Monday, October 31, 2011

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? 1966

"'Tis the refuge we take when the unreality of the world sits too heavy on our tiny heads."

The above statement, spoken half in jest (and in a Barry Fitzgerald, Irish accent) by a subdued, down-cycle, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) in a brief moment of introspective lucidity, is proffered as a response/admission as to why she and husband George (Richard Burton) seem only to relate to one another through cruelly sadistic games of "truth and illusion." 

This surprisingly self-aware avowal of the role illusion and willful self-deception play in tent-posting lives of disappointment and regret not only sums up the plot of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but, especially noting the ironic use of the word "unreality" in the quote, could also serve as an explanation for my own lifelong fascination with, and attraction to, film. 

Edward Albee's 1962 provocative, Tony Award-winning stage play was adapted into a censorship-shattering motion picture in 1966 by Broadway wunderkind Mike Nichols. Of course, back then the big attraction wasn't the male half of the famous comedy team of Mike Nichols & Elaine May making his film directing debut. It was the casting of Hollywood's number one power-couple—Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton— and the unlikelihood that one of the most beautiful women in the world could be convincingly transformed into the dowdy, middle-aged harridan of Albee's play.
Elizabeth Taylor as Martha
Richard Burton as George
George Segal as Nick
Sandy Dennis as Honey
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a 2 hour-plus acid bath of personality assassinations and psychological manipulation trussed-up as a cocktail party, was just one of the many age-inappropriate films I saw on Saturday afternoons with my sisters at the local movie house when I was growing up. The year was 1967 and the neighborhood theater was The Castro in San Francisco (back then the district was still referred to as Eureka Valley and the Castro street area was mostly home to a multitude of hippies).

Back in those pre-shopping mall days, I suspect the only peace our recently-divorced mom ever got was when she could ship us all off to the movies on Saturday afternoons, not caring a whit about what was playing, just so long as it kept us out of the house and off the streets until she came for us at 4pm. On the occasion of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, my eldest sister (16 to my 10 years) was apparently all the mature adult accompaniment the theater required to grant us access to a film none of us had any chance in hell of understanding. 

Well, I did understand one part. The yelling.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is about one enormously volatile evening in, by all appearances, the ceaselessly volatile lives of George and Martha. George, an associate professor of history at a small New England college, and Martha, the college president's daughter, have been persuaded this night to play night-cap host to the college's newest arrivals: Nick, the newly appointed biology teacher, and his constitutionally delicate wife, Honey. George and Martha, who are 20 years senior to their unsuspecting guests, share a complex relationship of dispiriting affection poisoned by years of acrimony and self-loathing. As a kind of coping mechanism and walking postmortem of their marriage, the elder couple engage their guests in an intricate game of personal attacks and verbal assaults designed to keep real feelings at bay and to mask the real unpleasantness of their existence.
George Segal, an actor amazingly adept at comedic and serious roles, and the brilliant Sandy Dennis, the only actress outside of Elizabeth Hartman who could have made this underwritten role so memorable
As an adult, my partner and I have spent more than our share of squirmy evenings playing Nick and Honey to some sparring couple's George and Martha, but as a kid, the only thing I could relate to in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the yelling. As my parent's preferred mode of communication with one another prior to their divorce, it was familiar enough to me to at least make the characters in the film recognizable. But beyond that I can tell you I really had no idea of what was going on.

Nor should I have, at that age. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is pretty sophisticated stuff for even adults to wrap their minds around.
Dashed hopes and good intentions
I remember my disappointment in discovering that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was not, as I had hoped, a horror film along the lines of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? An easy enough conclusion to jump to given the sound-alike title and the scary-looking poster art that carried the (apparently meaningless) warning: No one under the age of 18 will be admitted unless accompanied by a parent.

When, in later years, I came to revisit Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it was as if I was watching the film for the first time. Just a little bit of life experience helped to bring all of Edward Albee's agonizingly perceptive observations into sharp relief. I not only got it, but felt so moved by the daringly theatrical means by which Albee dramatizes the simple truth that to live one's life free of illusions is perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
It would be difficult to overstate the qualities that  Haskell Wexler's expressive black and white cinematography brings to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In these days of HD it's even more breathtaking than ever. What an amazing array of gray tones and shadings!

