“Letters to Uranus: The Hidden Life of Tedd Burr” is a strange film about a strange man: 76-year-old Tedd Burr, an actor in Cleveland’s theatrical community who seems to believe he is a larger-than-life icon. Filmmaker Lenny Pinna took a bold challenge in creating a filmed interview with Burr, shooting in a single real-time take during an evening’s visit at Burr’s house. The film is an extraordinary experiment, and while it eventually wears out its welcome “Letters to Uranus” is not without some considerably fascinating moments.
Clearly the screen has not seen anything like Tedd Burr. Wearing a flowing rose-colored caftan and wearing his platinum hair in a page boy style, Burr bears more than a passing resemblance to Peggy Lee in her later years. This florid appearance is accentuated with an over-the-top camp body language complete with waving arms and fluttery fingers. While certainly giving the eyes more than a treat, Burr runs the vocal gamut with put-upon phrasing and melodramatic diction that suggests the grande dames of theatrical yesteryears. Indeed, even the most mundane nouns and adjectives come over Burr’s lips with an importance for the ages (his pronunciation of “dreadful” gives grave depth to that poor word). No one is going to confuse Burr with Vin Diesel, to be sure.
Burr genuinely loves to talk, and for a good while “Letters to Uranus” provides him with an opportunity to ramble on about such topics as the great actresses of Hollywood’s golden age (Norma Shearer, surprisingly, gets considerable talk here) and the glories of the opera (Burr nearly spits with shock when filmmaker Pinna, speaking from behind the camera, mistakes “La Traviata” for “Tosca”). There is also a remarkable story of the correspondence during the 1940s between the teenage Burr, stuck in a small Ohio town, with the celebrated novelist Henry Bellamann (best known today for “King’s Row”). During the course of “Letters to Uranus,” Burr provides the original letters between Bellamann and himself, reading them for the first time in nearly 60 years.
In case you are wondering, the title “Letters to Uranus” comes from a flippant remark that Bellamann made when Burr sent him an androgynous photograph he had taken by a Cleveland art photographer (the young Burr looked curiously like Katherine Hepburn in her “Christopher Strong” make-up). Bellamann remarked that the gender-bending young Burr looked like he came from the planet Uranus, a weak joke which could not have been of much comfort to the young teenage homosexual stuck in small town Ohio of the 1940s.
Burr’s life clearly had more than its share of unhappiness, most tragically when a man he loved was murdered by a police officer in 1960 and most recently right before the filming of “Letters to Uranus” began when Burr learned that a dear friend had suddenly passed away. Yet Burr is not one to dwell on pain and any time the conversation gets too serious he abruptly switches gear into an irrelevant happy-time talk about show biz or decorating or fretting about whether the tea he just poured is still warm. And eventually, Burr’s raconteur skills (which are considerable) give way to just random chatter which is hit-or-miss in its effectiveness. While some amusement can be found in Burr’s gushy thoughts about Bette Davis’ eyes or his joyful display of autographed photos by famous operatic sopranos, this eventually becomes too much of a good thing and “Letters to Uranus” finally gets weighed down by Burr’s seemingly endless babble. This is especially bothersome since Burr’s life story is not without interest, yet his reluctance to stay focused on his own adventure frays the viewer’s patience.
Lenny Pinna, a first-time filmmaker, clearly deserves credit for trying something very different with this production. It is a shame that he was not able to keep the loquacious Burr on track in sharing his world with the camera. With more of Burr’s autobiography and less of his campy observations on pop-culture, this could have been a new classic in documentary filmmaking.