Richard Burton received his fifth Oscar nomination for portraying George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
I must say from doing these Oscar reviews one of the biggest joys I get out of it is being able to see the various highs and lows of the careers of various actors. Burton is a very interesting case since the last review of Burton I did was the Robe which was rather negative since he was able to be both wooden and laughably over the top at the same time. Luckily for Burton I end the reviews of his performances with this particularly performance not only heralded as his best but one of the best ever nominated in this category.
George certainly is challenging role since he might be the most difficult character to pull of correctly in the entire cast of this film, which in light of the other characters that is really saying something. George is a strange character in that we learn a great deal about, but at the same time were may learn far less about than we might think since all of his stories he tells may or may not be true, and or may or may not really be about George truly and completely.
Burton does not show that there is any really effort to meet this challenge of George, he simply embodies George from beginning to end without question. What I find fascinating about this performance is how easily Burton takes on George seamlessly. This technically is an actory role, with much yelling and all that yet Burton never comprises his performance into any cheap sideshow or freak show instead he fully realizes George as the odd enigma very naturally despite the type of character George is.
What I find amazing for me anyways, is how Burton is always able to captivate attention on the screen at all times, certainly it is true that he has the most screen time out of anyone and that I purposely was watching the film for his performance, but the first time I watched the film I had the same reaction. Burton is able to keep attention on himself even when others are talking, which is an effective, and interesting way he portrays the condition of George in the earlier moments of the film.
Burton really underplays the condition of George which is quite effective, he shows George to be almost shell, only almost, as since in the other film it shows he still has a lot left in him, but in his lowly position at least according to Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) he seems to have just been basically wasting away. Burton never visibly tries this to show this, instead he simply embodies the history of George, and the current state he is in.
Burton and Taylor's chemistry is perfectly effective for the film, having the best dynamic really possible. Taylor as Martha is always more obviously angry, and discontented with George, whereas Burton underplays the hatred, at least first, he subtly suggests his utter distaste for his wife beneath his cold stares. I think what makes their dynamic special is that although they certianly hate each other, and Burton and Taylor establish that this goes far beyond one night, there is small attempts at tenderness, or intimacy, inserted by the actors to appropriately show that they were not always that way.
Burton early on is fascinating in particular the early moment where Matha continually speaks ill of George to their younger married guests Nick (George Segal), and Honey (Sandy Dennis). Martha is the one speaking, but Burton certainly keeps are attention as well as George just sits there seemingly just taking it. Burton does not just sit there doing nothing, but suggests George's history of certainly hearing this many many times before through his casual way with Martha, as well as though that there still is certianly hatred always simmering underneath, but George is better at hiding it than Matha.
Burton's casualness he brings to the part frankly makes George all the more disturbing and chilling, such as in that early scene where he just slowly walks off and finds the fake gun, Burton's total nonchalant fashion in which he slowly walks to do it like he was moseying through a grocery store has the perfect ghastly quality, sure it turns out in to be a joke but Burton certianly portrays it as a true desire of George's. He also in this scene shows that to George this life with Martha is one long game he is playing.
In every scene where George is alone with either of the guests, Honest and especially when with Nick we see a different side of George. Burton shows George to frankly more outgoing with Martha, around suggesting he must be more on the defense with Martha, but here George takes the offensive with the guests. George becomes devilishly playful fellow, rather happy, in the most disturbing fashion. Burton here always is outgoing entertaining most certianly, but still always shows the undercurrent of George's mind working the way he is pulling everything out of the guests in order to use to best it will serve him.
Burton handles all of these scenes with absolute ease, and naturalism, which is amazing considering how easy it would have been to overact them. Burton manages though to always stay absolute on the mark with George which is simply incredible considering the oddity George is. Burton excels even with the incredibly difficult moments where George may be talking about his past, maybe not, or maybe some sort of form of his past. When George tells the story of the boy who killed his parents, Burton has the right haunted quality showing the story is deeply connected to George in some way whether in his actual personal history or just in his mind, Burton always keeps the perfect ambiguity making George impossible to fully know, but still be satisfied that you know certainly something about him.
Burton's greatest moments come though as the film continues on and the battle begins between him and Martha. Martha always begins her attacks, and Burton certianly shows slowly and utter convincingly that George slowly no longer is able to take Martha constant attacks on him, it is a slow burn, and his eventual outburst was unavoidable George who was attempting to hold in his anger. What is best though is his reversal attack on the guests to purge his anger against them since they were used against him, Burton has the a visceral quality that is more violent in his verbal attacks than when he tries to strangle Martha.
The final act of Burton's performance is the powerful and chilling though, where Martha tries her best to truly farm George. Burton initial reaction to what Martha does is in its own way heartbreaking because it shows that George really still is hurt, and it does suggest that hate is not all that he really has for Martha. What is most impressive though is the way Burton returns to seek his revenge on Martha as George. His final scene is absoultely bone chilling, as he tears Martha apart emotionally to "win". It is brilliantly savage performance, that always remains in Burton's hands the savagery of a well spoken educated man. His final scene tops off what is an incredible moments, that never stops being a powerful unforgettable characterization for a single moment. This is a truly great performance by Richard Burton.