Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



27 February



Elizabeth Taylor born, 1932

On this day in 1932 Elizabeth Taylor was born, in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, UK. Her parents were American, originally from Arkansas, and her mother was a former actress. Often considered the last true star of Hollywood’s golden era – before TV made inroads in the 1950s – Taylor’s career started when she was nine, with There’s One Born Every Minute, followed up two years later with Lassie Come Home. Then came National Velvet, and at the age of 12 Elizabeth Taylor was a star. She remained, partly thanks to her violet eyes, double eyelashes, pale skin and shock of dark hair, an iconic star until she died. Her most significant run of films came in the mid/late 1950s, when she made Giant with James Dean (1956), Raintree County (1957) with Montgomery Clift, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) with Paul Newman, all of which earned her Oscar nominations, as did Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Butterfield 8 (1960) which finally won her an Academy Award. Always a reluctant actress, Taylor became famous in the 1960s for her marriage to Richard Burton, in the 1970s for her marriage again to Burton, in the 1980s for her Aids campaigning work, and from the 1990s onwards for simply still being around – she had been an alcoholic, addicted to sleeping pills, had had a brain tumour, skin cancer, broken her back five times and had survived life-threatening pneumonia twice, once while making her most famous film, Cleopatra (in fact you can see a tracheotomy scar that the pneumonia necessitated in some of the shots). She died in 2011.




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

We’ve all had nights like these but there are very few films about them. We turn up at someone’s house for dinner only to realise we’ve arrived at a delicate time. Our hosts’ relationship is in trouble, they’re drunk and instead of the evening of food, drink and convivial chat that we expect, we’re ushered into a war zone. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play Martha and George the married couple – she’s the daughter of the college president where he is now a professor sitting pretty. Meanwhile George Segal and Sandy Dennis play the young faculty couple invited over after a campus party for “one for the road”. It is Segal and Dennis who get to wear the tin hats and duck. When the film first came out, its censor-busting ripe language and its portrayal of a hellish night of increasingly drunken raving was seen as the screen manifestation of Taylor and Burton’s actual relationship, famously stormy. But the film is more than just a peek behind the celebrity curtain. It’s a fantastic tour de force of acting, in which Taylor shows she was not just as good but even better than Burton – he always said she was and here’s the proof. Edward Albee’s original play had been hailed as one of the best of the last decade (by the New York Times, among others) and director Mike Nichols and screen adapter Ernest Lehman don’t bother opening it out too much. For the most part they let Albee’s words and the performances do the work, and Nichols often puts his camera right in the face of either Burton or Taylor in full flow, so we can almost feel the spittle. Burton, playing the professor with a cosy life and a well of self-reproach to draw on, is as good as we’ve come to expect (he’d been similarly self-loathing in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold the year before). It’s Taylor who is the revelation, a foul-mouthed spitfire whose husband has not kept her in the style which her upbringing had led her to expect. Her performance also can be traced back – to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when she was also an entitled dame with daddy issues. At the time it was the swearing that made the film so exciting, shocking, fun. Now it’s more the snap of the repartee (Martha: “You’re going bald.” George: “So are you.”) And the performances, so rapaciously ugly that they’re painful to watch even now. There’s a reason why this is so rarely shown on TV.



Why Watch?


  • All four actors were Oscar nominated for Best/Supporting gongs – a first
  • Haskell Wexler’s Oscar winning cinematography
  • The best of Burton and Taylor’s 11 films together
  • Director Mike Nichols’s debut


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Buy it/watch it at Amazon





The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



19 December



Birth of Leonid Brezhnev, 1906

On this day in 1906, the very last old-school leader of the USSR was born.

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was born into Tsarist Russia, the son of workers. Thanks to an education at a technical school he became a metallurgist, joined Komsomol (the Communist youth movement) and started to make his way in the party, becoming a political commissar in a tank factory by the age of 30, and eventually party secretary in Dnipropetrovsk, a Ukrainian city intimately connected to the arms industry.

As a result of Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s, Brezhnev advanced rapidly into suddenly available positions. He was tasked with important work in the Second World War and acquitted himself well.

