2016 BlindSpot Series: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

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When Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” landed in 1962 it set Broadway ablaze. Its scorching, abrasive story of a middle-aged couple’s volatile marriage won Tony Awards but was stripped of its Pulitzer Prize for Drama due to its controversial content. It was perceived as a story that could be told on Broadway but could never be filmed due to the infamous Production Code.

But things were changing in Hollywood. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman was determined to keep the play’s coarse language and twisted sensuality in hopes of capturing the same initial shock of Broadway. He succeeded and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is now known as one of the key movies of the 1960s that led to the abolishment of the Production Code. The movie became one of only two films to receive an Oscar nomination in every eligible category (the other being “Cimarron” from 1931).

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Real life husband and wife Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were cast to play George and Martha, a venomous, hard-drinking couple in marriage turmoil. George is an apathetic associate history professor at a small college. Martha is the bitter malcontent daughter of the college’s Dean.

After a late night campus party, Martha invites a young couple to their home for a nightcap. The guests are Nick (George Segal), a hunky newly-hired biology professor, and his mousy, reserved wife Honey (Sandy Dennis). George and Martha begin a caustic back-and-forth verbal assault. At first Nick and Honey are terribly uncomfortable by what they witness, but their hosts seem impervious to their rudeness or damaging words. At one point George flippantly explains “Martha and I are merely exercising, that’s all.”

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As more alcohol is consumed the conversations grow more toxic and soon the young couple find themselves caught up in George and Martha’s games of emotional destruction. Through various stages of drunkenness the four scratch and claw at every sensitive scar revealing deep-rooted anger and boiling secrets from their pasts. Lehman’s script is deeply loyal to Elbee’s story. Within it no feelings are protected and no verbal assault is too vicious.

The film marked the directorial debut of Mike Nichols who was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Fred Zinnemann (but no worries, Nichols would win the following year for “The Graduate”). Nichols wisely takes a more conservative approach to this material, trusting his four key players and allowing them to do most of the heavy lifting. But that doesn’t mean Nichols vanishes into the background. His hand is seen in several strategic camera techniques ranging from shot framing to camera movement. His direction never overshadows the dialogue, but there are instances where he accentuates it.

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But when people talk of “Virginia Woolf” the performances most always top the conversation. The film earned Elizabeth Taylor her second Best Actress Oscar. Taylor dove headfirst into her character, gaining 30 pounds for the role, wearing a wig, and doing anything to shed her image as a beautiful movie star. Burton is equally good and brings a bruising passive-aggressive apathy to his character. Albee originally wanted James Mason but later admitted Burton was fantastic. Both Segal and Dennis also received Oscar nominations (Dennis winning her category) and each add their own unique and specific component to this dysfunctional tale.

There is simply no denying the strengths of “Virginia Woolf”, but your overall enjoyment may depend on your tolerance levels. This is 135 minutes of relentless verbal and mental cruelty. It’s a mean, acidic, piercing drama featuring one combustible scene after another. But the longer you stick with it the more layers are stripped away from the characters – the more we learn about them. And eventually the film asks if we are so different. Perhaps George said it best when watching Honey scratch the sticker off a bottle of brandy – “We all peel labels.” How true it is.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

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After a relatively slow start to his career, playwright Tennessee Williams struck gold with a series of hits that captivated audiences on both stage and big screen. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is one of those hits. The film adaptation is loaded with Williams’ signature sizzling dialogue and rich, complex characters. A brilliant cast including Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, and Jack Carson spark this story of fractured relationships, family dysfunction, and the word of the day mendacity. It’s sharp, edgy, and chock full of fiery energy.

Williams’ play first hit Broadway in 1955 and it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The film opened in 1958 and was a big success. Richard Brooks co-wrote and directed the adaptation which (as was usually the case) slightly dulled the edges of the play in order to adhere to the Motion Picture Code. Williams didn’t like the changes, so much so that he often pointed people away from the film version. Many of his plays took from his own tumultuous and contentious life making them deeply personal but sometimes turgid and overblown. Judging the movie on its own merits, I find Brooks’ version to be overflowing with great scenes, a perfectly captured setting, and dialogue that pierces with shards of realism.

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With the exception of two brief scenes the entire story takes place on a huge family estate in the Mississippi Delta. It places us with the Pollitt family, an assortment of deeply flawed and sometimes contemptible people each with more emotional baggage than any world traveler. The family patriarch is Big Daddy (Ives) who may be struggling with some life-threatening health issues. His two sons and potential heirs each have their own problems. Brick (Newman) is a raging alcoholic who hobbles around on a crutch after breaking his ankle pulling a drunken stunt. His relationship with his wife Maggie (Taylor) is as stormy as the Deep South weather. The other son Cooper (Carson in what turned out to be his final role) is more interested in his inheritance. Spurred on by his manipulative wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), Cooper is the quintessential brown-noser who hopes to be first in line for his daddy’s fortune.

There are so many complicated family dynamics at work. Brick and Maggie have a cold and bitter relationship that stems from harbored anger and pain. There is clear animosity between the brothers which is often fueled by their boisterous wives. There is also a disconnect between a wealthy and success-driven father and the two sons that simply wanted his love. All of these conflicts and others are woven together to create the stinging, vitriolic fabric that makes up the story. Amazingly the various family angles never conflict and there is almost a twisted poetic quality to the various contentions and quarrels.

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The story is fantastic but it’s the cast who makes it simmer. Elizabeth Taylor was never more beautiful and her sultry natural beauty and Southern charm is ever-present. Paul Newman is perfect as the angry and closed-off Brick. Surprisingly he was not the first choice. Robert Mitchum, Montgomery Clift, and even Elvis Presley all turned down the role. Carson plays a character type that he was well known for and Sherwood is convincing as the hateful and conniving Mae. But I haven’t even mentioned Judith Anderson who plays Big Daddy’s wife Big Mamma (of course). She lives in a delusional bubble where she pretends everything with her family is okay. Anderson is wonderful and many times she is the glue that binds the various fits of dysfunction we see.

Brimming with Southern personality, big but fitting performances, and a script with a bite, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is as mesmerizing today as it was over 50 years ago. Perhaps some of the edge is missing from the Broadway production, but I found it to be a delight. It’s a beautiful cinematic creation that still proudly shows its stage show roots. And it only gets better when you consider the phenomenal cast lead by Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. For some it falls short of a more popular Tennessee Williams adaption “A Streetcar Named Desire”. For me this film stands right there with it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS