Both came from obscure poverty and from the so-called Celtic fringes of the United Kingdom: Tyrone from Ireland, Burton from Wales. Both emerged suddenly and forcefully as actors with the vocal command and physical presence that would allow them to define the great Shakespeare roles for a new generation. Both succumbed to the lures of enormous wealth and inordinate fame. Tyrone’s trap was the endless money to be made from repeating his turn as Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, Burton’s the flood of Hollywood dollars that sprang from the equally long-running melodrama of his partnership with Elizabeth Taylor. For both men, critics developed an almost identical narrative, a secular version of the Garden of Eden. They ate the apple of temptation and were expelled from the paradise of great art.
It is undeniable that there is, with Burton, some kind of void. The easiest way to make sense of him is to imagine that void in the most obvious way, as the great gap of unfulfillment between his fabulous beginnings as an actor and his ultimate destination in bad movies, alcoholism, and death at the age of just fifty-eight. But perhaps the empty space is a more profound darkness. Perhaps the point about Burton is not that he was a great actor who fell into a void. Perhaps the void was always there. Perhaps it was precisely the shadow, the darkness, the empty space around him, that made him such a potent presence.
The performance is riveting because it is self-destructive. It could only be done by a great actor who hates acting. Burton’s acting throughout the speech is physically and vocally stupendous. He barks and yelps and rides the words through vertiginous shifts of pitch and pace. His body twists and spins, now small and hunched, now large and open. Yet all the time he is looking at his own performance with pure derision. He is offering the audience a simultaneous demonstration on the power of heroic acting and commentary on its absurdity. What we see here is not a great actor who subsequently betrayed his art, it is an actor whose greatness is inextricable from his hatred of that art. It is a heart-stopping embodiment of the sentiment that Burton records in his diary: “I loathe loathe loathe acting.”