Let’s face it: movie stars are, more often than not, extremely attractive people. Many of them are also extremely talented, but sometimes it’s hard to take an exceptionally beautiful face seriously, particularly if you haven’t seen any truly amazing examples of the actor’s work. Also, most notably for actresses, they often only get serious recognition for “playing ugly,” as though it somehow takes bravery on their part. I’m forced to admit that I’m guilty of not taking some actors seriously based on their looks, but I always try to keep an open mind, and I will be the first to admit if I’ve done someone a disservice. Take this post, for instance. I’m here to tell you that Elizabeth Taylor, one of Hollywood’s all-time great beauties and perhaps one of the first true “tabloid celebrities,” is an absolutely incredible actress. And not just because she chose to “play ugly.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Tony-winning play. It focuses on the dysfunctional relationship of George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), an older couple, he a college professor and she the college president’s daughter, who seem to thrive on making each other unhappy. On the night in question, having already attended one party, Martha invites a new professor (George Segal) and his wife (Sandy Dennis) over for “fun and games”. What follows is an orgy of drink, dirty secrets, and hostility, with a bit of infidelity on the side. George and Martha drag out not only their own dysfunctions, but those of their guests as well, in an attempt to…I’m not sure. See who blinks first? The lengths to which these characters go in order to truly hurt one another is breathtaking, and perhaps that’s what Albee intended. As the saying goes, “We hurt the ones we love the most.”
Since this movie is adapted from a play, we see all the usual hallmarks of such a film: small cast, limited scenery, very few costume changes, and action that takes place over a brief period of time. It was the first film for director Mike Nichols; he’d been making a name for himself in New York previously to this, and supposedly Taylor and Burton (with whom he was friendly) specifically asked for him to direct. He does a good job of moving the play from a stage to the screen, choosing to focus on the actors, but also moving the action around as much as possible. As with any (good) film adaptation of a stage play, it’s all about the performances, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf may be right up there are that top of the list in that regard.
The acting in this film is nothing short of astonishing. All four members of the cast were nominated for Academy Awards, with Taylor and Dennis taking home their respective prizes. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Richard Burton was robbed. As much as this movie belongs to Taylor (and we’ll get to her in a moment), Burton’s performance was, to me, a much more fascinating piece of work. His George is bitter and jaded, and the sheer venom that he displays in the final scenes is terrifying. At the same time, though, we see flashes of deep devotion, sympathy, and love for his harridan of a wife. He admires her even as he does everything in his power to make her suffer. And from the viewer’s perspective, she almost deserves it. From her very first lines, Elizabeth Taylor is an absolute tower of discontentment and spite. She famously gained some thirty pounds and gave makeup artists a challenge to make her appear older than her thirty-four years, and they even filmed the movie in black and white in order to help age her, but that’s not what makes her Martha so incredible. It’s the almost inhuman hatred and bile that seems to just come streaming off of her in nearly every frame. The audience is completely convinced that this is a woman who has been supremely disappointed in life, and doesn’t care who knows it. For some, this may be cause for sympathy, but it is next to impossible to feel any kind of understanding for Martha. Her only motive seems to be to bring everyone around her down into her depths of despair.
Segal and Dennis do a fine job supporting these two titans. Their emotions and reactions run the gamut, for him from youthful surety and bravado to world-weariness; for her from dizzy, sheltered innocence to drunken madness and abandon. In the end, there’s a certain amount of resignation for their characters, as though they see their future in the relationship of George and Martha, and have realized that the mistakes they’ve already made have set them irrevocably on the path to dysfunction. It’s hard to guess at what Albee’s play is really trying to convey; in the hands of good actors, like these four, the ambiguities of the relationships serve as a sort of funhouse mirror to the ups and downs of any relationship. Watching these people emotionally destroy one another isn’t exactly a good time, but the acting is just so great. I walked away from this movie feeling sort of confused in that I was blown away by it, but I couldn’t really say that I “loved it”. It definitely served to fuel my interest in both Taylor and Burton. If, like me, movie-viewing for you is all about the performances, you’ve definitely got to see this one.