Rex Harrison opens tonight – after a week of previews – in New Orleans in that jewel of a musical My Fair Lady. I’m told that his energy level and stamina are as electric as ever despite his advancing years (he’s about 71, I think) and I pray for a repeat of his original smash hit in the same piece 25 odd years ago. Unlike most people so I understand I genuinely delight in the successes of my friends and do not exult in their failures. I think Rex is, of his genre, the greatest actor in the world – the highest of high comedians. No less a person than that delicious Noël Coward once said ‘Rex is the greatest light comedian in the world ‘ – pause ‘after me.’ I would say they were at least even, with Rex having the edge. I shall be thinking of him all evening long. Both Susan and I have sent telegrams separately and one to the entire company together. Rex’s brand of acting and his off-stage personality are inextricably bound together.
Most obviously, for instance, Rex’s normal private-life voice is the same as the voice on-stage – only projected a little more. I think mine is. So is George C. Scott’s, so is Gielgud’s, so was Coward’s, so is Jason Robards’, so is Fonda’s, so is Richardson’s, but Olivier’s is totally different and Scofield,’s and Guinness’. Alec and Paul tend to ‘boom’ on stage though cathedrically quiet off and Larry Olivier’s develops a machine-gun metallic rattle with an occasional shout thrown in ‘to keep,’ as he said to me once ‘the bastards awake.’ I’m not sure whether Larry meant his fellow-actors or the audiences or both. But one has to be careful with Larry – he is a great dead-pan leg-puller and one is never quite sure whether he is probing very subtly for weak spots or majestically sending one up. Superb good value though all of them.
O’Toole’s voice too eccentrically accented in private is the same on stage. Does it mean that Olivier, Guinness and Scofield are basically and essentially character actors while the rest of us mentioned are simply extensions of ourselves? Well, the more I act and the more I think about it (which is not very often) the less I know of the heart of its mystery. Why one believes absolutely in one actor and knows he’s blazingly honest and not in another equally dazzling player is beyond my competence to explain. I can only accept it and hope for the best.
Note: The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012), from which this September 1980 excerpt is taken, are enjoyable and more entertaining to read than the sections lazily pulled from them by People magazine prior to publication would indicate. The best parts concern family matters, observations on current events and contemporary history, poetry and catty asides (e.g., "Went to 'club' downstairs with creepy Peter Lawford,' describing a Johannisburg nightlife encounter). I think this description of actors' voices is fascinating, especially the observation about Peter O'Toole's mysterious instrument, which Joe Flaherty of SCTV "nailed" perfectly (but affectionately, I think). By the way, I met and spent some time with Richard Burton when I was a child, both times backstage prior to Broadway performances of “Camelot” and “Hamlet.” He was a good friend of my Aunt Barbara and I’m pleased to report that he was a charming host – exceptionally nice with unaffected good manners and what seemed like a genuine curiosity about what a young person might be interested in and thinking about. On both occasions he toured me through his theatrical scrapbook and at “Hamlet,” the tour also included a remarkable excursion though the custom-made suits and superb shoes he took possession of while acting in “The VIPs.”
Gate of Le Pays De Galles (Wales), Richard Burton’s longtime home in Céligny, Vaud Canton, Switzerland