Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

In memory of Elizabeth Taylor I have decided to repost my review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? originally posted at TheFFFurbelow.


For my entire life Elizabeth Taylor has been a celebrity, not an actress, known for her many marriages and health problems. Her last major film role was 1980's The Mirror Crack'd, which costarred Julie Andrews and Kim Novak. Few members of my generation would know that she is an accomplished actress and is a five-time Best Actress nominee at the Academy Awards, winning twice. Her career began at a young age and she gained recognition for her role in 1944's National Velvet. It was not until A Place in the Sun (filmed in 1949, released in 1951) that Elizabeth Taylor was able to compete for adult film roles. In 1960 she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in BUtterfield 8. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the directorial debut of Mike Nichols, the Academy Award-winning director of The Graduate (1967) as well as Silkwood (1983), Postcards from the Edge (1990) and The Birdcage (1996). Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an adaptation of Edward Albee's 1962 play, which was recommended for the Pulitzer Prize for Best Play in 1963 but was rejected because of its vulgarity. It is an astonishing film and I loved every second of it. Elizabeth Taylor deservedly won the Best Actress award for her performance as the drunk and verbally abusive wife. I was mesmerized from beginning to end. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a provocative film featuring an expert cast and screenplay that help create an explosively corrosive environment.

It is 2:00 am and George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) have returned home from a faculty party. George is an associate professor in the history department and Martha is his wife, daughter of the college president. Martha has invited Nick (George Segal), the newly hired biology professor, and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), over for a drink. George is immediately upset that he was not asked first and Martha begins yelling and screaming. He seems all too used to her erratic behaviour and before the guests arrive he tells Martha not to mention anything about their son. Nick and Honey enter the house and are at once thrust into the middle of a hostile marital spat, each spouse trying to force their guests to take sides. Martha takes Honey on a tour of the house and upon her return mentions to George that she was unaware they had a child. Martha begins telling stories to her guests about George being an awful father. Honey, who has become very drunk, rushes from the room to get sick and the two men step outside while Martha makes coffee. Nick shares with George that he only married Honey because she was pregnant, which ended up only being a hysterical pregnancy. George and Nick share stories and secrets and George reveals that he does consider Mark a threat. Finally, Nick announces that he and Honey are leaving and George proposes that he drive them, and the ensuing scene should be enough to prevent anyone from getting into a car with a drunk driver! The secrets and lies begin to unfold during a a very intense scene at a roadhouse where it becomes evident that George and Martha's arguments are just part of a game.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is reminiscent of many other films, though two in particular come to the forefront. In Adam's Rib we have two main characters who spend almost the entire film arguing, and even more incredible Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were romantically involved as were Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, during their first marriage to each other. I also see similarities with the Woody Allen film September (1987), which, like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is essentially a stage play on film. Allen's film is set entirely in a dimly lit house, and while it does not feature the same violent arguments I find myself comparing the two. Elizabeth Taylor is incredible in the role of Martha, a character supposedly in her mid fifties, almost two decades older than Taylor was at the time. She demonstrates a controlled insanity and her scenes with the naive Honey are some of the film's best. Sandy Dennis also deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for a film that was nominated in every category it was eligible. It is hard not to mention the profanity in the film, which was quite controversial at the time, and while it does not include the profanity that one would find in a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino film, the dialogue is scathing and hostile and yet beautiful to hear. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a powerful film with outstanding performances and exceptional cinematography that shocked me from its verbally explosive opening scene to its heartbreaking end.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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