Richard Burton for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a theater lover’s ideal film. Its script is nearly untouched, its cast perfectly chosen and is directed with with such careful precision. The film was controversial upon its release due to its graphic dialogue and unapologetic characters. The film also challenged the context of marriage, showing its ugly underbelly concerning a young and aging couple. The film also presented alcohol as the film’s serum for bitter truths and grim realities. Yet what made the film effective was its four person cast with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the leading roles. By default, they crafted the aura and environment of the film. While Elizabeth Taylor won the Oscar for Best Actress, Richard Burton found himself at yet another Oscar loss.

The film essentially is about two couples who are already drunk when the film starts, but continue to drink throughout the night together until dawn. The drunker they get, the more secrets and lies are exposed amongst each other. The night turns into a game of who can outsmart who with grim truths that only inflict harm and emotional damage once revealed.

Richard Burton’s performance is highly effective in that his role relies upon Elizabeth Taylor’s performance, and vice-versa. His performance also relied upon being reactionary while also being offensive. He needed to convey resentment while also conveying admiration. He had to show anger while showing martial commitment. Burton’s performance, like that of Taylor’s, required him to exhibit multiple emotions all at once. Never once does his, or Taylor’s, words and actions not have an ulterior motive. This a highly difficult feat to achieve, to which Burton and Taylor do seemingly without blinking an eye. Most glaring, though, is that Burton’s performance wouldn’t have worked without Taylor being equally magnificent. The same goes to Taylor without Burton being her equal as well. Therefore, Taylor winning the Oscar, while Burton did not, proved to be highly contradictory with the Academy Awards in 1966.

Lost to: Paul Scofield for A Man for All Seasons (1966)

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7 thoughts on “Richard Burton for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

  1. I watched this film a few months ago and was shocked when I checked afterwards that Burton did not win an Oscar for his performance. He was incredible and one of the best performances ever!

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    1. Of the 7 nominations Burton got in his career, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf was his best chance, and it’s a real shame he didn’t win. It’s acting perfection. Side note, Burton was one of Hollywood’s most astounding actors and they never even bothered to give him an Honorary Oscar. Such a shame.

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      1. I really need to watch more of his work! I would love to see this on the stage, I have a thing about films that are based on plays. They are usually so clever and have the best dialogue!

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      2. I actually saw the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Arena Stage in DC in 2011 that starred Tracy Letts, Amy Morton and Carrie Coon. The production eventually won the Tony for Best Play Revival. I still tell people that that production was the BEST thing I’ve ever seen on a stage. Nothing has surpassed it yet.

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      3. Also, just because a film is based on a play, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sure hit (though usually they are!). I saw a production of August: Osage County at the Keegan Theatre in DC that was astounding. Actually gave the production of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf a real challenge of being outdone. I was thrilled about a movie being made based upon the play and when I finally saw it…I hated it. The film had none of the guts or the witty dialogue exchange that the film had. And I will argue Meryl Streep was miscast in the film. After seeing a stunning performance of the role on stage, Meryl just seemed so fake in comparison.

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