PERFORMANCES:
I was never much of a fan of Elizabeth Taylor in my younger years. Her unavoidable presence on the cover of every movie magazine (recounting marital problems, movie-star extravagances, and countless trips to the hospital) soured my impression of her as any kind of serious actress. I never thought of her as much of a beauty, either, as she always reminded me more of a less frumpy Ethel Mertz than one of the most beautiful women in the world. The turning point in my attitude towards Taylor came in 1989 when I had the opportunity to see Glenda Jackson (an actress I absolutely idolized) in a Los Angeles production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by Edward Albee himself. Fond of the film version, I was not exactly persuaded by Taylor's performance. Now was a chance to see what a "real" actress would do with this marvelous character.
Well to put it bluntly, Ms. Jackson was terrible. She just seemed to miss everything that was vulnerable about Albee's Martha, and (surprising to me) was unable to muster much passion behind her tirades. As the evening wore on, Elizabeth Taylor's performance began to loom largely and impressively in my memory, and by the time the curtain came down, I was convinced that I had given Elizabeth Taylor a bum rap all those years. 
Elizabeth Taylor's monologue in this sequence is some of the finest acting of her career
I've seen a great many Elizabeth Taylor films since then, and not only do I now consider her to have been truly one of the great beauties of the screen, but I feel that her looks and off-screen exploits have clouded many a fair assessment of her talent. I consider her to have been one of the best actresses in film. Her choice of roles may have been spotty, but she was something the likes of which we're not apt to see again, EVER.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
It must have been quite a voyeuristic thrill for fans of Taylor and Burton to see the famously hard-drinking, combative couple, playing a hard-drinking, combative couple onscreen. And indeed, there is something about their easy rapport and effortless chemistry here that is never duplicated in another film. I particularly like those small moments where the couple reveal their deep affection for one another. Even when it's merely a dysfunctional appreciation of the other being able to keep up with the game. That neither plays their roles "one-note" and allow for flashes of tenderness between the bursts of vitriol is what makes this film such a standout for me.
Liz and Dick: Probably the only real-life couple ever to display any real chemistry onscreen
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The grace of all art is it's ability to find the poetry in the ordinary and  prosaic. As I stated earlier, I grew up around a lot of yelling in my family, and along with lacking anything resembling a poetic thrust, it lacked a sense of danger to me. I was used to it and it thought that was how all people who loved one another communicated. Growing up, I identified with comedies and dramas of familial discord to a disturbing degree. (I was a big fan of Tennessee Williams and those "Eunice" segments of the old Carol Burnett variety show. It was only in later years that I came to recognize that that WAS my family.)

As it turns out, my partner of 16 years was raised in a household where his parents talked and discussed things and never allowed him to see them yelling at one another. So, as you might guess, our first viewing of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? together was almost traumatic for him. Even to this day he really can't take the endless shouting and mean-spiritedness, so this is one film I love that I usually enjoy alone (all the better, because I'm often crying like a baby at the finale).
"Total war?"
"Total!"
What's wonderful is that in our years together, my partner has helped me to see that yelling is not the way that healthy people express love, and I've since learned to appreciate histrionic drama where it belongs, on the screen and on the stage, but not in my life.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may not be everyone's taste, but it's a beautiful film. Mike Nichols and everyone involved did a marvelous job. If you have the stomach for it, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a deeply affecting look at explosive emotions that you get to view from a relatively safe distance.
"Just us?"
It's Elizabeth Taylor at her absolute best in this, the most painful sequence in the film. Reduces me to waterworks unfailingly.

14 comments:

  1. OK, I’ll get an account eventually; it’s Argyle from 1970's South Carolina again, and you are ringing all the bells. I’ve always loved “Who’s Afraid...” I’m not sure I can say why, other than that it creates such a complete world, which is maybe as close as I can get to a definition of a work of art. I’ve never understood what happened to Mike Nichols: “Working Girl,” “The Bird Cage,” even “Silkwood.” But “Who’s Afraid...” and “The Graduate” are plenty. My parents never argued or fought in front of us or anybody that I know of, but I understood these characters and was thrilled by them. Maybe it’s something about the stifling academic setting that I immediately get. The expectations, the falling short, the excuses, the getting by. I love it. And yet, there’s never a corny campus scene or a superfluous “reference character” that I can remember. It’s all suggested by the greys of the photography and the house and the clothing. It’s seamless. And yes, Eunice and Mama. And for me, the moral somberness of “The Andy Griffith Show” which I can hardly watch. But George and Martha (and Edward Albee) animate things just enough to pull you through to the other side. It’s gorgeous. Beautiful and terrifying like spoiling fruit. But then, as best I can remember, they survive and the sun comes up. Thank you!

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  2. Hello Argyle Sweater
    Thanks for another thoughtful comment! I too look at this film andwonder how it could have possibly been done by the same man who gave us "The Bird Cage." I like that you relate to films emotionally and allow yourself to become engaged rather than just entertained. Indeed "WAOVW" is like a complete, perfectly realized world on film, with each frame rendering a reality both authentic and stylized. I especially liked your description of the film as being beautiful and terrifying and likening it to spoiled fruit. I always get a kick hearing about how films effect people, and your post is very illuminating. Thank you!

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  3. Without question, my favourite George & Martha scene is their clash outside the roadhouse. That one scene is virtually the essence of the entire film. I've always been a sucker for one-on-one confrontations between characters, and I've never seen it done any better.

    One thing that's always bothered me is how Nick's and Honey's names are never spoken; not in introductions and not in conversations where you'd naturally expect it. The theatrical reasoning behind it was lost on me.

    I'm also maybe somewhat morbidly intrigued when actors who've since died do scenes where death is mentioned, contemplated, perhaps even wished for. Burton and Sandy Dennis share another superbly crafted scene ultimately about 'the bells' and 'the message', 'and the message was...' George and Martha's son was dead.

    The talent level behind this film is something to behold. Whatever its moments of disconnect with me, it cuts the human condition to the quick, and makes a remarkable show of it.

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  4. You're the first person to call my attention to the name issue in "WAOVW." I can't say I've ever noticed the lack of utterance of their names in all the times I've watched the film. I remember the brief rhyming-teasing thing George engages in with the drunk Honey("Honey bunny funny" or some such thing), but i seriously don't recall Nick's name ever being spoken. As as you say, what could be the dramatic relevance of it? As Arte Johnson used to say, "Veeeery interesting!"

    I too enjoy one on one encounters between characters, and the sequences you mention are stellar. It really is a terrific examination of the human condition, and your observations are keen enough to inspire another re-visit to the film for me. Thanks!

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    1. If I ever knew that "Honey" was a name here and not just a term of endearment, I'd forgotten. Nick actually says it a handful of times. But I'm reasonably certain his own name is never said by anyone.

      My disconnect has to do with George and Martha's son. I've never quite known what to make of that (him...it...the little bugger). Consequently, I can't exactly make sense of Martha's wrenching despair at the end; despair because (my impression) George had determined their son had to be dead. I get impatient with the length of that scene because I don't know if there ever was a son.

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    2. Just on a cursory re-review of the film, there are several moments when the name "Honey" is said, but (perhaps tellingly)one can just as easily assume it to be a name or term of endearment as you indicate.
      Per the issue of the child, I've read many theories and essays on the subject over the years (even Albee's own intention on the subject), but I am a firm believer - in most instances - that films don't need to adhere to a single explanation or interpretation; so I'm throwing mine out here...valueless perhaps to anyone except me since it explains only what the film means to me. Not to limit or define it in any way.
      I've never felt the child was ever real, that it was just an "illusion" if you will that George and Martha kept between themselves to mask the pain of the emptiness of their lives together. George tells Nick that Martha could never have children and one gets the feeling that, out of that pain and lack, the two erected a "pretend" offspring known just to them...not to be spoken of to others.
      People erect lots of illusions about themselves just to get through the day, and I think Albee makes a largely symbolic (metaphoric?) case for what happens when we are forced to drop our illusions and face life as it is. That's why Martha is so broken up at the end and asks, so touchingly, "Just us?"
      She is "afraid" (the title and the question George asks her at the end) to face a life with no illusions. That's an explanation of what the film means to me. Please don't assume I'm saying all that I recounted is in fact the film's intention. Just my interpretation. Wow. All this makes certain I'll be watching this film again. Much appreciated, Rennieboy!

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    3. I have no quarrel at all with your interpretation/explanation, Ken. It makes sense. I may well be under the illusion that a comparison to Elwood Dowd and Harvey applies, but that's who comes to mind. Different in many respects, I know, but take Harvey away from Dowd and he's back, as you say, having to face life as it is. He already made the choice once to be pleasant rather than smart.

      If George and Martha chose to 'have' their son, well, relationships are work. The belief that you found your perfect match can prove illusory. It's hard enough, as you suggested, for real people to keep themselves afloat, never mind a secret security blanket.

