Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

When Elizabeth Taylor died earlier this year, there was much talk about which of her many movies was her best.

Such discussions are generally fruitless for me. I mean, someone like Liz Taylor made movies for half a century, all kinds of movies. She made movies when she was a young girl. She made movies when she was a beautiful, seductive young woman. She made movies when she was a more mature woman and could bring that perspective to her role.

She made comedies, dramas, love stories, and she made them with most of the most talented actors and actresses of her lifetime.

I can't narrow it down to just one really great movie. When Liz Taylor is the topic, I always feel it is necessary to mention several movies — different types of movies from different eras and with different casts and directors.

But if my back is to the wall, if I absolutely must pick the movie I think was the best of all the movies she made, I would have to pick the one that premiered 45 years ago today — "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

It's easy, as the film's trailer says, to talk about it, but it is difficult to tell people about it.

See, most of the "action" in the film takes place in the viewers' minds. It is primarily dialogue about people who may or may not have existed and things that may or may not have happened — even some things that supposedly happened (or didn't happen) while something else occupied the attention of the camera (and, consequently, the viewers).

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" began as an Edward Albee play that enjoyed quite a bit of success on Broadway in the early 1960s. It was set in a rather sleepy college town in New England — in the home of a middle–aged history professor and his wife.

The premise was that the history professor (Richard Burton) and his wife (Taylor) had attended some sort of faculty mixer thrown by her unseen father (who, the audience learned, was the president of the school). While there, they met a young couple — the husband (George Segal) was a newly appointed professor at the school, a strapping, good–looking fellow with an athletic background and a timid wife (Sandy Dennis) with whom he seemed mismatched.

As the movie opened, George and Martha (Burton and Taylor) drunkenly returned to their home in the early hours of a Sunday — where Martha announced that she had invited the young couple over for some post–party drinks and conversation. She insisted that the young man was a "math" teacher although it turned out that he was actually a biology teacher.

I suppose that was the first real hint of what was to come. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was about a lot of word games, word manipulation, and the uncertainty over the young instructor's specialty might have been part of that.

I've seen that movie several times now. Maybe there is something obvious about mistaking a biology teacher for a math teacher — but, if there is, I've never figured out what it was.

That really doesn't matter, I guess. There were times when the story took on such a Through the Looking Glass quality that, even if there was no significance (either obvious or subtle) behind confusing a biology teacher for a math teacher, it seems fitting that it would be one of the "games" that George and Martha played.

And they played a lot of games.

Their games included some suggestive and controversial (for 1966) language — stuff like "up yours," "screw you," "god damn," "son of a bitch" and the name that was given to one of the games, "hump the hostess."

I remember the first time I saw the movie. I was probably 14 or 15, and it was scheduled to be shown on TV one summer night. I asked my mother if I could watch it, and she said I could so I did. By that time, the language seemed tame to me (I heard worse on my bus rides to and from school), and my focus was on the characters' motivations for what they said — not just the words.

I had heard a lot less about the movie than I thought, and it wasn't easy for a teenager to comprehend everything he saw, but even so I had a pretty good grasp of things. I could tell that the movie was about two people who were disappointed by life, by each other, and they were stuck with the choices they had made (or, at least, they felt they were). That made them angry, and they looked for ways to lash out at each other.

And, to a certain extent, they were jealous, I thought, of the young couple who still had it within their power to change their course, change direction. They were not yet trapped.

It must be painful, I remember thinking, to be so far along in your life, to have reached a point where you should be able to look back with a sense of satisfaction at your achievements and still feel jealous of those who are so much younger than you are because of the choices they have yet to make.

I realized several years later that, eventually, most people do feel trapped. George and Martha simply expressed that feeling.

In any discussion of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" I always feel it is necessary to mention Taylor's contribution.

Until she made "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Taylor had always been cast in age–appropriate roles — and, in 1966, she was in her mid–30s and still gorgeous. But "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" required Martha to be — for lack of a better word — frumpy and in middle age.

The casting of Taylor in the role came as a surprise to most observers. I've heard that Warner Brothers' Jack Warner wanted to cast James Mason and Bette Davis in the roles of George and Martha, and Albee reportedly liked the idea. It particularly appealed to him to have Davis imitating herself early in the film when Martha entered the house and repeated Davis' line from the 1948 movie "Beyond the Forest""What a dump!"

However, with such a dialogue–driven story (the studio was committed to being as true to the original play as possible — and, with mostly modest exceptions, it was), it was apparently decided that the stars needed more star power than Mason and Davis could provide. I don't think either was offered a part in the film; instead, the parts went to Taylor and Burton, who were proven to be bankable performers.

The choice of Taylor was especially surprising because she was regarded as one of the world's most beautiful women. Sleek and svelte, Taylor didn't really fit the image of Martha, but she gained 30 pounds to play the role, and, in the end, Albee conceded that both she and Burton (who was in his early 40s) had been impressive.

(Nevertheless, he told Davis' biographer, "with Mason and Davis you would have had a less flashy and ultimately deeper film.")

Taylor was deep enough, I guess. She won an Oscar for her performance.

While I'm on the subject of the Oscars, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" remains the only movie to be nominated in every eligible category.

That alone should tell you how special it was.