Brezhnev had been Nikita Khrushchev’s protégé since the early 1930s, and as Khrushchev’s star rose, so did Brezhnev’s. Stalin appointed him a member of the Presidium in 1952. In 1953 Stalin died and Khrushchev took over. Brezhnev’s time had come.

When Khrushchev was removed in 1964, partly as a result of Brezhnev’s manoeuvrings, Brezhnev took over, on a ticket of restoring collective leadership of the USSR.

However, by a series of quiet strategies he managed to collect power around himself.

Brezhnev’s era was marked by the suppression of Khrushchev’s political liberalism, a strengthening of the power of the KGB and the restoration of the cult of the leader.

Some experiments were made with free-market principles (in Hungary, for example). Until 1973 the USSR economy continued to expand rapidly (as it had done since the Revolution) but after 1973 spending on the arms race as well as a general intransigence of the leadership began to act as a drag on the economy – the standard of living started to fall, services began to deteriorate. By that time Brezhnev had also become a pill-popping drunk.

For the last seven years of his life Brezhnev was not a well man – he suffered strokes and heart attacks, had emphysema, gout and possibly leukaemia. He was brought back to life several times before, in 1982, dying of a final heart attack aged 76.

Having presided over a Kremlin increasingly full of old men while he lived, Brezhnev was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, aged 70. Yuri Androprov only lasted 15 months before he too was dead. 13 months after that Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was dead too, aged 73.

Enter Mikhail Gorbachev, aged 54.




The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1964, dir: Martin Ritt)

Written by a former spy, John Le Carré, and shot in a style borrowed from British kitchen-sink miserablists, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is probably the best Cold War film ever made, not least because it eschews the glamour of spying and spies – no James Bond heroics. In fact there aren’t even the tawdry delights of tinned mushrooms, one of the small luxuries available to The Ipcress File’s Harry Palmer.

This is spying as nasty, brutish work, where your own side is so out of control of the situation that there’s a good chance you’ll die as a result of their efforts.

It is also, probably, the best screen performance by Richard Burton, as the spy being courted by the other side because they believe he might be happy to change sides now he’s been demoted to a desk job. But the communists are worried that he is in fact a double agent, a notion that the film spends some time being a bit cagey about too.

It’s a good one, but I’m not sure that plot is really what this film is about. Atmosphere seems more director Martin Ritt’s concern – in bleak meetings on park benches or in shabby hotel rooms, or simply in shots of Burton’s Alec Leamas drinking himself senseless in his shabby bedsit, Ritt is after a feeling you didn’t get in spy films of the era, of compromise, muddy morality and of the end justifying the means.

In the centre of this we have Burton, the embodiment of that atmosphere, craggy, hollow-eyed, a husk. The decision to shoot in black and white always requires justification, but none is required here: this is a drab world of buses and drizzle, of barbed wire and rough grey blankets, and cinematographer Oswald Morris’s noirish tones are exactly what is required.

And so, from a different perspective, is Claire Bloom, playing the sweet idealist who believes that communism might actually be the solution to the world’s problems. Not because she’s a communist but because the alternative, believing in nothing, is what makes people like Alec Leamas.



Why Watch?


  • The greatly under-rated director Martin Ritt (The Sound and the Fury, Hud)
  • Oswald Morris’s cinematography
  • A support cast including Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern
  • First cinematic appearance of Le Carré’s spymaster George Smiley


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – at Amazon


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Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton in Becket


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



10 November



Richard Burton born, 1925

On this day in 1925, Richard Walter Jenkins was born, in Pontrhydyfen, Wales. Richard was child number 12 and his mother later died giving birth to child number 13; his father was a coal miner, drinker and gambler.

A star athlete, young Richard adopted the name Burton after his drama teacher, Philip H Burton, de facto adopted him, and it was Philip Burton who worked on the young man’s voice, turning it from a tinny nasally thing into the sonorous boom that was to make him (along with his Roman god looks and acting ability) his fortune.

Eventually nominated seven times for an Oscar, though he never won one (a record), Burton arrived in the world of film having already conquered the London and Broadway stage, his first film being the British production The Last Days of Dolwyn, for which he got good notices. His first Hollywood movie was 1952’s My Cousin Rachel and it made him an international star.

