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    December Burtons

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    This date in December gave moviegoers U.S. theatrical premieres of two distinctively different faces of Richard Burton 29 years apart, one bronzed and handsome from his flush early years as a romantic leading man and the other pale, pained and weathered from his latter-day period as an authoritative character man. Both performances benefitted from his incomparable, rumbling, eloquent voice and unmistakable charisma, and both came in roles in which duty before self was a strong theme, an air of mystery was a crucial element, and the sense of impending disaster for the films’ central players was palpable. The first instance, the CinemaScope/Deluxe Color epic melodrama The Rains of Ranchipur (1955, directed by Jean Negulesco), cast the Welsh stage sensation as a dedicated Hindu physician in an Indian province who is seduced by the wanton socialite wife (Lana Turner) of a visiting English lord (Michael Rennie). Typical of star casting studio policies of its unenlightened era, it was a role earlier played in its source novel’s first screen incarnation The Rains Came (1939) by Tyrone Power. Also typical of Tinseltown filmmaking, it was an opportunity to show off the widescreen, stereophonic-sound exoticism of beautiful second-unit Pakistan locations, blended as dexterously as possible with Southern California interiors and sets, and then jolt audiences with a series of thrilling recreated natural disasters – torrential rains, floods and earthquakes – that provide a wakeup call to the characters’ risky behavior as they fight for survival against an angry Mother Nature. Playing with a canny reserve and a subtly smoldering gravity, Burton acquits himself quite well as a principled man wrestling with temptation and conscience in equal measure, though he would ultimately recall the experience with regret (said to have later remarked about the film, “It never rains, but it ranchipurs.”). The passage of three eventful, fast-living, alcoholic decades took its toll on the actor, but as producer Simon Perry and adaptor/director Michael Radford of Burton’s final theatrical feature Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) told interviewer Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent in 2009, the fire was still there even if the body was aching and the memory for lines was blurry. In this rigorously faithful version of George Orwell’s dystopian tale, Burton played O’Brien, a high-ranking political party member in a totalitarian state, who offers a diabolical mix of empathy and torture to the rebellious clerk Winston Smith. For the declining actor, it proved a valedictory farewell. “He found sitting down rather painful so he would stand in the middle of this trailer in the car park at Twickenham Studios. He'd spend all day when he wasn't actually on set regaling anyone who would listen with stories.Perry remembers that the actor was in obvious pain. Burton struggled to remember his lines and needed cue cards. In one key scene, in which O'Brien is torturing Winston Smith (played by John Hurt), O'Brien holds his hand in front of Smith's face and asks: ‘How many fingers do you see, Winston?’ Burton was so debilitated that he needed an assistant director out of shot, holding his arm up and helping him keep his hand steady. ‘It was sad to see this titan of the boards and the screen physically reduced,’ Perry recalls. ‘But the eyes were still there. The brain was fine, even if the memory wasn't great. As an actor, he had lost none of the old skills.’” By the time the film opened, Burton was gone. However, the legacy remains formidable, and the three Burton performances – the December 14 pair of The Rains of Ranchipur [available here:] and Nineteen Eighty-Four, plus director Sidney Lumet’s powerful film version of Peter Shaffer’s darkly disquieting Equus (1977, available here: – affirmatively present via their Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays the case for his enduring gifts of gravity, grace and grandeur.