By John H. Foote
There are seven great plays of the 20th century that remain as fresh, as powerful and as urgent as the first day they opened on Broadway. They are Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, The Crucible, A Streetcar Named Desire, Equus, Angels in America and this masterful study of dysfunction by Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Each of the aforementioned works took the theatre world by storm, each has been made into a film, with varying degrees of success.
Tennessee Williams’ haunting, visceral work A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) might be the finest film adaptation of a play ever made. With the superb performances of the cast, Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, the subtle but undeniably right direction of the gifted Elia Kazan, the film captured everything more that the play delivered on stage, with the intensity increased dramatically by the use of the camera. Capturing the faces of the actors allowed for an intimacy one did not have on stage, allowing for a much deeper, often overwhelming, and staggering power.
When newcomer to film, Mike Nichols, was tapped to helm the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he made it clear he would prefer his stars to be married, believing it would add greater depth to the film. No one complained when he cast Richard Burton as George, the bookish academic married to Martha, a curvy, sexual being who drinks too much, talks too loud, brays, and constantly insults her husband. But who to play Martha? When Nichols announced he had cast glamorous Elizabeth Taylor, the snickers were audible throughout the industry.
“Has Mike Nichols lost his mind?” was the question circulating through Hollywood, a first-time directing blunder that would cost him dearly.
Yet Nichols believed in Taylor, he saw something deeper and, being a wizard with actors, he possessed confidence in himself. Taylor saw a chance to dig down deep and prove herself as an artist, to go toe to toe with Burton, one of the finest actors alive, and to challenge herself as never before. She packed on forty pounds to play Martha, capturing the fleshiness of the curvaceous, sexy older woman, who seduces a younger man right in front of her husband.
When the film opened in 1966, anyone who had ever doubted Taylor as Martha was silenced at that first screening. Never before had Taylor so transformed herself into another character, the beautiful movie star was gone. In her place was Martha, a loud, obnoxious, heavy drinking, vicious woman who plays cruel mind games with whoever she encounters, chiefly her equally vicious husband George. Not only did she give the performance of her career, and win the Academy Award as Best Actress, this is among the screen’s finest achievements by an actress and actor.
George and Martha appear to be childless, but over the course of an evening of entertaining a young couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) it is revealed they have a son who they are most proud of. But oh, this story turns insidious, for George and Martha are masters of the mind game. Once their young guests are comfortable, they unleash a series of vile mind games including “Get the Guests” and “Hump the Hostess”, both of which are to be taken literally. Brilliant at spotting weakness, they hone in on those weaknesses of their guests and pick them apart, first drawing blood, then moving in for the kill. But for all they do in attacking the younger couple, it is each other they are really targeting. Martha attacks George for his prowess in the bedroom, his lack of ambition at work and his passive attitude. At first we watch George take it, but finally he lashes back proving to be a formidable opponent, and given his intellect, far more dangerous and vicious than Martha.
How can an evening filled with such verbal poison and toxicity end well? It cannot, and therefore does not, with George walking away with blood in his teeth, altering their story forever, killing their (imaginary) son in accident. Though the young couple leaves, exhausted, stunned, they will never be the same as George and Martha have exposed her frigidity in the bedroom, humiliating both of them.
Taylor’s towering performance forever legitimized the movie star as an artist of formidable gifts. She had been good before, nearly great in Raintree County (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Suddenly Last Summer (1959), even winning an Academy Award in the wildly over appreciated Butterfield 8 (1960) but nothing she had done could touch her astounding performance as Martha. Fleshy, ruddy, slovenly, a messy drunk, loud, horribly obnoxious, she is a raging horror show in the film, though a perfect foil for George. Their verbal sparring is frightening to behold because it is so decidedly intended to draw blood, to wound, to hurt. And oh, are they not masters of it? They hurt each other so casually, then look at each other as though to dare the other to come back with something, which they do.
Richard Burton is every bit her equal on screen as George, who initially we might think is long suffering, but we come to realize he is very much on a par with her, more than her equal, they enable each other. He watches her in almost bemused delight, waiting for her to cross the line he knows she will cross, at which point his eyes dance with wicked delight, as though she has given him permission to lash back. Their chemistry together is electrifying, it as though they can finish each other’s sentences or thoughts. We forget they are working from a script.
Taylor won both the Academy Award and coveted New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress, and though Burton was nominated he lost to Paul Scofield in the stately (dull) A Man for All Seasons (1966) leaving Taylor infuriated with the Academy. She believed, rightly so, that his performance was the finest of his career and that he too deserved an Oscar.
The film was nominated for a whopping 13 Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Supporting Actor (Segal), Supporting Actress (Dennis), Screenplay and Cinematography (Black and White). Nichols was credited with the most explosive directorial debut since Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane (1941). A new standard was set for language in film, as the film did not shy away from the vulgarities within the play, transferring the harsh language to the screen. It brought a startling new realism to the screen, and it is safe to state that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the first of the New American cinema, ushering in a remarkable new realism to cinema.
The film won Oscars for Taylor as Best Actress, the lovely Sandy Dennis for Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Costume Design, and Cinematography, the last time the Cinematography Oscar was split into two categories, Black and White, and Colour. I think it was scandalous that this extraordinary film, seething with such rage and wounds, was not selected Best Picture, or that it did not win Nichols an Oscar. He would win the following year for his ground-breaking masterpiece The Graduate (1967) and go on to forge an extraordinary career directing films, plays and films for HBO.
The story of dysfunction in marriage is a common subject on film, but no film, before or since has better explored such a toxic, horrific relationship as the one we see here. It is ripe for a remake, with, oh say, Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep. Would they surpass Burton and Taylor?
I doubt it.
An extraordinary American masterpiece for the ages.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.