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Million Dollar Movie

There is a good story by John Le Carre in this week’s New Yorker (subscription required). It’s about the making of his novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The piece centers on the tense relationship between the film’s director, Martin Ritt, a left-wing Jew who’d been blacklisted, and its star, Richard Burton, the larger-than-life Welshman.

Here’s my favorite part:

In one of the few conversations of substance that I had with Burton during our short spree together, he almost boasted of how much he despised the showman in himself; how he wished he had “done a Paul Scofield,” by which he meant eschew the big-screen heroics and the big-screen money and acept only acting parts of real artistic substance. And Ritt would have agree with him wholeheartedly.

But that didn’t let Burton off the hook. To the eye of the puritanical, committed, connubial leftist and activist, Burton came too close to everything Ritt instinctively condemned. In a 1986 interview, he has a line that says it all: “I don’t have a lot of respect for talent. Talent is genetic. It’s a gift. It’s what you do with the gift that counts.” It was bad enough to put profit before art, or sex before family, or flaunt your wealth and your woman, or ostentatiously soak yourself in liquor, or strut that world like a god while the masses cry out for justice. But to waste your talent was a sin against gods and men. And the greater the talent–and Burton’s talents were legion and extraordinary–the greater, in Ritt’s view, the sin.

Love Ritt’s take on talent. But Le Carre doesn’t think Burton was a wasted talent. He concludes the article:

Richard Burton was a literate, serious artist, a self-educated polymath with appetites and flaws that in one way or another we all share. If he was the prisoner of his own weaknesses, the dah of rectifying Welsh puritanism in him was not a hundred miles from Ritt’s. He was irreverent, mischievous, generous-hearted but necessarily manipulative. For the very celebrated, being manipulative goes with the territory. I never knew him in his quieter hours, but I wish I had. He was a superb Alex Leamas, and in a different year his performance might have earned him an Oscar, the prize that eluded him all his life. The film was grim and black-and-white. That wasn’t what we we wearing in 1965.

If either the director of his actor had been less, perhaps the film also would have been less. I suppose that, at the time, I felt more protective of the podgy, stalwart, and embittered Ritt than of the flamboyant and unpredictable Burton. A director carries the whole burden of the film on his back, and that includes the idiosyncrasies of his star. Sometimes I had the feeling that Burton was going out of his way to belittle Ritt, but in the end I guess they were pretty evenly matched. And Ritt surely had the last word. He was a brilliant and impassioned director whose righteous anger could never be stilled.


1 Matt Blankman   ~  Apr 10, 2013 12:40 pm

Haven't had a chance to read the article yet, so I don't want to weigh in really, but LeCarre and Burton are both favorites of mine and Burton is SO good in this film.

However, one has to note that Burton's talent took him out of spending his life in a coal mine. I think the poor and working class British actors who make good have a very different attitude about "selling out" than Americans do.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 10, 2013 12:49 pm

1) Good point about Burton. Le Carre admires both men and notes Burton's self-loathing and also Ritt's bitterness.

Regardless of whether the point fits Burton I agree that talent alone is over-praised. Sometimes I'll hear someone say, "Oh, this guy is so talented" as if that alone is enough. Of course, what someone does with their talent, well, that's a subjective thing, too, I guess.

3 Matt Blankman   ~  Apr 10, 2013 1:11 pm

[2] I don't disagree with that at all. I picked up Burton's diaries and the little I've read has been fascinating. He did sort of think that acting was silly and he really should have been writing, which was the source of some of his self-loathing.
Also, I highly recommend the interviews Dick Cavett did with him in 1980, which are all on youtube.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 10, 2013 1:37 pm

3) Thanks for the tip. I'll check that out. How are the diaries'? I heard they were fascinating.

5 Matt Blankman   ~  Apr 10, 2013 2:00 pm

There's an interview with LeCarre on the Criterion DVD of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and he discusses Burton and Ritt a bit in it. Hope this issue is in my mailbox today.

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