Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Elizabeth Taylor Roars in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 39 (of 2006) by Leroy Douresseaux

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – B&W
Running time: 131 minutes (2 hours, 11 minutes)
DIRECTOR: Mike Nichols
WRITER/PRODUCER: Ernest Lehman (from the play by Edward Albee)
EDITOR: Sam O’Steen
Academy Award winner


Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis

At a New England college, on the serene campus grounds, in their disordered campus home, George (Richard Burton), an emasculated professor, and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), his rancorous emasculating wife, have returned from a faculty party at about two in the morning. Martha is already drunk, and they both start drinking more while their conversations turns to bellows and accusations aimed at each other, a disagreeable autopsy on the corpse that their marriage isn’t… yet. Soon, the couple’s guests arrive – Nick (George Segal), a new junior professor, and his fragile wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis). Before long, the warring duo of George and Martha suck the young couple into their whirlpool of wrenching disclosures, petty name-calling, and endless antagonism, which before long is also starting to open up the dark places in Nick and Honey’s marriage.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is director Mike Nichols adaptation of Edward Albee’s famous play about a couple whose marriage is a maelstrom created by their feelings of anger, guilt, and frustration with each other. Nichols, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton actually used Albee’s original play as the script, retaining only two lines of dialogue from producer/writer Ernest Lehman’s script adaptation of the stage drama, so the audience pretty much gets the full effect of Albee’s original writing.

Simply put: Martha is angry at George’s despairing view of life, and that his ambition was satisfied when he got the job at the university (where her father, whom we never see, is President) and he married her. George, on the other hand, apparently understands, but is not wholly sympathetic with Martha’s struggle to connect with him, especially as they couldn’t have children. Her passive/aggressive way of dealing with what she sees as his shortcomings drive George to contemplate violent harm to Martha. The young couple, Nick and Honey, are simply getting an advance view of where their marriage will be because their problems are similar to George and Martha’s, but still in their infancy stage.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the screen version, is difficult to watch because of the frank and brutal conversations – the vitriol. With only some artifice, Nichols allows the actors to commit to playing this intricate drama that is held together not only by physical acting, but also by concisely delivered lines of dialogue from competing speakers, intertwining and battling. Truthfully, the movie tends to dry up in several spaces, and it is easily a half-hour too long, but where to cut? This, in a sense, is a thriller, and the action is in the build up to every topic of conversation that becomes an argument, confession, or trust betrayed.

The film has excellent production values, from the gorgeous dreamlike Oscar-winning black and white photography of Haskell Wexler to the otherworldly, Oscar-winning set decoration and art direction. The cast is also excellent, and while Richard Burton does a top-notch professional job, Elizabeth Taylor’s turn as the ultimate bitch is a career changer. Some people tend to remember Taylor as a tough woman, best exemplified by her performance as Martha delivering countless verbal body blows to Burton’s George, while he cuts and stabs at her in self-defense.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not for the feint of heart or people who don’t like films built around conversations and dialogue – all that talk-talk, but if you like that, this is an embarrassment of riches.

7 of 10

1967 Academy Awards: 5 wins: “Best Actress in a Leading Role” (Elizabeth Taylor), “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” (Sandy Dennis), “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White” (Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins), “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White” (Haskell Wexler), “Best Costume Design, Black-and-White” (Irene Sharaff); 8 nominations: “Best Picture” (Ernest Lehman), “Best Actor in a Leading Role” (Richard Burton), “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (George Segal), “Best Director” (Mike Nichols), “Best Film Editing” (Sam O'Steen), “Best Music, Original Music Score” (Alex North), “Best Sound” George Groves-Warner Bros. SSD), “Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium” (Ernest Lehman)

1967 BAFTA Awards: 3 wins: “Best British Actor” (Richard Burton), “Best British Actress” (Elizabeth Taylor), and “Best Film from any Source” (Mike Nichols)

1967 Golden Globes: 7 nominations: “Best Motion Picture – Drama. “Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama” (Richard Burton), “Best Motion Picture Actress – Drama” (Elizabeth Taylor), “Best Motion Picture Director” (Mike Nichols), “Best Screenplay’ (Ernest Lehman), “Best Supporting Actor” (George Segal), and “Best Supporting Actress” (Sandy Dennis)

Sunday, February 19, 2006


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