Monday, April 25, 2011

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?              A                    
USA  (131 )  1966 d:  Mike Nichols

A searing drama that strips away the surfaces and artificialities and leaves the cast of only four players totally wiped out and devastated afterwards, disgusted with themselves and one another, as this kind of abhorrent behavior is the stuff of live theater.  Edward Albee’s dialogue is stunningly rich and densely descriptive, but abusive and dehumanizing in every respect, as these characters learn to come after one another using words as claws, ripping into each other’s flesh until their souls bleed.  For some, it’s just a question of who bleeds more.  George and Martha are played by the real life married couple of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom blew enough smoke in each other’s lives to get divorced and married again, and then divorced a second time as well.  Their troubles likely revolved around excessive alcohol consumption, which is one of the main threads of this film, as the relationship turns into a boxing match where the players fight for a round, take a brief rest, then fight another round, etc.  Well the rules of the game are to keep playing until somebody gets knocked out.  In this case it’s pretty clear that there’s no one left standing.  George is an associate professor in the history department who married the daughter of the college president, but fell short of qualifications needed to head the department, even after being there for some twenty years, a weakness his wife uses for target practice.  They are joined for drinks one evening by a young newlywed couple, George Segal as Nick, a biology professor at the school with a driving ambition for more and his weak-stomached wife, Sandra Dennis as Honey.  

Shot in black and white by Haskell Wexler, the quiet opening could just as easily be the opening of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), as it’s a peaceful pastoral setting overgrown by trees and plenty of closely cut grass.  The setting is night, as George and Martha return home after a dinner party, pour themselves a few more drinks, and the liquor continues to pour until dawn.  After a brief dust up, which plays out like foreplay, their anger with one another is sufficiently riled up until they continue on even after their guests arrive, who awkwardly see the incendiary fireworks flying fast and furious, as Martha can’t stop using her husband as a punching bag, insulting him, diminishing his stature and masculinity, and pretty much calling him a failure in every respect.  This is how the evening begins, as initially Nick and Honey politely stay out of it, but after a few rounds of drinks, they’re fair game as well, because who else can George retaliate against, since his wife has already shown herself to be a pretty tough customer.  Though only age 34 at the time the film was released, winning her 2nd Academy Award as Best Actress, Elizabeth Taylor as Martha is physically way over the top in this picture, drowning in alcohol, bellowing at the top of her lungs, hurling continual insults at the man she portrays as her mousy, good-for-nothing husband while curling up next to the “other” George, flirting openly with someone else’s husband whose wife is in the bathroom sick to her stomach from excessive alcohol consumption, perhaps the only sensible response all night.  But believe it or not, they’re only just getting warmed up.         

Somewhat reminiscent of Jean Eustache’s blisteringly honest The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain (1972), by the time the dust clears and people’s feelings and dignity have been obliterated, there are moments of quiet grace and poetry, especially in Martha, whose fragility and marital dysfunction draws a parallel to the delusional behavior in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night, especially the use of morphine in that play as a shield of illusion to hide behind, like alcoholism here, to avoid having to live with the real pain in their lives.  Language is the key component, used here as weapons, like heat-seeking missiles, that embellish the drop dead sensational acting performances, where characters can continually express that exact moment in time when their lives began to deteriorate and unravel, the incident that occurred when they began hating and despising one another, and that magic moment when it hit them that their lifelong dreams were a lost cause, including marital love and happiness.  Like Anthony Schaffer’s later play Sleuth, there’s a dynamic involved to disguise everything that’s real in games and parodies, in stories and making fun of others, but really what they’re covering up is their own broken hearts and dreams.  This is ultimately a sad, mistrustful affair, a series of hurt miscalculations cruelly undermining the worth of the human being, given a foreboding hint near the opening with a Betty Davis quote from a movie where she ultimately meets a tragic fate (BEYOND THE FOREST, 1949), described by critics as “the longest death scene ever seen on the screen,” which pretty much describes what happens from start to finish in this movie adaptation of one of the great American plays, one that spells out the end of hope, the end of love, and the end of illusion.   

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