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"They drink, they fight, they fornicate!" promises the preview for "Liz & Dick," an upcoming Lifetime TV film. After years of legal trouble, Lindsay Lohan climbs back in the cinematic saddle as Elizabeth Taylor, chronicling the diva's stormy, steamy love for her colleague Richard Burton.
The Welsh actor's renewed fame is trending well beyond the female-skewing cable network, though. This autumn, two new tribute walking trails opened in his home country, and Yale University Press is publishing the star's diaries in their entirety for the first time.
To commemorate these events, as well as what would have been Burton's 87th birthday on November 10, the Visit Wales tourism board is hosting the Richard Burton Diaries Sweepstakes, which U.S. residents can enter at the Visit Wales website. Canadians can enter "The Liz and Dick Whisked Away to Wales Sweepstakes" on Lifetime's website. The grand prize is a six-day trip to Wales and a tour of Burton-related locales (runners-up will receive copies of the new book).
Though acclaimed, Burton (1925—1984) never won an Academy Award, despite seven nominations. He is now best remembered for his titanic passion for Taylor, his second wife. The pair first tangled on the set of "Cleopatra," and they soon abandoned their respective spouses to marry — and divorce. Twice. The paparazzi could barely keep up with all the glamour and scandal.
In his diaries, Burton — who often read three books a day — emerges as a keen observer and a surprisingly good writer. His diamond-studded, alcohol-fueled, jet-setting story may rope in readers, but his prose and his huge spirit will make many linger. "It's a love story so robust you can nearly warm your hands on its flames," notes Dwight Garner in a New York Times review of "The Richard Burton Diaries."
The icon held nothing back about the famous people who surrounded him, branding Laurence Olivier a "shallow little man with a mediocre intelligence" and Marlon Brando a "sober self-indulgent obese fart."
While he observed Taylor's "ever-present baby double chin," Burton more often waxed rhapsodic about his wife, calling her "an eternal one-night stand" and "beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography." He wrote, "She is a prospectus that can never be entirely cataloged, an almanac for Poor Richard."
After Burton's death, his personal papers went to the University of Swansea in Wales. Chris Williams, a professor of Welsh history who edited them into book form, says the book "reveals somebody who is much more reflective and thoughtful, who engaged intellectually. It's not just the ale and women kind of image but someone concerned about the world around him and his family."
Larger-than-life Hollywood royalty
Lifetime's movie takes a more tabloid approach, even as it explores "the start of the exploitation of celebrities." Premiering on November 25, "Liz & Dick" smashes onto the screen like a booze bottle hurled in a fight.
Grant Bowler (Connor Owens in "Ugly Betty") plays opposite the scandal-plagued Lohan as she tackles her first starring role in five years. "I'm a huge Elizabeth Taylor fan and I relate to her on a lot of levels," the starlet says in a promo, including "dealing with the stress of what other people say, whether it's true or not."
For a calmer connection with the actor, fans now can trace his roots through two Burton-themed walking paths with explanatory signs and smartphone videos. Born Richard Walter Jenkins in hilly Pontrhydyfen, South Wales, the Welsh-speaking coal miner's son was the 12th of 13 children. After his mother passed away, "Rich" lived with his big sister in the neighboring town of Port Talbot, now home to the Childhood Trail.
The short and level route leads past Burton's schools, the rugby pitch where he first learned his favorite game, and even the grocery store where his family shopped.
"He had a cheeky and naughty streak, he was always up to something," notes his pal and classmate Ann Scourfield.
He excelled at writing and sports but left school at 16 and handed out supplies for the local wartime co-op during World War II. As an Air Training Corps cadet, Richard ran into his former teacher Philip Burton, who became a foster father and tutored his acting skills (famously having him recite Shakespeare atop Welsh mountains to polish his vocal control). Following a stint at Oxford University and time as an air force navigator, the talented young man set off for London and its limelights.
The longer Birthplace Trail runs three miles, often along the scenic River Afan, past a brick townhouse on Penhydd Street where Burton visited with Taylor. Though she numbered among the world's most famous actresses at the time, she shared tea and small talk with the villagers.
"She was very down to earth and so lovely, as was Richard," neighbor Lillian Howell told The BBC. "When we finished she wanted to do the washing up."
Oh, Liz and Dick had their darker moments, as Burton chronicled in his diaries. "I was coldly accused of virtually every sin under the sun. Drunkenness (true) mendacity (true) being boring (true) infidelity (untrue) killing myself fairly quickly (true) pride envy avarice (all true) being ugly (true) having once been handsome (untrue)."
But, with new insights — and some distance from the drama — it's easy to see why the world is swooning over the charismatic actor and his "infinitely beloved wife" all over again.
by Amanda Castleman
Top: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton hold his granddaughter Leyla in Switzerland in a photo from 1973. Taylor and Burton were married twice, 1964-74 and 1975-76. (Photo by Liaison)
Right: A copy of "The Richard Burton Diaries" from a book launch party hosted by The Welsh Government, Swansea University and Yale University Press. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Left: Richard Burton's birthplace is surrounded by rolling hills in an area once known for mining and now famous for hiking and mountain biking. (Photo by eswales via Wikimedia Commons)