Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Rat Pack Rashomon

The Siren has not forgotten her more-patient-than-ever readers, truly she hasn't. It's just that lately her life resembles this:



But she will never abandon her little corner of the Web. (Here the Siren wants everyone to remember the Alamo—specifically, Laurence Harvey making sure the sun catches his ruffles just right.)



Where else can the Siren blather on about Mary Astor's invention of pan-chromatic makeup and Vera Zorina in I Was an Adventuress? It's just that when the irresistible force of life meets the immovable object of work, something's gotta give, something's gotta give, something's gotta give.

Which brings us to this post, involving a man who did rather a good version of that song.



The Siren has been reading The Richard Burton Diaries. You could say, in fact, that the Siren has been obsessing over the Burton diaries. Her only reading time is on the subway, the dadgum thing weighs almost as much as her six-year-old, and yet the Siren lugs it back and forth because she does not want to let it go. The Diaries made her want to revisit some Burton movies (the good ones)—maybe even try out Burton as Trotsky because damn, the part about filming that one is funny. The whole book is delightful—very sad in some ways, but a marvelous picture of a restless, fiercely intelligent mind.

And lord have mercy, how he gossips. Evidently the only person who read it while he was writing it was Elizabeth Taylor, and so he feared no backlash. (Not even from her.) If the Siren tells you that this is, no lie, the only book she's ever read in which someone had a bad word to say about Audrey Hepburn, you'll get the general idea. It's weirdly enhanced by the most maniacal footnotes the Siren has ever encountered, via Professor Chris Williams. Par exemple: if the Burtons stay "at the Plaza Athénée," you get a note elaborating: "Hotel Plaza Athénée, Avenue Montaigne, Paris." The Siren at this point loves Williams almost as much as Burton.

The Siren adores how Burton chronicles his incredibly voracious reading habits in great detail, and she was immediately caught by his acerbic dissection of a certain nostalgic passage in David Niven's The Moon's a Balloon. The two sections, side by side, give a mirror-image view of Hollywood glamour, the Rat Pack, Sinatra, Bogart, and especially Burton and Niven themselves.

But they are quite, quite different. So, we'll give Niv the first word.



It was the 4th of July and Bogart had taken what Niven says was the highly unusual step of inviting women aboard his celebrated yacht, the Santana. That meant David Niven brought along his wife Hjordis (possibly the most universally disliked Hollywood spouse of that or any era, but that's a whole other post, at least). So Lauren Bacall (I do not call the goddess Miss Bacall "Betty" as I have never been introduced) came along to keep Hjordis company. Bacall had her hands full. As Niven tells it,

We dropped anchor in Cherry Cove and Frank Sinatra moored alongside us in a chartered motor cruiser with several beautiful girls and a small piano. After dinner, with Jimmy Van Heusen accompanying him, Sinatra began to sing. He sang all night.

There were many yachts in Cherry Cove that weekend, and by two in the morning, under a full moon, Santana was surrounded by an audience sitting in dozens and dinghies and rubber tenders of every shape and size.

Frank sang as only he can, with his monumental talent and exquisite phrasing undimmed by a bottle of Jack Daniels on top of the piano.

He sang till the dew came down heavily and the boys in the listening fleet fetched blankets for their girls' shoulders. He sang till the moon and the stars paled in the predawn sky. Only then did he stop and only then did the awed and grateful audience peddle silently home.



Now we shall let Burton have his say.

I read David Niven's autobiography yesterday in one sitting. It is very funny though not very well written and is, like all actors' biographies, very anecdotal and full of "and then Mike Todd called me and said 'Get your ass over here'" etc. He describes one scene on Bogart's yacht which is not what happened at all as I was there. He describes Sinatra singing all through the night on a motor yacht with a lot of other yachts around 'awe-struck' he says. Frankie did sing all through the night it's true and a lot of people sat around in boats and and got drunk it's true but Bogie and I went out lobster-potting with Dumbum [Bogart's Danish crewman, according to the every-ready Prof. Williams] while Frankie was singing kept on making cracks about Betty [Bacall] sitting on Sinatra's feet etc. and Frankie got really pissed off with Bogie and David Niv who describes himself as bewitched all through the night was trying to set fire to the Santana at one point because nobody could stop Francis from going on and on and on. I was drinking 'boiler-makers' with Bogie Rye Whiskey with canned beer chasers so the night is pretty vague but I seem to remember a girl having a fight with her husband or boy friend in a rowing dinghy and being thrown in the water by her irate mate. I don't know why but I would guess that she wanted to stay and listen to Frankie and he wanted to go. And Bogie and Frankie nearly came to blows next day about the singing the night before and I drove Betty home because she was so angry with Bogie's cracks about Frankie's singing. At the time Frankie was out of work and was peculiarly vulnerable and Bogie was unnecessarily cruel. But any way it is not at all like Niv's description.



