The Warner Bros. Blu-ray of Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? marks the 50th anniversary of what remains an example of fearless movie making by a first time director. Mike Nichols wanted to helm ever since he saw the original Broadway production. He had two good friends who made sure it happened when, to his and everyone else’s surprise, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton signed on to play Martha and George. Established movie directors were first choice—names like Fred Zinnemann and John Frankenheimer—but in signing Taylor, studios usually gave her what she wanted and she, and Burton too, wanted Nichols. Jack Warner was anxious about having a novice bring to the screen the controversial Edward Albee stinger top-heavy with, at the time, taboo language. (“Dirty words” had been heard before but never so frequently in one movie; now they sound PG-13.) Nichols’s successful track record on Broadway aside, his close relationships with the Burtons, George Segal and Sandy Dennis would be crucial in getting the kinds of performances he needed. Having the clout to tell Taylor she needed much more work than the others, she reportedly bristled, though the criticism he delivered was private. He also knew she was the star power to get the movie beyond the upcoming battles with the censors and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, aka the Legion of Decency. Rejecting Ernest Lehmann’s original adaptation, Nichols stuck to Albee’s basic neurotic rot and verbal assaults and refused to provide any protection shots, though a dub accommodating the L of D’s objection of “Screw you!” to “God damn you!” remains inexplicable. Mindful of the double gamble, Taylor accepted his guidance, found excitement in creating her own bitch, willing to fatten up and look blowsy, helping add touches of humor and incidental busywork (like munching chicken from the frig and returning the bare bones to it; shoving scattered ashtrays in drawers, throwing soiled undies under bedspreads or behind furniture). In the last fourth of the picture, starting with her “sad, sad, sad” monologue at the kitchen screen door, the mesmerizing mini colossus at five feet two inches manages to rise up to humanize Martha the monster. The weight of fame, however, was never going to be fully negated by Taylor who, as the eye-glued center of interest, had just a few cards to play in order to thwart it. One powerful card is her ability to appear to instinctually interact with Haskell Wexler’s invasive camera. Of course, in reality, like most of the other contract players and beauties, she was a working class student of the MGM school of acting stressing, at the expense of the “art” of acting, the mechanics of continuity in hitting the marks and reciting dialogue consistently for editing of multiple takes and camera angles, careful to ignore the camera’s intrusiveness while at the same time playing to it. If her detractors say she maturated into the essence of those mechanics, the intended slam is nevertheless praise—formidable professionalism as second nature. As Martha, this expertise remains unmatched; there’s alchemy in what she delivers and what Wexler captures. Nichols’ concerns about deficiencies in her transmission he thought she was showing while watching her do takes dissolved when he saw what she was achieving on celluloid, a heightened sensorial experience. To answer the charge of being undisciplined in academic skills to be totally in character, she counters with the additional card of entitlement, having earned the right to give it a go, to use the untapped thrust of her outsized celebrity, irreversibly embedded in our cultural and social consciousness, to unleash a seasoned debauchery.    

For years there was a story floating through the party circuits about Albee wanting Lucille Ball to play the Olympian role of Martha and while it sounded like and probably was gay gossip gone viral, if you watch episodes of I Love Lucy, especially those from the middle and end years when Ball and Desi Arnaz were engaged in real martial wars occasionally coming through the box, it’s possible to see where Albee might have picked up from frequency waves some ideas for the play’s gamesmanship and Martha’s gesticulations. They didn’t solely come from the movies of Bette Davis, or from his observations of a real and embattled college professor and his wife. Ball not only had the character’s physical power and invective voice but the masculine femininity and bitch-comic brashness; had she real eyebrows, went frosty gray, elevated her bosom and had the guts, she might have gone beyond gimmick to eviscerate as a funny, sex-starved “bergin”-soaked she-wolf. (Otoh, it’s maybe enough Imogene Coca did the eventual Martha spoof.) While Davis, inconceivably Albee’s first choice, Rosalind Russell and Patricia Neal (before her stroke) were in the running, Taylor took the role to prevent the others from getting it, received the early-on ridiculing press and, ultimately, the acclaim and Oscar. In repeated viewings, the show-stopping vulgarity gives way to some regret—that Nichols, who’s justly credited for getting her to take movie bitchery to a then-new bleeding, didn’t demand she curb her excessive lip-smacking, or find a way to work around her terrible crying jags. (Larry Peerce managed to avoid this last trap in the awful Ash Wednesday.) In her early thirties when cast, she was already some twenty years younger than Albee’s harridan, and an extensive makeup process and poundage were required to provide physicality, as well as lowering her scrawny voice and effectuate a twaddle. Arguably the larger part of her success is the transformation doesn’t lessen Taylor’s legendary persona; the thrills of the daring enhance it, create an exhilaration about watching the world’s biggest star go for the brass ring. The busty image has been generously flavored as slattern; the stirrup pants carnality rigged for “getting to the meat of things” are more crotch bait than dyke-like Uta Hagen or Davis could ever dream of achieving on screen. Those two epitomize the inherent revulsion of sex in Albee’s blackened mass; Taylor supplies the missing feminine hunger, just as she did as Maggie in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Both playwrights have in common the telling act of uglifying their central female characters into mannish unsexy objects, in turn accelerating the audience’s use of euphemisms; Taylor reinstates the power of muliebrity. 

