Tag Archives: Richard Burton

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opens with this gentle, lovely music from Alex North. It’s night, it’s a university campus, a couple is walking silently as the credits roll; the music’s beautiful. Then the couple–Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton–get home. And pretty soon they start yelling at each other. And they don’t stop until the end of the movie, some two hours away–unless they aren’t in a scene together.

Burton is a history professor and Taylor’s suffering husband. Taylor is the university president’s daughter and Burton’s suffering wife. The film starts with them getting home from a faculty party at two in the morning. They’re both drunk and so they start drinking some more. But Taylor has invited over a new professor and his wife so they’re going to have a middle-of-the-night party, much to Burton’s chagrin.

The guests are George Segal and Sandy Dennis. Dennis is a little tipsy when they arrive, but Segal’s basically sober. Burton–correctly–guesses Taylor agreed to host the welcoming party (at her never seen father’s request) because Segal is something of a young blond stud and up-and-comer, not a middle-aged fuddy-duddy career burnout like Burton.

As the film progresses, the group–there are only the four characters in the film (with two uncredited actors at a roadside bar later on)–breaks up and reforms. Taylor gives Dennis a tour of the house, offscreen, while Segal and Burton bond. More Segal realizes his hosts are majorly dysfunctional and wants to get out of there, but ends up sticking around, getting drunker, with Taylor getting bolder and bolder about hitting on him. Dennis is oblivious, Burton is quietly raging.

Eventually–once they’re drunker–Segal and Burton have another bonding moment, while–again–Dennis and Taylor are offscreen. Segal and Taylor get scenes together, Dennis and Burton get scenes together. And little by little, it becomes clear there’s a lot more going on than Taylor’s a drunk unfaithful wife to Burton’s sad sack, drunken academic failure.

Woolf is exceptional on every level. The way Nichols directs the actors. Ernest Lehman’s script–adapting Edward Albee’s play. The performances. That Alex North music. The Haskell Wexler black and white photography, which gives the viewer insight into these uncomfortable moments–like when Taylor starts flirting with Segal and Dennis is in the background and the scene’s not about Taylor’s flirtatious rambling but whether or not Dennis is catching up with what’s going on. And then what her awareness or lack thereof means given Burton’s in the room too.

Dennis has a bunch of surprises in store, narratively and performance-wise, for later in the film. Virginia Woolf gets disquieting before Segal and Dennis even show up at the house, because Taylor’s obviously unstable. Possibly dangerously unstable. The film’s revelations about Taylor and Burton to their guests (and the viewer) drives their character development. This revelation or that revelation calls back to a previous one and where there’s an–intentional or drunken–disconnect fuels the development. Dennis and Segal are different. There’s definitely some development through revelation, but they’re not the film’s subjects. They’re both messed up a little with secrets of their own, but it’s nothing compared to Taylor and Burton.

Taylor gets top-billing and the best monologue. Burton’s second-billed but the protagonist. His monologues are different. He’s not self-reflective drunk or sober. Taylor’s self-reflective sober. Well, sober for her. Burton’s always trying to stay one step ahead of Taylor while she’s just naturally devious and manipulative. They’re both exhausted–the story itself is a marathon, with the two couples getting drunker and drunker as the night goes on. Movie starts at two in the morning, ends four or so hours later. So not real-time, but fairly continuous action. All of the characters (and actors) exhibit the exhaustion in different ways. While Dennis and Segal are the guests and their exhaustion is tied to them being in someone else’s home, Taylor and Burton are sort of in their normal. Their terrifying normal. Exhaustion included.

The script has the dialogue level, with Burton trying to torment his guests with wordplay and maybe embarrass Taylor a little with it, and then the narrative. This development, that revelation, all perfectly plotted out. Nichols hits every one just right. He gets the intensity of the scenes, the dialogue, the performances, all beautifully shot by Wexler, then Sam O’Steen’s editing packages them all together into these astounding, draining scenes. There’s a lot of dread in Virginia Woolf, even if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be dreading. From the first moment after the peaceful opening titles, the film’s primed for an explosion.

Singular acting. Segal’s the least great and he’s still great. Taylor and Burton kind of duke it out for best performance. They’re very different parts with very different requirements. It’s incredible how well Nichols directs the film, given his two leads are operating at different speeds and different narrative distances. And then you throw in Segal and, especially, Dennis. She’s phenomenal in the film’s toughest part. Because she’s got to be quiet. Burton, Taylor, and even Segal all get to be loud but Dennis does this startling, quiet performance.

And even when it seems like you finally get Virginia Woolf as the film goes into the third act, it turns out there are still some big twists. The film’s biggest twist isn’t even its loudest. And the loudest one is head-blowing big.

Richard Sylbert’s production design–the house and its yard where the action mostly takes place (though the roadside bar is also great)–is stellar.

As I said before, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exceptional. On every level. It’s “run out of positive adjectives” exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Edward Albee; director of photography, Haskell Wexler; edited by Sam O’Steen; production designer, Richard Sylbert; music by Alex North; produced by Lehman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), and Sandy Dennis (Honey).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE REGALING ABOUT RICHARD BURTON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY GILL OF REALWEEGIEMIDGET REVIEWS.