So, the Siren asks the same question as in Kurosawa's great movie: out of these, which is believable?

30 comments:

Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw Trotsky on the big screen and thought it pretty good, but them were the days when I went out of my way to see Figures in a Landscape and other Losey films. I also saw Burton as Hamlet on the big screen, although I was somewhat distracted when I noticed a good sized zit on his face.

As for who's telling the truth about that night on the Santana, I'd want to hear the version from Mrs. Bogart.

Vanwall said...

Burton was a terribly interesting actor, and like many people who see things their own way, he was on occasion, pretty terrible to others. Re: Susan Strasberg. Innumerable anecdotes about him only reinforce my ongoing interest in the man, and it seems like he could've chewed up and spat out anyone who got in his way, too. His look of violence held in check by sardonic intelligence seemed quite real to me, yet most of his best physicality was easily seen on the screen, and a natural aspect, I'm guessing. As a boy, I'd've killed for his sheepskin-collared leather jacket in "The Desert Rats", but always realized I could never do it the casual justice of the man himself. Then there was the voice. Dominating - I imagine his version of Rashomon Nights would certainly sound more truthy. Niven's was a faery tale. Burton's was closer to early Kingsley Amis. Add together; mix well with Templeton Rye.

Kristen said...

It's a lovely juxtaposition, really. Though I love Niven's fairy-tale, Burton's mundane and slightly grimy stream of consciousness is a perfect tonic. I could probably be quite happy shifting back and forth endlessly between the two men's conflicting narratives of any glamorous hollywood anecdote. In fact, if Burton could have been Niven's footnote-er....

The Siren said...

Peter, over on Twitter Glenn Kenny's saying Trotsky's a lot better than its rep, but that the sole American DVD is dreadful. And yes, Bacall's version would make for the perfect Rashomon trio.

Vanwall, Burton claims at one point that he's not a violent person and indeed his fistfighting days seem to have ended very early; after that it was verbal violence, at which he was unfortunately very skilled. He was indeed quite rotten to some people and incredibly generous to others. In addition to that, this book should probably make some kind of substance-recovery reading list. A reader sits there and connects all the dots with his stop-and-start drinking, the fact that he himself makes the connection that his marital fights are almost always after he and Elizabeth have been drinking hard.

Kristen, isn't it? And above all very funny. Niven was know to be a huge tale-embellisher and he was unapologetic about it, taking the attitude that people wanted a good story and not the truth. (Kurosawa would have understood.) On the other hand, we have Burton, who by his own admission was soused to the gills. I think Peter's right, we need Bacall.

Kirk said...

Sorry, but this comment's not about the post itself, but your new title picture.

That seems to be a picture of George Cukor meeting with the stars of Gone With The Wind, which places it in either 1938 or '39. Yet Clark Gable looks older than he did in The Misfits, more than two decades later!

The Siren said...

Kirk, that's because it's John Barrymore, and it's a meeting for Romeo and Juliet! (Norma Shearer center, Edna May Oliver on left but not really recognizable). It was Leslie Howard's birthday yesterday and I liked the "back to business" feel of this shot.

Kirk said...

OK, that was embarrassing. Why I recognized Cukor and not Barrymore or Shearer I don't understand. I guess I saw Howard, my mind said Gone With The Wind, and just filled in the blanks.

The Siren said...

It's understandable and just goes to show that poor Howard is CHAINED to GWTW in a way that none of the other stars are.

Lemora said...

Oh my, Siren, that image about your life is, I think, Olivia De Havilland in "The Snake Pit." I hope things smooth out soon. And yes, we need Bacall's version of The Big Night. But, I think she's said all she's going to say in "By Myself," her memoir. Regarding Burton, you may (or may not) want to read Frank Langella's "Dropped Names." (Langella's chapter on Elizabeth Taylor is one of the saddest things I've ever read.) I luckily saw Burton on stage in "Camelot" in 1980, several years before his death, and he was everything you'd expect a living legend to be. The air conditioning was out, and the weather was sweltering. But, you'd have thought that King Arthur himself had just stepped out, in the flesh, from an N. C. Wyeth illustration in an Edwardian adventure book. Riveting is an understatement. Another book where Burton memorably appears is "Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter. In fact, Burton lovers should definitely check that one out. (I won't tell you anything, just treat yourself.) Also, catch Frank Gorshin's fabulous impersonation of him in a Roast held in honor of Sammy Davis Jr. on You Tube.

