Oscar Justice: Richard Burton

Welcome to Season 2 of Oscar Justice, a weekly feature at IceCream4Freaks.  It’s a simple concept: I give an Oscar to someone who rightfully deserved it, then I follow the repercussions down the line until I am satisfied.

This week on Oscar Justice: Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold


1977 Best Actor, Equus – Lost to Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl
1969 Best Actor, Anne of the Thousand Days – Lost to John Wayne, True Grit
1966 Best Actor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Lost to Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons
1965 Best Actor, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – Lost to Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou
1964 Best Actor, Becket – Lost to Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
1953 Best Actor, The Robe – Lost to William Holden, Stalag 17
1952 Best Supporting Actor, My Cousin Rachel – Lost to Anthony Quinn, Viva Zapata!


Remembered more for his personal life than his acting ability, Richard Burton was a veteran of the British stage long before he made his film debut in 1949’s Women of Dolywn. He quickly gained prominence (and a pair of Oscar nominations) following his roles in My Cousin Rachel and The Robe.

He seemed destined for Hollywood stardom, but between his stage commitments and his box office failures, his prospects dwindled in the back-half of the 50s. Despite continued stage work, a return to mainstream film success continued to allude Burton.

The actor’s much-publicized affair and eventual marriage to Elizabeth Taylor put him in the public eye and, consequently in more mainstream films. In 1964, Burton teamed with O’Toole in the adaptation of the historical play Becket. Burton earned his first Oscar nomination in 11 years and would go on to be nominated the subsequent two years after as well.

Following his second divorce from Taylor in 1976, Burton’s final Oscar nomination came for Equus in 1977. Despite seven nominations, Burton would never win the award. He died at 58 years old in 1984.


Richard Burton defeats Lee Marvin at the 1965 Oscars for Best Actor in a Leading Role.


Burton has fallen into the same bad luck that Peter O’Toole and Al Pacino had. Each time Burton came up with a nomination, some other performance steamrolled to the victory. Sometimes, Burton would face overdue actors ready for their coronation (Quinn, Holden, Marvin, Wayne) or actors riding the momentum of their Best Picture wins (Harrison, Scofield). Burton’s final nomination lost to the youngest (at the time) Best Actor winner in Dreyfuss.

All that bad luck has to transfer to someone else, so that ends up with Lee Marvin going home empty. No one foresaw Marvin’s win for Cat Ballou as it was a broad comedic Western. Even fellow nominee Rod Steiger thought HE was guaranteed to win that night.

As for Burton’s performance, the role of Alex Leamas is not glamorous, but Burton embodies the elder spy with exasperation and nuance. There is nothing fun about Leamas’ spycraft and Burton sits in Leamas’ disappointment and disillusionment until it permeates his soul. When the cause he has been fighting for becomes too great of a burden, he gets out the only way he knows.

Though by no means the most vibrant or flashy, I find it to be Burton’s finest performance.


Finally getting Burton his Oscar takes one away from Lee Marvin in his only nomination. Don’t feel too bad for Marvin, as he still has his classic roles in The Killers, The Dirty Dozen, Paint Your Wagon, and The Big Red One to fall back on. Marvin continued to work steadily until his death in 1987 and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors due to his significant efforts in World War II.


Richard Burton wins Best Actor in 1965 over Lee Marvin

Next time on Oscar Justice, one of the all-time Best Actress lineups gets a fresh shuffle

All Oscar Justice category fixes

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