One of the finest actors of his generation, Richard Burton was also one of the most notorious. Whether it was his many dalliances with women, his nights of drinking and carousing with cohorts Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole, or his extravagant marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, Burton lived a life few could imagine.
Along the way, of course, he delivered a number of high-caliber performances. Burton was nominated for seven Academy Awards – six for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor – but never won. Here are nine classic movies featuring the very best of Richard Burton.
20th Century Fox
After making name for himself on the stage and screen in his native England, Burton made his Hollywood debut in the hit, My Cousin Rachel
, which gave him his first Academy Award nomination. But it was his leading performance in the 1953 biblical epic, The Robe
, that made him a star. Burton played a decadent Roman tribune tasked by Pontius Pilate
(Richard Boone) to supervise the crucifixion of Christ. But after winning Christ’s robe in a dice game, he begins to feel its mystical power and becomes a devoted follower who ultimately sacrifices his own life for his savior. The role was originally intended for Tyrone Power, but Burton stepped in and made the most of his opportunity, earning his second Academy Award nomination and receiving a contract offer for $1 million (a small fortune back then). Burton lost the Oscar to William Holden
and turned down the contract, though he later reconsidered.
A precursor to the kitchen sink movement in 1960s England, Look Back in Anger
cast Burton as Jimmy Porter, an angry young man – the actor was actually 33 at the time – who is college educated, but unable to do better than eke out a blue-collar living. Jimmy’s hopeless existence keeps him down most of the time, which leads him to be verbally abusive to his wife, Alison (Mary Ure). Alison has had enough and leaves at the insistence of her best friend, Helena (Claire Bloom). In turn Jimmy romances Helena, only to have Alison return and complicate his already difficult life with news of a miscarriage. Shot in stark black-and-white, Look Back in Anger
was a bleak look at the life of a working stiff that spawned the so-called angry young man movies of the following decade. Though the film was a commercial flop, Burton remained eminently proud of his work.
20th Century Fox
More infamous than famous, Burton was cast to play Marc Antony to Elizabeth Taylor
’s Cleopatra in this massive epic
that cost a staggering $44 million to make – a price tag that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox despite Cleopatra
being the highest grossing film of 1963. But it was Burton’s behind-the-scenes affair with his co-star that became the stuff of Hollywood legend. At the time, Burton had been married to actress Sybil Williams for almost 14 years, while Taylor was married to Eddie Fisher – her fourth. Their affair became public knowledge during production and caused quite a scandal. Even the Vatican and U.S. Congress stepped in to condemn their adulterous romance. Still, the publicity brought audiences to the theaters in droves and helped stave off complete financial ruin
for the studio. As a whole, Cleopatra
was a study in contradictions: it was the year’s top earner, but a financial flop; an historically inaccurate film panned by historians and critics that earned nine Academy Award nominations and won four. Regardless, the film lived on as one of the most storied productions in Hollywood history, while altering the careers of both Burton and Taylor.
MGM Home Entertainment
In joining forces with director John Huston
, Burton delivered one of the best performances of his career in this adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ melodramatic morality play set in a Mexican coastal town. Burton played an alcoholic defrocked priest turned tour guide who engages in a number of romantic encounters with a group of schoolteachers and meets repressed artist (Deborah Kerr) at a rundown hotel operated by a sultry widow (Ava Gardner) who happens to be in love with him. Naturally, all struggle with inner demons and sexual tensions. A commercial and critical hit, The Night of the Iguana
was one of the better adaptation of Williams’ work
and earned four Academy Award nominations, but none for Burton.
Adapted from the John Le Carre
novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
starred Burton as Alec Leamas, a past-his-prime British spy on the verge of retirement who is pulled from the field and given the task of infiltrating East Germany while pretending to be a defector. But once he’s behind the Iron Curtin, Leamas learns that his assignment is a rouse to set him up as a pawn for a larger operation. Burton made the espionage thriller while on break from his Tony-nominated performance in John Gielgud’s direction of Hamlet
and earned his fourth nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Once again he lost out on the Oscar, this time to Lee Marvin’s dual roles in Cat Ballou
Never before in cinema had marriage been shown in such a harsh and ugly light as it was in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
, Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s incendiary play
. The film was groundbreaking for its use of profanity, thanks to the old Production Code being cast aside by new MPAA president Jack Valenti, and caused a stir among conservative groups. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
depicted Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
as George and Martha, a middle-aged married couple whose lives have been lost in an ocean of booze and disappointment. Put-upon George hasn’t lived up to his potential and remains stuck as an associate professor at his university, while bitter Martha laments his lack of ambition. The two sadistically needle each other over the course of an alcohol-fueled night of “get the guests” and “hump the hostess” while entertaining a young couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) wholly unprepared for their madness. Burton’s performance earned him the fifth Academy Award nomination of his career, but it was Taylor’s tour-de-force performance as the acid-spewing Martha that brought Oscar to the couple’s home.
MGM Home Entertainment
In the early 1970s, Burton began taking mediocre roles in order to finance the extravagant lifestyle he and Taylor led. Most of these were critical and box office duds that harmed his career. But he did enjoy one last major blockbuster hit with Where Eagles Dare
, a tense World War II espionage thriller
about a team of Allied special forces given the impossible task of infiltrating an impenetrable Nazi fortress in order to rescue a captured American general (Robert Beatty). Burton played a British officer leading the allied team which consists of mostly British soldiers, but includes a lone American (Clint Eastwood) who turns out to be the only man he can trust. A high-octane action thriller from start to finish, Where Eagles Dare
featured a number of death-defying stunts and edge-of-the-seat sequences that culminated in a final twist few could see coming. Despite it's success, the film marked the beginning of the end for Burton’s career, while helping boost Eastwood’s rise in the ranks.
MGM Home Entertainment
By the mid-1970s, Burton’s film career reached its lowest point following a string of unexceptional movies like The Klansman
and Exorcist II: The Heretic
. He returned to the stage after a 12 year absence to star in a 1976 Broadway production of Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus
, in which he was a psychiatrist trying to uncover the reason why a young boy mutilated six horses, leading him to discovering secrets of his own. Burton revived the role for the 1977 film adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet
, which earned harsh criticism from some animal groups for its realistic depiction of the mutilations. Burton’s portrayal of a man who’s life and marriage are filled with sadness and anger earned him his seventh and last Academy Award nomination, and was hailed as his last great performance.
20th Century Fox
Following several more mediocre performances, Burton managed to go out on a high note with Nineteen Eighty-Four
, Michael Radford’s excellent adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel
of totalitarianism taking over western civilization. Burton played Inner Party member, O’Brien, at once a sadistic but fatherly figure who helps re-educate Winston Smith (John Hurt), a clerk at the Ministry of Truth arrested by the Thought Police for breaking the law by falling in love with a co-worker (Suzanna Hamilton). In chronic pain throughout the production, the actor labored through and delivered another fine performance, one that proved to be his last. Burton died on Aug. 5, 1984 from a brain hemorrhage just two months before the film’s release. Nineteen Eighty-Four
went on to become a critical hit and allowed Burton one last moment of acclaim.