Through the 1950s and early 1960s Burton alternated London theatre, Broadway musical (he was a smash hit in Camelot) and Hollywood movies, pausing to also conquer radio with his recording of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, still definitive.

In the 1960s he became famous for marrying Elizabeth Taylor, appeared with her in her best film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and descended with her into alcoholism.

By the 1970s his drinking was so bad that it was affecting his career and his strength; his body was wasting away. Still, he was still outwardly in good enough shape to make The Wild Geese, the creaky British action drama in which Burton starred alongside Roger Moore and Richard Harris as the world’s oldest, fattest crack team of go-anywhere troubleshooters.

In 1984, having just made the film adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, he died of a stroke, aged 58, an old man.



Becket (1964, dir: Peter Glenville)

Great in so many ways, Becket is the film for seeing two titans of the screen at their absolute prime.

Richard Burton is Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard O’Toole is King Henry II. Both are friends who have become increasingly distant with the years, the film catching them at the point where it becomes easier for Henry to get rid of the “meddlesome priest” rather than have to argue with him again about whether God or the King is pre-eminent, and whether the indigenous Saxon is being too keenly oppressed by the Norman invader (of whom Henry II is one).

Apart from the performances, titanic as already said, Becket offers a complex play that is at least in part about the conquered French people’s relations with the Nazi victor – to collaborate or not? – which still works all these decades later, even if Jean Anouilh (the writer of the original play) has to torture history slightly to make events fit. And Anouilh’s injection of a homosexual subtext is also a distortion of real events, though it does add a spark to what is, after all, a love story gone bad.

Language was Burton’s first love and Edward Anhalt has done a brilliant job with Anouilh’s play, turning Becket into another example of the joustingly witty historical drama that the 1960s seemed keen on (A Man for All Seasons, Spartacus), a feat which has eluded the decades since. To even up the balance sheet a bit, it is an amazingly stagey film and seems to propose a medieval England lit with arc lamps (this, too, was a 1960s thing) and a king’s crown clearly made of cardboard. But when the rest of a film is this good, it seems almost rude to point things like that out.



Why Watch?


  • Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole
  • An intelligent, funny, genuinely dramatic script
  • A great supporting cast including John Gielgud, Sian Phillips and Donald Wolfit
  • Nominated for 12 Oscars, won one – a record number of near-misses



© Steve Morrissey 2013



Becket – at Amazon





The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold



Based on the breakthrough novel by former spy John Le Carré, shot in black and white to suggest that espionage is unglamorous, dirty work and starring a hollowed out Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is as far from James Bond as it’s possible to get – further, even than Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer of the Ipcress File. Telling the story of a jaded spy who is busted to a desk job in London and then recruited by East German intelligence – or that’s what they think – it’s a bleak marvel, as redolent of the drab side of the 1960s as the smell of a wet duffel coat. Martin Ritt directs, and you’d not guess from the portrait painted of life behind the Iron Curtain that he’d been blacklisted in the US, for supposedly having Communist sympathies. Mind you, the picture he paints of life in Britain, just emerging from economic lockdown after going broke fighting the Nazis, is hardly sympathetic either.

Though critically rated, the film did not do overly well at the box office, the public being still in the first flush of love with 007 and finding the lack of car chases, gadgets and no-strings sex something of a letdown. And Ritt’s determination to keep the boomy theatrics out of the performances by Burton and his co-stars (including Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner and Peter Van Eyck) probably didn’t help sell it to the glamour-hungry either.

Not everyone loves this film. Some find it too dark, too grey. But in its depiction of an almost heretical character – the spy who seems ambivalent towards his country – it takes a type established by Graham Greene and adds several dollops of bleak. Le Carré, Ritt and Burton know exactly what they’re about, and they’re all facing in exactly the same direction.




Trivia hounds might like to note that the film also features the first screen appearance of Le Carré’s most famous creation, George Smiley (played here by Rupert Davies), who’d go on to be played in later films by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and, most recently by Gary Oldman.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – at Amazon