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Peter Glenville talks about the Burtons

Posted on May 17 2017

Vogue US, September 1 1967

Photographed by Henry Clarke

"Elizabeth is more interested in Richard's career than her own.  Some time ago she said to me in reference to some unfavourable critical comment on the film Cleopatra, "After all, I am just a broad - but Richard is a great actor."

Elizabeth playing gin with Richard

wearing a pink Givenchy caftan

"Richard is ruggedly clannish and is desperately loyal to his family and to Wales.  He invited about fifty of his relatives from Wales to the first night of The Taming of the Shew in London and housed the lot at the Dorchester.  I well remember one of his most Welsh moments.  It was at a dinner party at which the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were the guests of honour.  'We loved you as the Prince of Wales,' said Richard, 'please come back and visit us and see that we love you still.'  Towards the end of the evening Richard and the Duke sang the Welsh national anthem together in what struck me as a very inadequate attempt at harmony."


"For a beautiful woman Elizabeth has hardly any vanity.  She takes for granted the red carpet treatment but is shy of compliments.  Aware of her less favourable physical points, she explains then without false modesty to the director and cameraman.  Having pointed them out, she does not give them further thought.  She expects the technicians to exercise their expertise as she does hers."


Elizabeth wearing a Graziella Fontana caftan


"Elizabeth is bored with her success but Richard is still impressed by his.  Richard is still full of wonder at the magical apparitions that emerge from their mutual Aladdin's lamp, whereas Elizabeth would rather know the market value of the lamp itself.  Both enjoys the quick returns of luxury and possessions in bulk but both are generous.  Richard relishes the image and idea of the astronomical sums that figure on their contracts but Elizabeth likes to possess the goodies that the actual money can buy.  In another age they would have been Robin Hood and Maid Marian.  They would gladly pillage people of property but give open-handedly to the dispossesed."


"Richard really likes acting and Elizabeth likes Richard's acting.  She is charmingly skeptical about her own talents.  She has been a star since the age of sixteen and the glamour of the work has grown thin.  Sometimes she is apt to consider a call to the set as something approaching a personal affront - but always with humour.  On the set, she is the complete professional - expert and intelligent.  She also has a mysterious love affair with the camera so that every detail. every intention in her acting becomes enriched and enlarged when it is projected on the screen."

Maria Burton and Elizabeth

Elizabeth is wearing a pink Graziella Fontana caftan


"They are candid people without artifice or pretension.  They would prefer to be ungracious than to put on airs and graces.  The dramatists they would be at least likely to interpret easily would be those of Restoration theatre.  I they they would be ill at ease in a world of stylish foppery, deviousness, guile, studied wit, and casual promiscuity.  I can imagine them in Sheridan and Goldsmith but not in Wycherly or Congreve."


"When Richard is very tired, he can be quickly angered and sometimes unexpectedly aggressive.  But this fury is skin-deep.  His natural character is kind and courteous.  I have seen him apologize with open-hearted sincerity to a small-part actor to whom he thought he had been rude over drinks the night before.  If, sometimes, he had a devil in him, it is quickly spanked and put to bed."


"The quickest access to the Burtons hearts is through misfortune.  On the film Becket I had an assistant who was visited one day on the set by his wife and child.  The boy had been a cripple since birth, and the doctors had pronounced the damage incurable.  When Elizabeth, as usual, was on the set watching Richard's performance, she noticed the child moving in the background and asked why the youngster was limping.  Quietly and secretly, she made a date with the mother and child in London for the next day.  She took them straight to Oxford.  One of England's finest surgeons subsequently performed an operation of great delicacy on the boy's leg completely curing him.  Elizabeth took care of everything and told no one.  I found this out much later from my assistant."


"Neither of the Burtons are narcissistic.  They really dislike to see themselves on the screen and the never attend rushes in the projection room. They both mind their own business and don't interfere with the work of the director or of the other actors.  However, on the rare occasions when they do express a professional doubt or make a suggestion, it would be very foolish not to listen very carefully to what they have to say.  They both have intuition and, of course, great experience."


"Richard and Elizabeth are as prodigal with their energies as they are with their money.  They sometimes overtax their considerable health and stamina.  They never cosset themselves and largely indulge their very robust appetites for food, drink, late nights, love and argy-bargy.  But that, I think, gives their acting its spontaneity and relaxed immediacy.  There is nothing miserly or calculating about either their personalities or their performances.  Naturally all of this causes occasional moments of exhaustion and consequent impatience with the world and all its inhabitants."


"Richard and Elizabeth are emotional liberals and their net of sympathy is flung wide.  They are both respectful of The Establishment and yet they are born rebels - gypsy style.  Richard is somewhat nonplussed by the fact that the career of one of his much loved brothers is connected with the upholding of the laws of the land."


"The Burtons are confident enough to have no jealousy of the success of other actors.  Indeed they genuinely rejoice in the good performance of their partners and colleagues.  I remember after a long and difficult scene that Richard had performed on horseback with Peter O'Toole on a beach in Becket.  Richard dismounted and strode up towards me.  "Did you ever see such a bloody marvellous acting as that young Master O'Toole came up with? he said as he reached for a beer."


"Both have a wide vocabulary of humour ranging from the coarsely Rabelaisian to the gentlest satire.  Richard has a real love of words and literature and will suddenly quote - and beautifully - Manley Hopkins, Rupert Brooke, Herrick, or Donne.  He has of course considerably widened Elizabeth's cultural horizon.  They genuinely enjoy the same things, the same people, and above all each other.  Naturally some people find this very irritating."


"Aware of their social attraction as stars, they are very negligent of ordinary social observances.  They would willingly stay up all night for a friend in need but would forget even to telephone an excuse to a hostess.  It is difficult for the social set to lionize with them without getting an occasional and nonchalant swipe from the lion's paw."


"Today, when the mention of big star names is apt to bring to mind the pleasures and achievements of the day before yesterday, Elizabeth sails imperviously on - a blazing meteor of 1967.  With or without her Oscars, the world public is prepared to pay money to see her.  There are few stars of whom this could still be said."


"Richard is probably the actor with the greatest range and the finest sensibility devoting his talents largely to the cinema today."


"The Burtons are so sympathetic to people who have had or claim to have had bad luck that I suspect they occasionally extend their generosity to the undeserving. They are soft-hearted enough to be conned but they are big enough not to care."

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