July 29, 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Richard Burton as George, a prickly, passive-aggressive history professor and Elizabeth Taylor as Martha, his bitter wife, who's the daughter of the president of the college where her husband teaches. They have a young couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for drinks, late one night after a faculty gathering at the college. Their little after-party turns out to be an opportunity for spectacle that playwright Edward Albee and sceenwriter Ernest Lehman couldn't resist. A night with George and Martha is pure masochism. Burton and Taylor fight like two cats as they churn out clever insults and fling them at each other with ruthless precision. As "raw" as this movie purports to be, it all feels too much like "acting." But the actors are still very good, even if the screenwriting is obviously trying to be "real" and "edgy." It's overly self-conscious, but first-time director Mike Nichols doesn't seem to worried about concealing it, which may be one of the reasons this canned drama works, as an exercise in frothy unpleasantness, but it's hard to watch this and call it a good time. These are some of the most unpleasant people you could ever spend an evening with, and while there's some humor in it, it feels too much like watching movie stars behind-the-scenes after they've had too much to drink.

There is a bit of style to it (Haskell Wexler won an Oscar for his black-and-white cinematography, and the editing by Sam O'Steen nicely lifts the material off the stage, even though it's still very much a talky film), and in 1966, this was probably a lot more exciting than it is in the era of celebrity meltdowns and the desensitizing spectacle that is reality television. I keep wondering: Were people really enjoying, even reveling in, Elizabeth Taylor as the frumpy drunk with the acid tongue? You really miss the Elizabeth Taylor of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Giant and even Suddenly, Last Summer, the one you could root for, even when she was over-acting. She always looked so ravishing, and exuded such electricity on the screen. She turned each of those roles into a performance. That's what's so enthralling, to this day, about Elizabeth Taylor, the movie star. She certainly gives us a performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but somehow, seeing her turn into a vulgar lush (still pretty sexy though) is a disappointment. She won her second Oscar for this movie, and it's as if she had to go ugly and mean to get it. (She won her first Oscar for playing a high-class hooker who's killed in a car crash at the end of Butterfield 8, and the Academy was most rewarding as a result of her punishment.) But when an actress like Elizabeth Taylor is awarded for giving the kind of antithetical performance (and yes, it's a damn good one at times) she gives in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it's a reminder of something that Taylor in her prime always helped us forget: that stars weren't real.

When they're drunk, though, Burton and Taylor have a wonderfully funny chemistry together. And George Segal is enjoyably perplexed as the young new biology professor who, along with his wife, becomes a pawn in George and Martha's matrimonial boxing match. (Sandy Dennis has a bubbly, aloof charm to her, and she gets to have her own mad meltdown as the night winds on and more skeletons tumble recklessly out everybody's closet. This feels like Albee's version of a Tennessee Williams play, full of corny, histrionic lines that are delivered with the right amount of tongue-in-cheek from this cast. They give each bad line a bit of ersatz class. (It would be frightening to see this performed by amateurs.)

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