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My Cousin Rachel (1952, Henry Koster)

Olivia de Havilland is top-billed on My Cousin Rachel, but Richard Burton’s the star. For better or worse. Burton’s a young English gentleman, de Havilland is his cousin. And his cousin–and guardian’s–widow. She doesn’t appear for the first twenty-five minutes of the film, which instead have Burton becoming more and more concerned for his missing relative, who’s met de Havilland in Italy and impetuously married her.

The cousin calls for Burton because he suspects de Havilland (well, we don’t technically know it’s de Havilland yet because she isn’t in the movie yet) of poisoning him or somehow doing evil to him.

Burton’s trip to Italy culminates the film’s problems with rear screen projection. There’s some bad rear screen projection later, but pretty soon the movie is just set on the estate. The first act is rife with problems though. Joseph LaShelle’s photography never matches, contrast-wise, and director Koster shoots Burton super broody in front of those shots. Burton gets a lot better once de Havilland shows up, but at the beginning, he’s moody for no discernible reason. Other than him–at twenty-four–not being grown-up enough to be home alone (without the cousin who’s going to marry de Havilland… off-screen).

It causes a big disconnect as later on Burton’s often pouting about no one thinking he can put on his big boy pants by himself.

The Italy sequence is mostly indoors, with a couple too brief establishing shots. They don’t have problematic rear screen projection, they have problematic matte paintings. Again, it’s more the photography not matching than anything else causing the problems.

Once Burton gets back–after making a vow over his cousin’s grave to get to the bottom of his death–de Havilland shows up. She’s broke. Burton got all the money. He suspects her of being after it. Only it turns out she’s so sweet and sexy (even if she is thirty-five), Burton can’t resist her.

And then My Cousin Rachel turns into this wonderfully uncomfortable “romance” between de Havilland and Burton. Is she leading him on, how much is she leading him on, is she saint or villain. With a handful of exceptions, all of de Havilland’s scenes are opposite Burton. She gets few to herself, usually meant to raise or assuage the audience’s suspicions, but otherwise every moment is confusion. There’s Burton’s reliability, which gets more and more suspect as he gets more and more enraptured with her, but there’s also de Havilland’s actions and her timing of them. She’s definitely manipulating Burton; is it accidental or intentional. de Havilland has to raise those suspicions in scene and in subtext. There are no showdowns, no big revelations from her. She’s always a mystery. Only de Havilland doesn’t play it like she’s an intentional mystery.

The supporting cast oscillates between reinforcing suspicions and alleviating them. Burton’s guardian, Ronald Squire, is sometimes sure de Havilland’s good, sometimes sure she’s bad. Audrey Dalton, as Squire’s daughter and Burton’s initially presumed love interest, actually has the hardest part in the film because she’s got to get clued in to Burton’s obsession without ever seeing de Havilland encourage it. Given how things shake out in the end–and how badly the Italy interlude goes–Dalton probably should’ve been the protagonist (but not lead). She’s pretty much the only sympathetic character in the whole picture.

Then there’s George Dolenz as de Havilland’s Italian admirer and confidant. He’s another creep who might or might not be a creep. But since Burton gets to be quite the creep himself….

After a somewhat unsteady opening, the film gets quite good for the second and third acts. Burton’s a little too flat in his brooding, but de Havilland plays off it perfectly (apparently they couldn’t stand each other, which just seems to make their lop-sided chemistry all the better). And there’s even some great rear screen projection, albeit not of landscapes but for dream sequences.

The finale, however, is way too abrupt. The film forgets its been calling Burton’s reliability into question and only wants to concentrate on de Havilland’s. In the third act, even in good scenes, it’s hard not to notice there are only two female roles in Rachel–de Havilland’s succubus and Dalton’s saint. Even de Havilland and Dalton bring more to the parts, Johnson’s script doesn’t reward their contributions.

Franz Waxman’s score is all important. It’s dramatic, emotive, scary, lush, tragic, romantic. All the adjectives. The music is what gets the movie through some of the bad rear screen projection photography too. It implies a lot more going on in Burton’s head than Burton’s expressions or the narration do.

Koster’s direction is okay. It’s a little bland and it does nothing to get around the Code constraints, but some of those problems are Johnson’s fault, both as screenwriter and producer. Otherwise, Johnson’s script is excellent.

The movie just cops out with Burton, who’s the lead, even if he’s not top-billed. It’s constructed to cop out on de Havilland, but not on Burton, which is a shame. The film overcomes that first act and gets quite good thanks to de Havilland only to choke at its conclusion. Burton’s too flat on his own, sure, but it’s also on Johnson and Koster.

