The Richard Burton Diaries is a thick 704 pages, but it is the encompassing look at the famous actor in his own words. The book itself is a diary filled with stories of Burton’s everyday life, his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, and the minutiae of his existence. The minute details do make the book drag as there’s only so many times you can read the same things happening over and over, but it does give a fantastic look into the mind of a complex actor.
The Richard Burton Diaries follow Burton’s life from his childhood till his death. There’s dispute about whether these diaries were ever meant to be published, and it’s evident that Burton wasn’t keen on keeping a diary to write a book about himself. Several passages are single sentences detailing names or activities which can make certain sections feel long and boring. Thankfully, editor Chris Williams knows when to interject necessary details to keep the cobbled narrative engaging. The introduction is a fascinating overview of Burton’s life; itself a mini biography of the acting legend. Williams sums up Burton eloquently by stating “All too often he appears as a caricature: brawling, drinking, womanizing, throwing his talent away in an orgy of self-destruction” (18). I wonder if Williams watched Lifetime’s Liz & Dick?
As a diary the book doesn’t have anything particularly scandalous in it. In fact, his diary was open to prying eyes as evidenced by various notations written in it by Burton’s brothers and, most prominently, Elizabeth Taylor herself. The segments where Taylor writes say much about her as she discusses her day lounging and buying expensive purchases. Certain segments have Burton writing just to please her; telling her she’s beautiful because he knows she’ll read it later. The segments from their marriage do feel like a co-writing project at times. Their relationship is tempestuous and filled with arguments that Burton either accepts fault with or mentions not understanding the cause of. When Taylor undergoes several medical procedures Burton acknowledges his inability to cope and resorting to drinking. Throughout it all there’s no denying the love between these two. Several years into their marriage, and even beyond that, there’s mention of Taylor and how lovely she is. The sexual passion between the two jumps off the page for the reader. You also can tell Burton loved his children as there’s extensive entries on their lives, their dreams, and how amazing he believes they are. No matter what, Burton comes off as a loving man despite his faults.
There are moments that do feel repetitious and can make this book hard to get through. The early segments of Burton’s life are short, but painfully dull detailing the day’s events of school and sports. These early sections detail a boy determined to do well in school, and included are his numerous ways he tries to make money for his family like delivering newspapers and selling blackberries. When WWII arises young Burton details the air raids and attacks on his town that are frightening for a young man. Be prepared to go to the footnotes a lot for these early sections as much of the names and British phrases can become confusing.
In his later life, Burton starts to feel bored with acting and goes on lengthy diatribes about his disgust with fans and their need to gape and ask for autographs. It’s hard to stay connected to the man at this point considering his fans are part of what made him as an enduring legend. It always irritates me to read autobiographies or other quotes from stars about disliking their fans. It never appears to be less than ungrateful. He briefly mentions his ex-wife Sybil a few times, mentioning how she’s cold to him and he doesn’t understand why (really Richard?). The book does include a few anecdotes about famous friends. When Montgomery Clift died, Burton mentions how Roddy McDowall had to tell everyone about how he died; according to Burton this was all for attention. He does mention how Taylor received Clift’s handkerchiefs and Burton got his soap after Clift’s death. Burton also goes on about actor Rex Harrison and his wife Rachel who seem to make the Burton/Taylor relationship look tame.
The Richard Burton Diaries won’t be the must-read book for fans who want salacious stories or an engaging narrative. It ultimately shows how normal Burton’s life was despite living in exotic locales and possessing such wealth. It’s an intriguing read, but there’s a lot of sections that can be skimmed easily.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.