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September 28, 2012

TT: The performer at the typewriter

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column, I use the publication of The Richard Burton Diaries as an occasion to reflect on performers who write--and what they write about. Here's an excerpt.

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If you read the excerpts from Richard Burton's diaries that were serialized earlier this month in London's Daily Telegraph, you learned that he enjoyed sleeping with Elizabeth Taylor and appears to have regarded most of his other colleagues with fathomless contempt: "Marlon [Brando] has yet to learn to speak....I love Larry [Olivier] but he really is a shallow little man with a mediocre intelligence but a splendid salesman....Why do the audience look at Paul Scofield and not me? He walks like a pimp, he's got a patently false voice." One might well suppose that he had no interests other than gossip, money, drink and sex.

9780300180107.jpegIn fact, there's quite a bit more to "The Richard Burton Diaries" than that. Among other things, Mr. Burton turns out to have been an exceedingly literate man who had shrewd opinions about the many books that he read. Here, for instance, is what he thought of Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time": "He gives the impression of a deliberately distant artist. His canvas is large but he stands a long way off and paints with a remote brush only in the corners and only miniatures."

Would that Mr. Burton had felt moved to express himself on such matters at greater length. The thought definitely crossed his mind. In a 1970 diary entry, he actually confesses to having once "contemplat[ed] retirement from acting and writing instead--not for a living, not for money....I wanted to write because I sought for some kind of permanence, a cover-bound shot at immortality and not a rapidly dating film and acting [career] to match." Had he done so, he could have become one of the handful of performing artists who've written interestingly about something other than themselves.

It's not a knock on performers to point out that they tend not to write well about anything else. To become a first-rate actor or musician requires a ruthless single-mindedness that leaves little time for secondary pursuits....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted September 28, 2012 12:00 AM

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