Excising some of the overloads of Albee’s self-congratulatory arty-fartiness, you wish Nichols had cut more. It’s not over concern the actors can’t swing them—Taylor, Burton and Sandy Dennis elevate the flatulence to heights surpassing anything we could have hoped for given the notoriety of the making of the movie. It’s the insistence of Albee’s hocus-pocus intellectualism stunting our focus. Instead of being receptive to his examination of the anger in and emptiness of boozing, mismatched, childless marriages, we cringe at the 60s-ness of it; his “see-how-clever-I-am” mode sours, giving way to suspicions of creepy surreptitiousness. Having gone back to reread and rewatch many of his interviews, the earliest being curtly defensive, he smarted over and mocked the “dumb critics” who alleged Virginia Woolf might be a homosexual allegory. His stock answer: “If I wanted to write about a gay couple I would.” He’d maintain the position less argumentatively in his emeritus years, though not lessened was his anxiousness about future gay-playing of George and Martha, resulting in producers and directors signing contracts prohibiting gender change of characters, thus keeping the watchdogs of his estate on alert. When starting to direct his own plays, especially VW, he cringed as well, editing out superfluous flourishes, the overly excessive drinking, correcting Martha’s reproval at George about “truth and illusion.” As all authors are wont to do, only he can change what doesn’t work in the tenor of the times and all other directors must get pre-approval of any slicing. Staying consistent in denying he penned a vicious play on heterosexual marriage as convenient front, he’d become more pronounced in making closety George the central “killer” in the play; not only does the “flop” command the most lines, he commands the steerage as the captain navigating a vengeful 4-ply wreckage as purification. The shifts of emphasis on the associate professor conjoined to a bitch six years his senior offering up a deathblow to Baby Pooh, dispensing dosages of barely disguised misogyny against Martha, against late-night guest Honey and delivering a fate to his own mother in his hushed-up novel are not accidentally coincidental.  

Receiving his share of raves for George, Burton would have to wait until the hoopla over his wife cooled down before the annals of movie acting recorded his browbeaten hubby as not only his finest work, they rank it as one of the screen’s handful of definitive examples of the art of minimalizing; even when exploding as George to get even, or breaking down in muffled sobs, this is masterfully controlled punctuating. There may be another reason Burton reaches greatness: he too had been hiding his own pent-up misgivings; though wanting to be one, he never felt entirely secure or satisfied in what he referred to as the unmanly profession of acting, feeling vulnerable after succumbing, at the beginning of his theatrical career, to a brief fling with one of Britain’s highly regarded male actors. His long list of conquests of the ladies suggests purgative, a compensation lubed by alcohol to ease the lingering qualms. Yet his marriage to Taylor, champion of gays, was surrounded by reminders from which he would never be extricated. Some references in books about the couple have thinly scratched the surface of this touchy subject, and by extension the associated violence; with both gone now, we’re likely to get bolder accounts disclosing the extent of his torments and the hinted-at tormenting she would engage in to get to him during their martial combat. We can reasonably guess this is partly what attracted them to Albee’s exorcism; there was a love/hate thing going on right from the start. Caution of boomerang unheeded, immersion into once-in-a-lifetime parts can alter actors’ lives, transforming into unwitting hostages: Taylor’s Martha going at Burton’s George over his supposed weaknesses, with Wexler’s camera stalking her, is not only watching something we very rarely experienced in movies before VW, we now realize the vicious outpouring turned premonition. A long decade later, as the marriage dissolved into booze-fueled acrimony facilitated by ill-advised togetherness in too many bombs, Taylor issued with civility a press release, “We got tired of playing George and Martha.” 

Repercussions of a paradoxical kind should have bounced back on Albee when his Three Tall Women premiered in Vienna in 1991 as it was specifically about his non-birth mother as his Martha gnawing away at him. Not until it opened off-Broadway in 1994 was attention focused on Frances Albee but inevitably deflected when he was won the Pulitzer (his third). The prize may have been awarded and received in relief: irrespective of his usual penchant for literary hugger-muggery, there wasn’t much hiding the “Oh, so that’s the problem” humor emanating from the woman whose tentacles ensnared him and as consequence Albee was spared further drilling about his calculated duping in his foremost holy scripture. His practiced dispatches of charming erudition as armor against the skeptics who were onto him do seem less convincing now, the benefit of doubt receding. That imaginary child of George and emasculating Martha may very well be the son his adoptive parents realized they didn’t want much part of; George’s novel in which he kills his parents a sneaky variant of wishful double indemnity. A 1989 preface is a needed interjection: Albee directed Glenda Jackson in a version of Virginia Woolf in L.A., during which she says she didn’t “get on” with the playwright. Throughout rehearsal she was intensely inquisitive about the derivations of Martha and George, wondering if there were any hidden autobiographical details, a blunt and persistent straight-shooter fearlessly trekking into territory he resisted. He fought with her over interpretation, saying he was disappointed she resorted to her classic “ice cold” authoritarian style during the play’s run, during which audiences saw various versions of the chill, one of them “a Noel Coward-like brittleness, acid-tongued but devoid of the necessary sensuality.” A few critics expressed similar complaints while others and many viewers found refreshed doubt in the 60sness in the imagined Baby Pooh not being Albee’s parents’ likely inability to conceive as they jointly confess “we couldn’t,” probably causing Albee to seethe without publicly blaming Jackson’s rendering for virtually debunking his long-avowed statements to the contrary. As his choice to do Martha, he quite clearly disregarded the fact she’s an actor diametrically the opposite of a conveyer of stealth. When Three Tall Women officially arrived on the Great White Way in 2018, two years after his death, there was a belated boomerang as dramatic irony—his “ice cold” mother is played by none other than Jackson. Being guided by an apperceptive Joe Mantello in her return to Broadway after thirty years, she’s the apposite churner of Albee’s dispossession of memories, the let-it-bleed nemesis to the real Baby Pooh forecasting the likelihood we’ll ever again want to interpret his legacy using the old camouflage.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 (Revised 4/2018) RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.