was close to death, and made a public spectacle of himself in frpnt of the press. His antics culiminated with giving an engagement ring to a young waitress, though he was still very married to Elizabeth Taylor. He had to be hospitalized, and his marriage to Taylor soon came to an end. For the first time. They subsequently remarried and soon divorced again.
After drying out, Richard Burton stumbled on until he won kudos and his seventh (and last Oscar nomination) for Equus. He followed this up with the egregious Medusa Touch, a terrible potboiler in release during the Academy Awards season. It likely cost him the Oscar.
Burton never again had a lead role of the first rank. The fifth phase of his career involved in taking highly paid parts in various movies shot over the world. He might have started a new career with his fine turn, in the supporting part of O’Brien, in 1984, had he not died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 58 years old.