06 April 2008

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Dir. Mike Nichols, 1966
********* / 10

Synopsis: After a long night (and morning) of college faculty partying and drinking, George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) offer a newly hired professor and his wife (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) a glimpse into the hateful abortion that their marriage has become.

I'm not generally a fan of movie versions of modern stage plays. There are exceptions, of course, like Streetcar Named Desire...and now this one, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? One of my objections to plays-turned-into-movies is that the scripts usually refuse to become just part of the film--the words always stand out, rather egotistically, constantly reminding us that we're watching a fiction, a fiction created by someone who's far, far more adept with language than we are. In this case, though, I think that Mike Nichols's direction and Haskel Wexler's photography hold their own more than admirably.

I can pretty easily watch all sorts of on-screen violence and gore without getting too upset. My mind is adept at realizing that what I'm watching is not real and that, therefore, there's no real use in reacting emotionally to it. But movies like this, where the hatred is in the form of words and voice tones, body language and facial expressions, targeted jabs at deeply private pains and the cruel exposure of private pains in a public setting--these movies upset me. It may very well be that this kind of violence--the kind in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?--is much more real to me than the exploding bodies and flowing blood of the Hollywood action flick. This kind of domestic, personal, private violence is familiar and hits home so hard that it almost makes me sick to watch it.

There are two elements of this movie that make its power almost unbearable--the acting performances and Wexler's cinematography.

Taylor and Burton were amazing. Yes, Taylor's role called for an over-the-top acting style that isn't all that "in vogue" today (unless we're talking about Daniel Day Lewis), but it still ranks among the most amazing lead actress roles in history. Burton's George, though less over-stated, is a study in inner turmoil, the sure knowledge that he is over-powered by his wife but his refusal to yield or to fall short of her indomitable capacity for inhuman cruelty. Both performances were almost literally breathtaking, and the close, stark camera work allows us to absorb every ounce of spite and meanness that pour like liquor for the entire length of the film.

Hexler's decision to use an almost documentary-style B&W photography was controversial, I understand. Taylor supported his decision, but Burton was worried about how he'd look on screen. Needless to say, Hexler was right (and Burton may have been, too, because he often looks very old, beaten, hollow, and worn out). His close-ups on characters' faces and his decision to be in the middle of physical movement allow the movie audience to feel George and Martha's hate like no theater audience ever could.

OK, I'm sick, and don't have a lot more to say, although there's a lot more I could say if I wasn't worried about how it would come out. So, I'll leave it at this, knowing I can always come back and revise this later!

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