It’s a shame.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Henry Koster; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Johnson; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Olivia de Havilland (Rachel), Richard Burton (Philip), Audrey Dalton (Louise), Ronald Squire (Kendall), George Dolenz (Rainaldi), Tudor Owen (Seecombe), and John Sutton (Ambrose).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE THIRD ANNUAL OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND BLOGATHON HOSTED BY PHYLLIS OF PHYLLIS LOVES CLASSIC MOVIES AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, John Boorman)

Oh, no, Ennio Morricone did the music for Exorcist II: The Heretic. I feel kind of bad now because the music is not good and I like Ennio Morricone. I’m sure I’ve liked something cinematographer William A. Fraker photographed too, but his photography in Heretic is atrocious. Because it’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, everything about it is atrocious. It doesn’t even look like anyone had any fun; it’s not like director Boorman goofed off and then slapped together some awful sequel involving hypnosis and super-beings among us. Maybe some stuff got changed, but all the stupid was always there.

In addition to the stupid there’s the bad. Bad acting. Lots of bad acting. Richard Burton is bad. I like Richard Burton but he is very bad in this film. Louise Fletcher isn’t great either. She might be better than Burton but has a worse part so it’s iffy. But then Burton does perv out on Linda Blair, who’s probably seventeen in a bunch of this movie, and she’s supposed to be playing a sixteen year-old. It’s strange because Boorman clearly tries not to get creepy with Blair when she’s doing a dance act, but then he’ll get creepy whenever she’s in a nightgown or something. It’s weird. It’s another weird, awful thing about this movie.

Awful cameo from Ned Beatty. Embarrassingly to both Beatty and the film. Kitty Winn’s bad. Belinda Beatty’s fine. She sort of disappears once it’s established priest Burton can understand the mental telepathy machine doctor Fletcher has cooked up to cure children of mental illness. Burton sees its potential in demon-hunting.

And then it just gets stupider. And stupider. And stupider. And the sets are crap and Fraker can’t shoot them and it’s long and why does Burton take Blair to a creepy hotel and how is it possible there isn’t a single line of good dialogue in the whole thing. It’s awful. But in a way you do want to watch it, you do want to see where it goes, because it goes all over the place.

The Heretic. Yuck. But kind of amusingly yuck.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Boorman; screenplay by William Goodhart, based on characters created by William Peter Blatty; director of photography, William A. Fraker; edited by Tom Priestley; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Boorman and Richard Lederer; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Richard Burton (Father Philip Lamont), Louise Fletcher (Dr. Gene Tuskin), Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer), Belinda Beatty (Liz), Paul Henreid (The Cardinal), James Earl Jones (Kokumo) and Ned Beatty (Obnoxious man).


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Equus (1977, Sidney Lumet)

The inevitable unpleasantness in Equus, which is promised from the second or third scene, manages to be more horrifying than I expected. At the beginning of the film, it’s possible to steel oneself for it, but by the end, it becomes a lot more like the sensation of striking one finger against the other. At the beginning, the viewer knows the finger is going to be struck, by the end, he or she is feeling it on both. Peter Firth’s amazing performance–and Firth really is amazing–contributes, but it’s also the script and the direction. The conclusion–Equus is described all over as a mystery, but it really isn’t: once the father makes his opaque confession, it’s all very predictable. And it played out exactly like it figured, but it was still exceptionally effective. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sidney Lumet use violence in this way before.

But the end of the film isn’t that inescapable event. The event drowns the viewer, so he or she is gasping for air during the ending, more than a little distracted. And Equus‘s end is an end to a different film. A shorter one, focusing on Richard Burton. Regardless of Firth’s acting accomplishments here, his character isn’t particularly compelling. Obscured, he’s interesting. Even in the therapy scenes–which look, at times, enough like Ordinary People I wonder how many times Redford saw this one–he’s somewhat interesting. But Lumet does these flashbacks–with Firth playing the character at every age. It’s effective, but distracting from the main force of the film–Burton.

With his unbecoming, unkept hair and his tired face–and with Lumet shooting his bald spot every chance he gets–Burton is champion. As the psychiatrist, encumbered with an empty, unhappy life of his own passive design, Burton pulls off the impossible. He’s got six or seven scenes–from the play’s staging, obviously–speaking directly to the camera. This film is Burton’s, Burton’s story, Burton’s to succeed or fail with. And his performance is just wonderful. It’s so good, it’s worth rewinding to watch a speech again.

Lumet goes for a haunting close to Equus and it kind of works. It works well enough to smooth over the problems with Firth’s character’s close (given how much time’s spent on him, he gets the short end). The music–and the editing–and Lumet’s really odd camera angles for this one–all contribute. The supporting cast, particularly Colin Blakely and Joan Plowright, are great. Given Shaffer’s adapted his own play, odds were never good for a proper filmic refocusing, but it doesn’t matter. Even with the obese script, Burton and Firth and Lumet are all in top form… Burton better than.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Peter Shaffer, based on his play; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by John Victor-Smith; music by Richard Rodney Bennett; production designer, Tony Walton; produced by Elliot Kastner and Lester Persky; released by United Artists.

Starring Richard Burton (Martin Dysart), Peter Firth (Alan Strang), Colin Blakely (Frank Strang), Joan Plowright (Dora Strang), Harry Andrews (Harry Dalton), Eileen Atkins (Hesther Saloman), Jenny Agutter (Jill Mason) and Kate Reid (Margaret Dysart).


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