Dan Leo said...

More Burton gossip, please!

DavidEhrenstein said...

I like Niven's version better than Burton's but Burton's is most liely the truer one.

He was a great movie star but a decidedly uneven actor. He's really good in The Night of he Iguana, which I looked at agan recently on TCM, but he's awful in The Sandpiper. Well perhaps that's not fair cause everyone's awful in except for Nico.

He's rather good in The Assassination of Trotsky, but has the film stolen right from under him by Alain Delon -- who not only has the plum part but delivers the last line with phenomenal force. It's a great moment in screen acting.

barrylane said...

The reasons Howard seems chained to Gone With The Wind is because he died...and it is his only color souvenir. Had GWTW been unsuccesful...

wwwww said...

bacall seated at sinatras feet-niven
bacall on the the way home-burton

Trish said...

I like Richard Burton... sometimes. He's good in Night of the Iguana, but only because he has better material and is likely playing himself. But put a Hollywood script in his hands and he's godawful. I was reminded of this while watching The Robe the other day. "I am ILL... in my MIND!", is a line that produced gales of laughter from me and I spent the rest of the day imitating him. Niven doesn't interest me at all as an actor, too one-note. Their writing styles reflect their acting styles. Niven is debonair and unflappable. Burton is manic, obsessed and over the top.

Lemora said...

Trish, David Niven had a broader range than being debonaire and unflappable. Admittedly, that's his stereotype, and what he was frequently called upon to play, but he was better than that. See "A Matter Of Life And Death," "The Bishop's Wife," and "Separate Tables." Especially see "The Bishop's Wife." (That's one of his best movies, and one of my all-time favorites, so I'm a wee bit partisan.)

gmoke said...

Didn't Sinatra make a rush at Bacall after Bogie was gone?

McMullen said...

I love the banner picture, Siren, and that everyone is so decked-out for what looks like a script run-through. I was most surprised to see Edna May Oliver so soignee - I just always expect to see her in muslin or prim schoolteacher garb! Loved her in anything and everything she ever did, though.

Michael Dempsey said...

Richard Burton is sublime in "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" -- not least in the film's devastating conclusion, which would have zero chance of reaching the screen nowadays.

The Siren said...

Lemora, you got The Snake Pit exactly right. I'm exaggerating of course but I found that still and said, "I know how de Havilland feels there."

Dan, you wouldn't believe how much more there is where that came from.

Barry, yes you're right, but I think it is more than that--Howard's good movies have been hard to find for years, save Petrified Forest which kind of reinforces the whole Ashley "Wimp" image, much as I like it.

David, I find it hard to believe Delon ever stole anything from anyone acting-wise; not a flashy actor. Still, Burton began the film thinking his co-star was nothing much and the day after their first scene (one of two) records his surprise at how good Delon was.

Trish, what Lemora said, except A Matter of Life and Death is his best and she forgot Bachelor Mother and hell, I'll throw in Bonjour Tristesse too, because even though the movie is uneven he's excellent in it.

And Michael Dempsey is right, I'd pick Spy as Burton's best performance too if only because it is such a comparatively quiet role, a man who's been hollowed out by his ghastly work.

HOWEVER Trish on The Robe I am not ABOUT to argue with you. When it screened over the weekend on TCM I tweeted "THE ROBE is the same smokehouse ham it always was but damn Burton and Simmons (having affair at the time) were gorgeous."

McMullen, I had the same thought, even to Edna May. She's wonderful in my favorite new-old movie of last year, LYDIA.

Lemora said...

Siren, I can't believe I forgot "Bonjour Tristesse, a far better example of Niven's abilities!!" (In "A Matter Of Life And Death," I was mainly thinking about the beginning, when his plane is going down and he and Kim Hunter think these are his last moments. Also, the tribunal scene where he's stating his case.) He and Ginger Rogers were good in "Bachelor Mother," though that one doesn't register as strongly, for me.

DavidEhrenstein said...

