July 29, 2012
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
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.)