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If you want an object-lesson in professional vs. amateur pop-biography, compare this sturdy, small life story to Thomas Kiernan's Sir Larry (below): while Kiernan strings together quotes in a shapeless, toneless hash, Ferris (Dylan Thomas) makes the most of his comparable, less-than-first-hand material--shrewdly evaluating conflicting bits of information, dramatically framing the quotes from Burton's mentor and his Welsh family (Dick, Liz, and ex-wife Sybil are all absent, of course), and delivering it all with steady, somewhat amused detachment. The story itself will offer few surprises to those generally familiar with actor Burton's weB-publicized life. Second-youngest son of a rowdily alcoholic Welsh miner, Richard Jenkins, motherless at two, was raised by a beloved, much-older sister--until local teacher/stage-director Philip Burton became ""surrogate father and magic uncle"" to the handsome, rawly talented, feckless lad, coaching him and helping him to get an RAF Oxford scholarship. Stage work, thanks also to Emlyn Williams, followed very soon, with major attention by the late 1940s for his eye-catching floor-scrubbing in The Lady's Not For Burning. . . which led to movie jobs. And so began the Burton conflict--cynical movie star vs. potential great actor (natural heir to Olivier)--with Stratford and Old Vic seasons alternating with Hollywood potboilers. ""He was to float away into a theatrical limbo, never able to stop talking about the stage, never letting it be seen to get the better of him. . . it was not in Button's nature to try."" So, already having largely abandoned stage-work by 1960 (except for Camelot), he was ripe for Cleopatra and Liz Taylor: though he didn't really want to leave wife Sybil, he did--for the fresh start (the 1964 Hamlet), the Taylor-and-Burton money/fame. ""We all rue the day when he met Elizabeth,"" says sister Cecilia. And eventually, after the well-known artistic lows and glittery woes, ""he ended his marriage . . . so that he could be himself again"": a semi-comeback via Equus. Ferris manages to avoid the sheer-gossip level through most of this book, neither gushing nor sniping (except, occasionally, at Elizabeth). He clearly laments Button's unfulfilled stage potential, calling his film style ""pretentious, contemptuous, rarely at ease."" (Interesting quotes, also, on Burton's stage acting from Anthony Quayle and Alec Guiness.) And--except for a reasonable conjecture about Button's apparent dependence on women--there's no cheap psychologizing. Neither spicy nor profound, then, but a modest, readable, solid portrait of a fairly interesting show-biz phenomenon.

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1981
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan