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 accommodated the L of D’s objection of “Screw you!” to, inexplicably, “God damn you!” 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 few cards to play in order to thwart it. One powerful card is her ability to interact with Haskell Wexler’s invasive camera instinctually. Of course, that’s assumed; in reality, like most of the other contract players and beauties, she was a working class student of the MGM school of acting that stressed, 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, and they do, the intended slam is nevertheless praise—formidable professionalism as second nature. As Martha, that expertise remains unmatched; there’s alchemy in what she delivers and what Wexler captures. Nichols’ concerns about deficiencies in her transmission that he thought she could be 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 as sensational entertainment.    

For years there was a story floating around the party circuits that Albee wanted Lucille Ball to play the Olympian role of Martha and while it sounds 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 that occasionally came through the box, it’s possible to see where Albee might have picked up ideas for the play’s gamesmanship and Martha’s gesticulations. They didn’t all come from the movies of Bette Davis. Ball not only had the character’s physical power and invective voice but the masculine femininity and bitch-comic brashness; had she grown 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 “bourgin”-soaked she-wolf. (Otoh, it’s maybe enough that 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 high, 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 that last trap in 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 that the transformation doesn’t lessen Taylor’s legendary persona; the thrills of the daring enhance it, create an exhilaration about watching the then world’s biggest star go for the brass ring. The busty muliebrity has been generously flavored as slattern; the stirrup pant suit carnality is rigged for “getting to the meat of things,” more crotch bait than dyke-like Uta Hagen or Davis could ever dream of achieving on screen. Those two epitomize the inherent sex revulsion in Albee’s blackened mass; Taylor personifies the missing feminine hunger, just as she did as Maggie in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Foolish self-aggrandizing Kathleen Turner said she was better as both on stage, oblivious that she’s more butch than her male costars. 

Excising some of the overloads of Albee’s self-congratulatory arty-fartiness, you wish Nichols had cut more. Not that the actors can’t swing them—in fact, 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 in Albee’s hocus-pocus intellectualism that stunts our focus. Instead of being receptive to his examination of the anger in and emptiness of mismatched, childless marriages, we cringe at the 60s-ness of it; his “see-how-clever-I-am” scrutiny sours because it gives way to suspicions of creepy surreptitiousness. I’ve gone back to reread and watch his interviews, the earliest being curtly defensive as he smarted over and mocked the “dumb critics” who kept alleging Virginia Woolf might be a homosexual allegory. His stock answer: “If I wanted to write about a gay couple I would.” He’d maintain that position, less argumentatively in his last years, but one doubts if it’s an accident that when he started directing his own plays, especially VW, he himself cringed, editing out superfluous flourishes and the overly excessive drinking, self-correcting mistakes—slicing a good bit of the Latin nonsense and reversing Martha’s reproval at George about “truth and illusion.” (As all authors want to do, only he can change what he doesn’t like in his plays, not his directors or actors; and the watchdogs of his estate are on the alert for any attempt to gay play G & M.) Staying consistent in categorically denying writing a vicious anti-heterosexual play, he’d also become vocally louder in pronouncing that George is the center of the play; not only does the “flop” command the most lines, he commands the steerage as the captain navigating into a vengeful 4 ply wreckage as purification. Allowing Martha’s vitriol to remain splashy—it’s what audiences come to see—there’s a decided shift of emphasis: he tries to avoid letting her win out in his directed versions, he’s George as the professor conjoined to a bitch seven years his senior offering up a strong dosage of barely disguised misogyny. Not just against Martha, but late-night guest Honey and his own mother in his hushed-up novel. 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 agonies in the shadows; he never felt 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 fling with one of Britain’s highest regarded male actors. His long list of conquests of the opposite sex might have been more purgative than serial adultery, compensation, lubed by alcohol, to ease the lingering qualms. Yet his marriage to Taylor, champion of gays, was surrounded by reminders of what he wished to expel. Some text in books about the couple have only scratched the surface of this touchy subject, and by extension the associated violence; now that they’re both gone we’re likely to get bolder biographies disclosing the extent of his torments and the tormenting she would engage in to get to him. We can reasonably guess this is partly what attracted them to Albee’s exorcism; there was a love/hate thing going on between them right from the start. A caution of boomerang went unheeded: immersion into once-in-a-lifetime parts can alter actors’ lives, unwittingly becoming overtaken: Taylor’s Martha going at Burton’s George over his supposed weaknesses, with Wexler’s camera stalking her, is not only watching something we’ve rarely been privy to before VW, we’re watching premonition. Roughly a decade later, as the marriage disintegrated into booze-fueled acrimony, Taylor said, “We got tired of playing George and Martha.” 

Repercussion of the portentous would bounce back on Albee, when each succeeding interview in his meritorious years, wherein he resembled Peter O’Toole’s Don Quixote, provided hints that he may have been duping or in denial to everyone about the messaging in Virginia Woolf; that perhaps it wasn’t until he hadn’t any further reason to chastise those who wanted to destroy him because he was gay—and there were a lot of New York snitters who did back in the 60s—that he’d attempt to minify the dated conundrums he created. He was honest in claiming he didn’t hide in the closet when confronted by the press seeking clarification of his play’s hugger-muggery; in today’s climate, however, his prepared dispatches of charming erudition as armor against the skeptics seem less convincing, the benefit of doubt receding. That imaginary child of George and Martha may very well be the son his adoptive parents realized they didn’t want much part of; George’s novel about killing his parents a sneaky variant of double indemnity. Then, at long last, came 1994’s Three Tall Women, specifically about the adoptive mother as his Martha gnawing away at him. But there’s a preface: In 1989, 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, which he denied yet again. Jackson’s a blunt straight-shooter; she’d go where he wasn’t ready to tread. He fought with her over interpretation, saying that he was disappointed that she resorted to her classic “ice cold” authoritarian style during the play’s run. A few critics expressed a similar complaint but others zeroed in on the device of Baby Pooh, its dramatic license exceeding plausibility, causing Albee to seethe without overtly blaming Jackson’s rendering, which exposed the script; he apparently disregarded that she’s an actor diametrically the opposite of a conveyer of the disingenuous. When Three Tall Women took the 1994 Pulitzer (his third), the prize may have been awarded for the relief that, irrespective of his usual penchant for literary tricks, there wasn’t much hiding the damage from the woman whose tentacles ensnared him. Originally performed off-Broadway and elsewhere, the play has officially arrived on the Great White Way two years after his death. There’s belated justice—boomerang as irony that his “ice cold” mother is played by none other than Jackson. Being heralded a triumph in her return to Broadway after thirty years (and after more than twenty as an agitating member of Britain’s Parliament), she’s the apposite churner of Albee’s dispossession of memories, the let-it-bleed nemesis to Baby Pooh forecasting we’ll never again look at his legacy in the old ways.


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