June 1, 2010

#67: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Why are we better for seeing a film? What questions does it raise in us that challenges us to be better people? I asked this after seeing Unforgiven as a criticism, because I didn't find any reason there ... but do we need a reason? I ask the same question after seeing Mike Nichols' masterful adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and I'm left again without an answer. Both films are full of vengeful, merciless people, and by the end, we're lefting wondering why we've peered in on these people's lives for two hours. What Woolf has that Eastwood's western lacks is a biting script and vivid characterizations.

Company: on my own. Can you imagine having no companion for George and Martha's night of fun and games? Nick and Honey have their troubles but ultimately it's best that they have each other.

Cuisine: a Diet Coke. Beach body.

What a dump.

The film opens on a middle-aged couple stumbling home from a late-night party. At first, at a distance, we hear laughter, but as they approach, the conversation fizzles and we get the sense that George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Oscar winner Elizabeth Taylor) are tolerating each other's presence as they make their way home for the night. The lights flicker on in their home, and their faces are worth a million words: the party took its toll on both of them. The moon is out, whole, as though beckoning werewolves or some similar force of evil. An omen.

It's clear to us that their marriage is an unhappy one. When Martha reveals that she's invited guests over for a nightcap, George slumps onto the bed and complains that he just wants the night to end. Like a demon, Martha croaks "Poooor Georgie, Georgie Porgie Put-Upon Pie..."

Then the two other Put-Upon Pies show up. I love that the first time we see Nick (George Segal), a young professor at the college (where George is a senior professor and Martha is the president's daughter) and his wife, Honey (Oscar winner Sandy Dennis), they look right at us, not knowing what they're in for, but as if Nichols is saying, "Here's the before picture."

What follows is "an evening of fun and games," as the poster taglines advertise. Games, yes. Fun? No. George and Martha emerge respectively in our eyes as a long-suffering, painfully mediocre history professor and a shrill, seething and bitter shrew, both intent in their own way on torturing the other. They sling barbs at each other with the verocity of tigers, even when they're whispering, even when they're laughing and having a good time. Luckily for us, since both of them are educated, insightful and witty, great lines like "I swear if you existed, I'd divorce you" and "We're not arguing; we're exercising" are commonplace. Thanks, E-Albs!

It would be enough to see Martha and George tear each other apart, but the presence of guests suggests a theatricality, even a sensational and crude burlesque of misery. I found myself siding with George early on, marking Martha as the vicious one and George as the downtrodden target, but he has a mean streak in him too (possibly developed as a defense mechanism) as he makes clear by ripping into Nick the first time they're alone. Nick and Honey really could escape at any time, but they choose to stay, mostly out of social nicety... but nothing good can come of it -- I kept thinking, "Get out! The door is open! For God's sake!" They stay, and they're never the same.

I read that Burton and Taylor were married at the time this was filmed, so their chemistry is certainly there. I also read that she couldn't shake Martha out of her system for many months after finishing her work on the film. I can't imagine it would be easy to get rid of that woman.

The play's script remained virtually unchanged for the big screen, which is all for the best -- what improvements would need to be made? Many plays have been adapted unsuccessfully for the screen, and sometimes you can blame it on the director or the actors. Here, the director is adept at letting the actors do their work, the actors are doing the work, and they're all aided by such a strong script with such cinematic vibrance it can barely be contained on the screen.

The play is of course a masterpiece, but this is a movie blog. The film adaptation (I've never seen the play staged, and just missed what local critics called a definitive staging at a professional theater less than a mile from my apartment: blurg) was Mike Nichols' big-screen debut, which is amazing to think about given the breadth of his career as we know it. Here, he manages to stay mostly out of the actors' way and yet zoom in tight on them, never letting them fall away or letting the pace of this quick-witted story get away from him. When all four characters are doing something completely different (see: this scene at the bar) he manages to keep them all in cinematic focus. Brilliant.

I would fail as a movie lover if I failed to mention what a fantastic performance Elizabeth Taylor gives here. Uta Hagen originally played Martha on Broadway (and wouldn't it be great to have her committed to celluloid?), and Albee reportedly wanted Bette Davis to play her (and wouldn't it be great to hear her mock her own line "What a dump"?), but something tells me Davis may have been too old school an actress for this role. Albee's script was groundbreaking and his characters so nuanced, and Taylor (although thought by many in Hollywood to be far too young for the role, at only 38) brings such detail to the frumpy, hateful housewife Martha that you can't help but melt with her as she collapses at the climax of the film. Yes, she's huge, her characterization is wild and mannered -- but the character asks for it all along the way. It's a shame she's mostly known for her marriages and her star power; hopefully she'll ultimately be remembered for performances like this one.

The party's over.

Each of the party guests is left stunned, in their own world. Albee's only complaint about the film initially was that he didn't like Nichols' use of overhead shots like this one (I suppose he would have been dealing purely with one angle, the audience's point of view from their theater seats), but I love how isolated each of the characters looks here, none on the same plane, physically or mentally. Each one exhausted by the night's events, each one doomed to be infected with distrust.

I also love knowing this trivia, that this film was what really changed it all for Jack Valenti and the MPAA (a topic I researched heavily for a college project). The profanity and sexual implication in the film was revolutionary for 1966, and forced Valenti to rethink the way movies were screened and rated for the public. Maybe that could be my next blog project: the ratings system, why it works, why it doesn't. Although after This Film is Not Yet Rated, I don't know that I would have that much left to add. We'll see.

Well done, Albee. Everyone. Next up: Harrison Ford dons the fedora for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

1 comment:

  1. I've never seen the film, actually, but I saw the Broadway revival starring Kathleen Turner, three weeks out of rehab. Life changer.