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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

* * * *

Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, George Segal

Has any role ever done more to upend a star's screen persona than the role of Martha did for Elizabeth Taylor? Even now, almost 50 years after the release of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and four years after Taylor's death, it's still sort of shocking to see glamorous Elizabeth Taylor in the role of brash, vulgar Martha, delivering a performance entirely lacking in vanity and lacking in any moment where it feels like she's playing a "character." Making the performance even more impressive is that a first time film director helped bring it to life on the big screen (granted that director is Mike Nichols, but it would be an impressive feat for a seasoned director, let alone as a debut), and that neither the performance, nor the film, has diminished in power since its original release.

The story of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is simple: George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Taylor), having just returned from a party on a small college campus hosted by Martha's father, have invited a younger couple, Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis), to join them at their home for drinks. Though Martha, upon arriving home with George, proclaims "What a dump!" quoting Bette Davis from Beyond the Forest, the more appropriate Davis line for the situation is "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!" Already drunk, George and Martha proceed to get just a little bit drunker as they prepare for their guests and then, once the couple arrives, are rarely without a drink in hand for the remainder of the evening. It would be incorrect to say that the visit starts out pleasantly and then descends into madness; it begins with the sort of awkwardness that, if you were in the midst of it, you would uncomfortably try to laugh it off and count the minutes until you could make a graceful exit, and then builds to a spirit shattering crescendo that ensures that all the characters end the film as shells of themselves. Though the conversation between the four characters is always uneasy, filled as it is with crude innuendo, sharp insults, and growing aggression, but becomes particularly volatile when the subject of George and Martha's teenage son is brought up, spinning out into violent outbursts and stripping away at whatever thin veneer George and Martha might be said to have.

The pressure inside George and Martha's living room having grown too great, the characters split off. George and Nick go outside, where Nick drunkenly tells George more than he ought to, and George tells him a story of his own which, given the revelations at the end of the film, may or may not be true either in part or on the whole. Afterwards it appears that Nick and Honey will finally make their escape and George offers to drive them home, however, this simply leads to another scene of anger, aggression, and emotional wounding when the four make a stop at a roadhouse, where Honey breaks down after realizing that Nick has told their secrets to George, and George stands up to Martha. Though they've been at each other's throats since the moment they got home from the party, it is only now that they officially declare themselves to be at "war" and the ante is firmly upped when Martha speeds off in the car, picking up Nick and Honey along the way and bringing them back to her and George's house, abandoning Honey in the front yard and then trying to make good on the flirtation she's been engaging in with Nick all night. Though George and Martha have already gone ten rounds, the brief period in which they've been separated between the roadhouse and their own house only gives them time to reload, and their final showdown will be the most shattering of all.

Like a lot of films adapted from stage plays (in this case the play of the same name by Edward Albee) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf never fully escapes that closed in feeling of a play, but as staged by Nichols that actually works in the film's favor. Virginia Woolf works best as an intensely claustrophobic story that traps the two volcanic forces that are Martha and George into a space that can hardly contain them, shoves Nick and Honey in their as well, and then unfolds a narrative which finds Nick and Honey constantly trying (and almost succeeding on occasion) to leave but being dragged back into it at every turn. Though the action in the film consists almost entirely of talking, the result is riveting because Nichols is not only able to harness the volatile energy of the dialogue, but to continue stoking it as well, making the conflict between George and Martha seem at once well-practiced and habitual, and passionate and in the moment.

In the roles of Martha and George, Taylor (who won her second Oscar for this performance) and Burton (who was nominated for this performance but lost to Paul Scofield in A Man For All Seasons) are note perfect. It would be easy, albeit flip, to say that the famous "battling Burtons" were simply playing out scenes from their own relationship, but that would be to ignore how nuanced the performances are and how lived in the characters are despite how counter they run to Taylor and Burton's popular personas. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was the fourth of the eleven films that Taylor and Burton would make together and easily the best and most enduring. Though the bluntness of the film's language is no longer as scandalous as it once may have seemed, the film itself still packs a solid punch.

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