Because Jeff Talbott FORCED me to read the new Mike Nichols biography -- worth it -- I re-watched Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf last night. There's a lot to be learned from that film.
The biggest lesson is that smart, fearless work is rewarded. I remember the first time I read Virginia Woolf. I was sixteen. I thought it was a load of crap. Albee? BORING! Later, I might have seen a scene or two in acting classes, with twenty-year-olds playing George and Martha, and felt smug in my superior analysis. As if a college sophomore could begin to understand Martha. Then I watched the movie -- probably at about thirty years old -- and all I saw were pyrotechnics. I think I had to watch it in two sittings. Sandy Dennis was annoying. George Segal was SO not hot enough, Elizabeth Taylor was chewing the scenery and Richard Burton was sleepwalking through his performance.
Over the years I've seen clips of the film in various situations and my attitude's softened slightly. Then a few years ago there was the controversy over the casting of an African American in the role of Nick, which I followed with interest. At about that time there was the Steppenwolf/Broadway revival, which I did not see, and a non-Equity production that cast African American actors as George and Martha (Pulse Theatre) that was memorable. It was the first (but I suspect not the last) time I saw this play performed live.
Still, I've avoided the film. Daunting. Pretentious. Exhausting, and not in a good way.
But last night, after reading the chapter in the Nichols biography Jeff Talbott FORCED me to read, I decided the time had come to attempt the film again. I gave myself the out of turning it off if I got bored.
I was riveted. There are flaws, but they're tiny in comparison to the vast swaths of perfection. Segal's performance as Nick is the one easiest to challenge. It should have been Redford. Nick is the essence of privilege, the guy whose life is handed to him because of what he is, never challenged, always cutting corners and never realizing how hollow he is. Segal made him too aware. Too smart.
Dennis may have been the closest to perfect casting. I've had to do it a number of times and I can tell you that it's not easy to play cluelessness. Honey has some of the hardest lines to deliver and is probably the least-expressed character. It takes a genius to deliver the line, "I dance like the wind!" and not look ridiculous.
Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for her performance, and it's easy to dismiss the award as going to the beauty who slaps on some ugly makeup, but that Oscar was earned and deserves respect. There was no reason in the world for Taylor to take on that role at that point in her career. She was twenty years too young. She didn't need the fame. She didn't need the money. There was every chance in the world that she'd fail -- and fail big. I won't say she defines the role. The performance lacks a certain nuance. Her monologue at the screen door falls a little flat. Although she'd had lots of personal experience, her inebriation is too inward. Taylor is FEELING drunk, she's not letting us see her drunk. Her voice can't really sustain the role. And while there is a vast amount of courage for the pretty girl to appear on screen as a frump, the pretty girl still peeks out from time to time. All that said, Taylor's performance is emotionally searing in way that no one had a right to expect. The scene outside the roadhouse is brutal and horrifying in its honesty. Easily the best work of her career and some of the best work of a generation that spans several eras of Hollywood filmmaking.
However, the film belongs to Richard Burton. I recently watched his Hamlet. I've been obsessed with seeing the film of his live Broadway performance for years after reading a book written by a member of the cast. The beginning of the performance is shocking in its awfulness. All vocal show. Almost like vocal warmups. Only slowly does Burton come alive and deliver a workmanlike performance.
But his George is the whole package. Honest, yet theatrical. Subtle but with real flare. His George is a crushed man who is brought back to life by his encounter with a young couple full of promise and his jealousy of what they could be that he and Martha never will. Some of the screenplay's weakest writing is in George; the scene with Honey on the porch maybe the one that creaks the loudest. It's a scene that could easily go so Iago but Nichols and Burton pull it back, giving George real pathos in a scene that may really depict the creation of evil.
Overall, I'm going to say that Mike Nichols's film of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a flawed masterwork that's driven by the enthusiasm of geniuses working outside their comfort zones. Brilliance, particularly Albee's, radiates from the screen and camouflages many of the weaknesses, which in my opinion are simply missed opportunities; the biggest being the nuances in sexuality. Martha's baroque sexuality is on full display, nearly overplayed, but George's is the real engine of the story and is all but ignored by Nichols and Burton. For 1960s cinema that's almost unforgivable.
So, thank you Jeff Talbott for FORCING me to read that little pamphlet about a feisty talent named Mike Nichols. That kid may have had something. And thank you for giving me a reason to reexamine my own ignorance and elevate my estimation of what nearly everyone else on the planet has recognized for more than half a century as an American masterpiece. I'm slow, but I got there eventually.