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  5. The reference to "Harvey" is one of the best allusions to what occurs in "Who's Afraid..." I've ever heard. I think, in its way, Elwood's need of an imaginary buffer for the pain of his life has always been what I've thought to be so moving about that film. It never once occurred to me that the devises in these two films hare that one element.

    As I stated in a previous post, were I teaching a film class, observations like this would move you to the head of the class.

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  6. A Polemical Drama about the Meaning of American Dream Will American Future Be A Continuation of Fight For Power and Wealth Or An Alternative To Such Fight? “Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf” by M. Nichols – 1966 (Based on Edward Albee’s Play) is about a very rare capability of a person in a position of a spouse to help his/her beloved to overcome internal psychological problem that permanently disrupts the emotional balance of their relationship inside marriage. The film is also about a disturbance many marriages suffer from – when intimacy between husband and wife is in a process of being undermined by their unconscious ontological rivalry. Thirdly, the film addresses the issue of the essence of American dream. Is it mainly about our social, professional and financial achievements, about social success, or is it rather about our psychological and moral growth, about the very development of human humanistic intelligence? The central focus of “Who is afraid…” is the conflict between George (Associate Professor of History) and his wife Martha (Albee’s sweeping analogy here with George Washington and his wife Martha - makes a personal story historically and culturally meaningful and of interest to any married couple). The conflict between the spouses is inflated by Martha’s dream of having a perfect (not less than perfect) son (made even more morbid by her infertility). This dream is tied to Martha’s disappointment in her husband’s failure to achieve an exceptional career and become financially more successful. Albee analyzes the psychological and the social aspects of Martha’s dream based on what can be called her “perfect progeny complex” – the expectation from a child to boost his mother‘s self-image. Through several rhetorical devices Albee masterfully creates a psychodrama with the viewers who, while observing George and Martha‘s psychological maneuvers, experience a catharsis of their own emotional complexes resonating with Martha’s psychological predicament. The film culminates in a unique scene in American film history, when George uses sophisticated psychotherapeutic tactics of pseudo-exorcism to banish the idolatrous energies of his wife’s complex of perfect progeny. Richard Burton and Elisabeth Taylor triumphantly outstrip themselves as George and Martha in an exceptionally intense and intellectually articulate performance. Albee’s text is sharp, witty and full of versatile cultural allusions.
    By Victor Enyutin

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  7. Great Flick! Never saw Liz prettier.

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  8. Loved everything about this post and almost all of the comments until.....

    Wow! The self-fascination of Victor Enyutin's endless blather, to the exclusion of bothering with the correct spelling of a performers name, tells me much about him.

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    1. Hi Felix! (If I can be so familiar)
      Have to say from the start that I absolutely love your Felix in Hollywood blog. Such terrific Hollywood history!
      Anyhow, thank you very much for stopping by and giving this post a read. Happy you enjoyed it and pleased you left a comment. As to your latter comment, I'm in accord but better stay mum on the topic and be a gentleman. Much appreciated!

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  9. Beautifully written treatment of one of my favorite films (and plays) of all time. I've just about worn out my dvd watching this so many times, and the VHS tape before that. Onstage I had the opportunity to see Elizabeth Ashley as Martha and Anjelica Torn (Rip Torn & Geraldine Page's daughter) as Honey at the now-defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. I believe Robert Converse played George. A great production, but Nichols' film version with the Burtons, Sandy Dennis and George Segal is in my opinion the ultimate version of Albee's chilling psychodrama.

    How funny that you should mention exactly where you first saw this film. I enjoyed my very first trip to San Francisco in 2011 and was on the corner of Market and Castro, about to go into the Twin Peaks bar for a drink. My friend pointed down the street to the famed Castro Theatre and had me look at the marquee. What was playing? Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf! So that is the only time I have ever seen the film on the big screen...the same place you saw it first.

    What a coinki-dink, eh?

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    1. hi Chris!
      Ha! That IS quite the coincidence! And such a nice one too.
      The Castro was my neighborhood theater growing up (back when Castro was more a hippie hangout), and virtually every film I saw between 1967 and 1969 was at that theater.
      What a terrific place to see "...Virginia Woolf" on screen for the first time!

      Another coincidence is that we both agree on Mike Nichols' version being superior to any live version we've seen (although I would have loved to see Elizabeth Ashley).
      I'm glad you enjoyed the post and happier that you shared your own history and fondness with this great film!

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