Book review: Greatness and grief by Gabriel Hershman

This is Gabriel Hershman’s fourth book about British actors, following Send in the Clowns (Ian Hendry), Strolling Player (Albert Finney) and Black Sheep (Nicol Williamson).

Whereas those three books were fully-fledged biographies drawing on a wide range of original interviews, Greatness and Grief is more of an opinion piece on Burton’s craft as an actor.

It also covers how some personal aspects of his life (alcoholism, tax avoidance, his mining background and inherent socialism, a family tragedy, his appetite for women) may have impacted upon it.

As Hershman states in his introduction, this is not meant to be read as a biography. He mentions other sources which will fill in those gaps, including books by Melvyn Bragg and Graham Jenkins (Burton’s younger brother), as well as the television documentary directed by Tony Palmer, In From The Cold, which is quoted extensively and supplemented by a 2020 interview with Palmer here in London.

Of Hershman’s four actors, Burton is perhaps the most well-known: certainly the one who achieved the superstardom and jet-setting lifestyle of the super-rich.

Through five marriages (two to a star who shone even brighter than he, Elizabeth Taylor) he only really seemed to achieve a measure of peace in his final, brief, union with Sally Hay.

You will find enough about Burton here to give you a basic primer of his life and works. The second part of the book is a detailed discussion of what Hershman feels are his twenty key film roles.

Greatness and Grief is one person’s take on the subject, supplemented by carefully-chosen secondary sources. As well as Palmer’s contribution, there are new interviews with Burton’s relatives Sian Owen and Guy Masterson, and plentiful quotes from Burton’s own diaries.

As well as tales of Burton, there are anecdotes about some of his contemporaries (Ian Hendry, Harry Andrews, Colin Blakely), added as footnotes where they would seem to fit in with the subjects being discussed.

I found these parallels fascinating but felt they could have been made more relevant if these other actors were connected to Burton. Did they ever meet? What was their opinion of each other? Did they value each other’s work?

Greatness and Grief has no direct participation from any of Burton’s children or step-children, or his wives still living. Perhaps this is one reason why this is more an exploration around the man than a full biography.

Clearly Hershman is a fan, and this occasionally leads him to be brutally dismissive of other actors within Burton’s sphere who – in his words – lacked his charisma or intelligence.

This is a book which is hard to put down, but which leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It paints a picture of a humble man who liked nothing more than to read in his library,. It also acknowledges a thirst for money and fame that led Burton to reside in a tax haven, and to make personal and professional mistakes he surely came to regret.

I recommend Greatness and Grief alongside other books available on Burton. However, there is no substitute for watching interviews with the man himself or reading his diaries.

Greatness and Grief is available on Amazon.