Sunday, November 9, 2008
Richard Burton in "Bluebeard"
Over Halloween weekend I watched the incredibly campy 1972 movie "Bluebeard," in which Richard Burton stars as the titular character. It's a slight updating of the old legend/fairy tale, where a man with a blue beard keeps murdering his wives. It's a typical Euro-pudding production, with a cast of winsome international starlets, who all have topless scenes. (Except for Raquel Welch, humorously cast as a nun with an amorous past.)
"Bluebeard" was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who was actually a well-respected director back in the 40's and 50's. His most notable films are probably "Crossfire," "The Caine Mutiny," "Raintree County," and "The Young Lions." Dmytryk was actually one of the infamous "Hollywood 10," a group of screenwriters and directors who were blacklisted because of their Communist sympathies. After going to jail and refusing to name names, Dmytryk reversed course, and ended up naming names to HUAC. (The House Un-American Activities committee, who were investigating Communist influences in Hollywood.) Somehow, this does not seem to have hurt Dmytryk's career, as this all happened in the early 50's, and by 1954 he was directing "The Caine Mutiny," a prestige picture any director would have been happy to helm.
By 1972, Richard Burton's star was beginning to wane. His first marriage to Elizabeth Taylor would come to a close soon, and the public seemed to have tired of reading about him buying her another ginormous diamond. Burton's career had soared in the 1960's, and he ended the decade starring in two very successful films, "Where Eagles Dare," alongside Clint Eastwood, and "Anne of the Thousand Days," in which he played Henry VIII, and for which he was nominated for an Oscar. (He didn't win, of course.) After that, Burton took a well-deserved year off. What was his first project after his break? A low-budget World War II flick called "Raid on Rommel," made only because there was leftover footage from Rock Hudson's World War II flick "Tobruk." Yeah, it's a turkey. And who did Richard Burton have to fight to get the role in this illustrious movie? Robert Stack! I'm sorry, Robert Stack was great, but he's not in the same league as Richard Burton. Richard Burton should not have been fighting Robert Stack for parts! (Although I've heard that Burton needed to make some quick money to insure Liz's diamonds.) So, Burton's career was on a downward path, and it would soon become a downward spiral. From what I can tell, it seems like he was taking pretty much any part that came his way during this period.
Anyway, now that we've established the past of the director and leading man, on to the film itself. "Bluebeard" is a self-aware campy horror flick, featuring lots of female nudity, a garish color scheme, and probably the ugliest interior decoration ever seen in a castle. Burton's character was a famous World War I flying ace whose face was disfigured/damaged in a plane crash, hence the blue beard. Which actually is blue, and is totally pasted on. (It almost falls off in the scene where Burton's rowing a boat!) We see him marry his first wife, (Nathalie Delon, ex-wife of French movie god Alain Delon) and she is "accidentally" shot while hunting. Burton's character becomes a Nazi, and we see him burning down Jewish ghettos. (Look for the young violinist, he will be important later. The opening credits told me this, because the actor was given the billing, "and so and so, as The Violinist.") There is a nice parallel between the Nazis hunting down the Jews and the hunting party slaughtering animals in the next scene. But it's extremely heavy-handed and incredibly brutal, as we actually see the animals get killed. It's one of the more disturbing things I've seen in a film, if you're an animal lover, you will be sickened. And I'm pretty damn sure it was real.
