Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

27 February

Elizabeth Taylor born, 1932

On this day in 1932 Elizabeth Taylor was born, in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, UK. Her parents were American, originally from Arkansas, and her mother was a former actress. Often considered the last true star of Hollywood’s golden era – before TV made inroads in the 1950s – Taylor’s career started when she was nine, with There’s One Born Every Minute, followed up two years later with Lassie Come Home. Then came National Velvet, and at the age of 12 Elizabeth Taylor was a star. She remained, partly thanks to her violet eyes, double eyelashes, pale skin and shock of dark hair, an iconic star until she died. Her most significant run of films came in the mid/late 1950s, when she made Giant with James Dean (1956), Raintree County (1957) with Montgomery Clift, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) with Paul Newman, all of which earned her Oscar nominations, as did Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Butterfield 8 (1960) which finally won her an Academy Award. Always a reluctant actress, Taylor became famous in the 1960s for her marriage to Richard Burton, in the 1970s for her marriage again to Burton, in the 1980s for her Aids campaigning work, and from the 1990s onwards for simply still being around – she had been an alcoholic, addicted to sleeping pills, had had a brain tumour, skin cancer, broken her back five times and had survived life-threatening pneumonia twice, once while making her most famous film, Cleopatra (in fact you can see a tracheotomy scar that the pneumonia necessitated in some of the shots). She died in 2011.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966, dir: Mike Nichols)

We’ve all had nights like these but there are very few films about them. We turn up at someone’s house for dinner only to realise we’ve arrived at a delicate time. Our hosts’ relationship is in trouble, they’re drunk and instead of the evening of food, drink and convivial chat that we expect, we’re ushered into a war zone. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play Martha and George the married couple – she’s the daughter of the college president where he is now a professor sitting pretty. Meanwhile George Segal and Sandy Dennis play the young faculty couple invited over after a campus party for “one for the road”. It is Segal and Dennis who get to wear the tin hats and duck.

When the film first came out, its censor-busting ripe language and its portrayal of a hellish night of increasingly drunken raving was seen as the screen manifestation of Taylor and Burton’s actual relationship, famously stormy. But the film is more than just a peek behind the celebrity curtain. It’s a fantastic tour de force of acting, in which Taylor shows she was not just as good but even better than Burton – he always said she was and here’s the proof. Edward Albee’s original play had been hailed as one of the best of the last decade (by the New York Times, among others) and director Mike Nichols and screen adapter Ernest Lehman don’t bother opening it out too much. For the most part they let Albee’s words and the performances do the work, and Nichols often puts his camera right in the face of either Burton or Taylor in full flow, so we can almost feel the spittle. Burton, playing the professor with a cosy life and a well of self-reproach to draw on, is as good as we’ve come to expect (he’d been similarly self-loathing in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold the year before).

It’s Taylor who is the revelation, a foul-mouthed spitfire whose husband has not kept her in the style which her upbringing had led her to expect. Her performance also can be traced back – to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when she was also an entitled dame with daddy issues. At the time it was the swearing that made the film so exciting, shocking, fun. Now it’s more the snap of the repartee (Martha: “You’re going bald.” George: “So are you.”) And the performances, so rapaciously ugly that they’re painful to watch even now. There’s a reason why this is so rarely shown on TV.

Why Watch?

  • All four actors were Oscar nominated for Best/Supporting gongs – a first
  • Haskell Wexler’s Oscar winning cinematography
  • The best of Burton and Taylor’s 11 films together
  • Director Mike Nichols’s debut

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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