NEVER underestimate Alain Delon! He's more than one of the most beautiful creatures to ever walk the earth -- he can act too! See Losey's Monsiuer Klein were he's downright uncanny from first to last. Likewise Godard's Nouvelle Vague, where this most classical of actor gives himself over completely to an avantgarde doodle of immense proportions.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Alain et Claudia sur Il Gattopardo

panavia999 said...

I saw the filmed Broadway production of Hamlet with Burton and Hume Cronyn. The acting styles were at cross purposes. Burton was playing Hamlet in the best stage tradition, including British accent of course, while the other actors all had american accents and were doing the lines in the "natural conversational style. It was very distracting.
Everyone was good, but I wished the production had gone in the same direction.

The Siren said...

Panavia, I'd have liked to have seen Burton in the original "Camelot," a lovely musical that had a well-nigh-unbearable film version.

Dave said...

I saw Burton in "Camelot," but came away surprisingly unimpressed. The show is terrible to begin with, and combining that with his back trouble (which caused him to leave the show), it wasn't much of an evening.

He was much more enjoyable in "Private Lives," but the problem with that show was Taylor herself, who had regained the weight she had lost for the Broadway production. (The review in the LA Times mentioned her predilection for purple costumes and said she "looked like a grape," which was (unfortunately) true. (She was much better in "The Little Foxes," until the end when she needed to act, rather than be glamorous.) I came away from the production wishing Burton had had a better Amanda to play off of.

The most memorable thing about the show -- other than their teaming -- was that, at one point in one of their squabbles, they would throw a brioche into the audience. I'd imagine some of those breadstuffs are still clogging up curio cabinets and boxes in closets.

The Siren said...

Dave, was that the 1980 revival? No, I don't regret missing that one. You can tell from his diary that his heart wasn't it, or indeed much of anything. The fun and games stop with the 1971 diaries. After that his brother Ivor died and the difference in the later entries is terribly sad. When he's chronicling the Private Lives production you can tell he is so impatient with ET; whereas before he'd often praised her acting, there he is barely able to restrain his anger over her not knowing her lines and basically skating along. She drank too, of course. I am a romantic so I want to believe he still loved her, but you'd be hard pressed to say that from the diaries. All you get is weariness.

Rozsaphile said...

Burton is indeed excellent in Spy, playing the kind of burnt-out case that fit him so well in later years. John le Carre, in his video commentary, said that he was initially wary of the casting, because he thought Burton "too much the thesp." Burton tangled with Martin Ritt, but the director seems to have prevailed. He later told Burton, "You've probably given your last good performance."

The shoot must have been interesting. Liz was in tow, keeping close watch over the actor and his beautiful co-star, who had previously been lovers. Perhaps that's why the novel's "Liz" became "Nan" in the film!

Mock The Robe, if you will, but at least it has the courage of its convictions. It lets the martyrs be martyrs -- unlike Quo Vadis, a much more impressive physical production that ends with Bob and Deb going off to a Sicilian honeymoon after everybody else is killed off. Both films are at least musically magnificent, thanks to Alfred Newman and Miklos Rozsa.

Lemora said...

While I wish I'd been able to catch Burton and Julie Andrews in "Camelot" in 1960 (or thereabouts) I'm glad I caught the 1980 revival. Maybe I got it at the beginning, in San Francisco, because he was excellent. If his infirmities were bothering him, it didn't show. The supporting cast, including Christine Ebersole as Guinevere, were excellent. Yes, it's not intrinsically that great as a Musical, but it was worth it just to hear Burton sing "How To Handle A Woman."

Paulette said...

I believe Welshman Burton over anything an Englishman has to say - especially Niven who I think lied about a lot of stuff.

Burton was, is and will always be an incredibly gifted actor and fantastic human-being. I don't care how much he hammed it up - Burton is the far superior actor to Niven. And although I adore Bogart, Burton is still the man.

I cannot believe no one has mentioned Burton's amazing work in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"? He was sublime and should have won the Oscar for Best Actor that year.

I also love him in "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", "Ann of the Thousand Days", "Becket", "Night of the Iguana" and even enjoy him in the not-so-good "Cleopatra".

The fact that Burton wrote something negative about Audrey Hepburn only makes me love him all the more.

The Siren said...

Paulette, I love Burton onscreen too in a lot of things, and I agree with your last sentence despite loving Audrey H. myself--it cracked me up. I thought, here is a man who was no respecter of reputations.