Richard Burton: 10 essential performances

Oscar-nominated seven times and married to Elizabeth Taylor twice, Richard Burton was one of the great Welsh movie stars, bringing his sonorous voice and commanding presence to a string of classic films.

Amy Simmons

Richard Burton (right) with director Tony Richardson during production on Look Back in Anger (1959)

Richard Burton (right) with director Tony Richardson during production on Look Back in Anger (1959)

With his rugged good looks, captivating presence and melodic baritone voice, Welsh-born actor Richard Burton is best known for his brooding portrayals of intellectually articulate men who are world-weary, pessimistic or self-destructive. Alternating between London theatre, Broadway and Hollywood through the 1950s and 60s, Burton also conquered radio for the BBC’s classic recording of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, which he famously voiced in both the original radio play in 1954 and Andrew Sinclair’s 1972 film version.

Yet, while he was nominated seven times for an Oscar, his career sometimes risked being eclipsed by his tempestuous personal life, including numerous marriages – most famously to Elizabeth Taylor, to whom he was wedded twice.

With his powerful turn in Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959) currently back on the big screen as part of our celebration of Woodfall Films, we pay tribute to 10 of Burton’s best.

Look Back in Anger (1959)

Director Tony Richardson

Look Back in Anger (1959)

In Tony Richardson’s directorial debut, Burton gives a no-holds-barred performance as a disillusioned, working-class university graduate, Jimmy Porter, whose volcanic aggression is chiefly directed at his upper-middle-class, impassive wife Alison (Mary Ure). Shooting in icy black and white, Richardson keeps the camera fixated on Jimmy’s excruciating levels of raw emotion, as he veers from blazing outrage to pitiful vulnerability. A gritty starting-shot in Britain’s ‘kitchen sink’ movement, Look Back in Anger cemented Burton’s position as a film actor on the rise.

Cleopatra (1963)

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Cleopatra (1963)

Burton stepped up to superstar status playing Mark Antony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Ancient Egypt behemoth Cleopatra, which cost a then record-breaking $44m. He and co-star Elizabeth Taylor (playing the eponymous queen of the Nile) became intimately acquainted during production, igniting a media frenzy – not least because both of them were married to other partners at the time. Although largely dismissed as a lumbering misfire, Cleopatra remains notable for the pair’s ferocious on-screen sparring and intense sexual chemistry. Their turbulent relationship would be tabloid news for years to come, and they went on to work in 11 films together. 

Becket (1964)

Director Peter Glenville

Becket (1964)

Based on the Tony Award-winning play by Jean Anouilh, Peter Glenville’s classic drama explores the complex relationship between Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his most trusted minister and companion in debauchery, Thomas Becket (Burton). Both actors play their characters with absolute conviction – Burton’s stoic and restrained performance serving as a perfect counterbalance to O’Toole’s ragingly insecure king.

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

Director John Huston

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

In John Huston’s adaptation of the 1961 play by Tennessee Williams, Burton delivers a career-best performance as Lawrence Shannon, an alcoholic, defrocked minister (the result of a sex scandal), who escapes to Mexico to start a new life as a tour guide. Boasting an outstanding ensemble cast, including Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon, The Night of the Iguana serves up just enough spice to keep Williams’ sardonic fantasy of sexual subjugation intact. 

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

Director Martin Ritt

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

This engrossing adaptation of John le Carré’s twisty espionage novel features Burton as a bitter and burned-out English spy, Alec Leamas, who is sent undercover to East Germany to ensnare an old foe, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter Van Eyck). Burton’s subtle and nuanced performance is nothing short of a masterclass in how to be broken, detached, hostile and haunted. Martin Ritt’s white-knuckle thriller exerts a tight hold.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Director Mike Nichols

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Adapted from Edward Albee’s dark stage masterpiece, Mike Nichols’ harrowing directorial debut represents a milestone in psychological realism in the American cinema, revered for its direction and outstanding performances. Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are fiercely compelling as the battling couple, George and Martha, whose marriage troubles viciously erupt before the horrified eyes of their guests (George Segal and Sandy Dennis).

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Director Brian G. Hutton

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Noted for its thrilling action sequences and commanding performances from Burton and Clint Eastwood, this big-budget Second World War thriller follows a team of British paratroopers, led by a major (Burton) and an American lieutenant (Eastwood) who are sent by MI6 to infiltrate an impenetrable Nazi fortress in Bavaria. Farfetched it may be, but Where Eagles Dare is also just about the apex of the war-is-fun school of big-budget filmmaking.

Under Milk Wood (1972)

Director Andrew Sinclair

Under Milk Wood (1972)

Based on the original play by Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood chronicles a day in the life of the residents of a small Welsh seaside village called Llareggub (read it backwards). Eloquently narrated by Burton – referred to in the credits as the ‘First Voice’ – Sinclair’s joyfully surreal adaptation faithfully captures the play’s whimsical mood while offering an endearing, often hilarious examination of the oddballs and eccentrics that pepper the community. 

Equus (1977)

Director Sidney Lumet

Equus (1977)

Adapted from Peter Shaffer’s unsettling stage play, Sidney Lumet’s Equus focuses on jaded psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Burton) and a psychologically damaged stable boy (Peter Firth) who is placed under his observation after the latter inexplicably blinds several horses. Burton gives an exemplary performance here as the doctor who attempts to expose the truth behind the boy’s demons, while coming face to face with his own crippling anxieties.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Director Michael Radford

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

There’s no escape from Big Brother in George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare, here intriguingly adapted by director Michael Radford. Burton plays O’Brien, a sinister member of the totalitarian government who interrogates and tortures a low-ranking office worker, Winston Smith (John Hurt). During filming, Burton was racked by ill health, yet he delivered another exceptional performance, one that proved to be his last. Burton died suddenly of a stroke at the age of 58, just two months before Nineteen Eighty-Four was due to be released. He was buried with a copy of Dylan Thomas’s poems.

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