After the first wife is shot, we see Burton marry Joey Heatherton, one of those cute, sort-of-talented starlets of the 60's and early 70's. Here "Bluebeard" starts stealing from the "Psycho" playbook, as it turns out that Burton's maid has kept the corpse of Burton's mother, and obsessively combs the dead mother's hair. (In one of the best lines, Burton deadpans, "Mother did so like having her hair combed.") So Joey discovers the freezer in which Burton keeps the corpses of his previous dead wives, and then we flashback as Burton tells Joey about his dead wives. (If this movie were a Robyn Hitchcock song, it would be "My Wife and My Six Dead Wives.") Joey doesn't seem too terribly shocked that he's killed all these women, she's more interested to know why. It turns out that every time Bluebeard marries a new woman, he likes her, until she wants to have sex with him. At the moment she finally offers herself to him, he kills her. (I think he might have some issues...) It's all treated strictly for laughs, like the proto-feminist who discovers she likes it when Bluebeard hits her. Burton is actually surprisingly good in the role, although he was never known for comedy. It's rather amusing to see him find reasons for not sleeping with these women. And although the movie itself is totally over the top, Burton's performance doesn't go over the top, which is nice. The screenwriters thankfully did not decide that because they had one of the world's greatest actors, they should write him pages and pages of dialogue. Even though Burton is the only real actor in the film, they don't make him carry it all on his shoulders.
So we go through wife after wife, the most amusing being Raquel Welch as a nun, who tries to get Burton to sleep with her in a church. After all this, Burton locks Joey in the freezer and goes off to the train station to meet some incoming Nazi buddy. Which brings us to the Nazi point. Even though there are swastikas all over this movie, they don't really look like the Nazi swastikas, they look squashed, more like a fat cross. I assume the reason for this is that "Bluebeard" was filmed in Hungary, and they must have had some law prohibiting swastikas from being displayed, even in trashy, Euro-pudding horror movies. It's just another bit of weirdness in this odd film. So, Burton is at the train station, where he is shot and killed by...wait for it...yes, the violinist whose parents were killed by Burton! (I told you he would be important later!) The violinist rescues Joey, who then gets to marry her vaudeville dancing partner. All's well that ends well.
But being the Richard Burton scholar that I am, I have more tidbits about the making of the film. Burton, who was one of the great readers of the 20th century, was disappointed to find out there wasn't much literature on modern Hungary. Thanks to Melvyn Bragg's excellent biography of Burton, we have excerpts from Burton's notebooks, here's Burton preparing to leave for Hungary:
"Tomorrow to Hungary. I am looking forward to it with excitement. The very name Budapest smacks of romance and tragedy and wild Magyar music. It cannot, simply cannot be dull, regardless of friends' warnings that it is the most depressing capital in Europe...I went to the Lion bookshop yesterday and bought yet another pile of books for the ten-week stay in Buda and Pest. Cadogan's diaries, A.L. Rowse's two vols, The Early Churchills and The Later Churchills, Solzhenitsyn's Full Circle, Chosen Words by Ivor Brown. Two dual-language Penguins on Mallarme and French poetry of the 19th century. A book by Auberon Waugh-son of Evelyn. Isaac Deutscher, Red China, Russia and the USA-I think it's called. A Hungarian grammar. And a handful of thrillers. So we should have more than enough to get through ten weeks."
The above is exactly why I like Richard Burton so much, and why I would have been fascinated to have had a conversation with him.
While in Budapest, Liz Taylor turned 40, and Burton threw an immense birthday part for her. However, because of Liz's jealousy, he was forced to disinvite his nubile co-stars! (Liz punched one of the actresses when she got a little too into her kissing scenes with Richard.) Princess Grace, Ringo, David Niven, and Michael Caine were among the guests. According to Bragg, "Burton promised to give the equivalent of the price of the party to a good cause." He then gave Peter Ustinov, an ambassador for UNICEF, a check for $45,000! Bragg says that Burton had decided to move back to England, ending his status as a tax exile, and teach at Oxford. His life was coming together. And then his brother Ifor died. Ifor was really more like a father to Richard, he was Richard's role-model. (Burton was the 12th of 13 children, and Ifor was quite a bit older than Richard.) Ifor had been paralyzed four years earlier when he slipped on a step at Burton's house in Switzerland and broke his neck. Burton never forgave himself for the accident, and Ifor's death plunged him into an abyss of alcoholism, from which he just barely extricated himself. At one point in 1973-74, he was given just six weeks to live. Burton replied, "I'm amused you think I can be killed off that easily." He was somehow able to pull himself together personally, but his career was in a shambles, until his comeback on Broadway in Equus in 1976. But that's another story.