WHEN ROLES BECOME CURSE

For years there’s been a story floating around entertainment circles that playwright Edward Albee wanted Lucille Ball to play the Olympian role of Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and while it sounds like gay party gossip, 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 (and if they didn’t then they do now), it’s possible to see where Albee could have picked up ideas for the play’s gamesmanship and Martha’s showy gestures. Ball not only had the character’s physical power and invective voice but her masculine femininity and bitch-comic brashness. Had Ball grown real eyebrows and pumped up and exposed her bosom, she might have triumphed in the role—a funny, sex-starved “bourgin”-soaked she-wolf. But no guts, no glory, and while others were in serious running, including Bette Davis (Albee’s first choice), Rosalind Russell and Patricia Neal, Elizabeth Taylor got the role as well as the pre-release early and ridiculing press but ultimately the Oscar for her very flashy, often super-effective performance in Mike Nichols’ movie of the play, while Richard Burton, who got all-round excellent notices as George, would have to wait until the hoopla over his wife cooled down before getting the true justice he deserved. In the annals of movie acting, Burton’s browbeaten hubby-professor isn’t only his finest work, it ranks as one of the screen’s handful of undeniably great achievements. (His a definitive example of the art of downplaying.) In repeated viewings, however, the show-stopping vulgarity of Taylor, which nearly fifty years later is still in its own way spectacularly entertaining, 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 work harder to curb her from excessive lip-smacking, or find a way to work around her terrible crying jags. (Larry Peerce saw the trap and managed to avoid it in Ash Wednesday.) And, in listening to Taylor bray out a barrage of wordy sadism, you regret Nichols, having cut the overloads of Albee’s excessively intellectualized verbiage, didn’t cut a bit more. Maybe it’s a small nag, given that studio head Jack Warner wanted to cut out most of the foul language and if not then provide a lot of “protection shots” ready to replace objections by censors, both rejected by Nichols. Not that Taylor can’t swing the heaps—in fact, she elevates the exposure of George’s book and the “sad, sad, sad” monologue to heights surpassing anything Albee could have hoped for—it’s that the repetition of Albee’s phraseology shifts our focus. Instead of being receptive to his examination of the anger in and emptiness of a childless marriage, we cringe at the 60s-ness of it; his scrutiny sours because it has motives inherent in the creepy surreptitiousness. (That’s why some critics try to get away with calling Virginia Woolf a disguised allegory on homosexuality.) In her early thirties when cast, Taylor was already some twenty years younger than Albee’s bitch, and an extensive makeup process and poundage were required to provide some physical weight, as well as lowering her scrawny voice and alter her twaddle. The larger part of her success is that the transformation doesn’t lessen Taylor’s legendary stature; the thrills of the daring effects enhance it, create an excitement about watching the then world’s biggest celebrity go for the brass ring. Her bosomy femininity—often too glossy in other pictures—has been generously seasoned to effect a slattern, and if the stretchpants sexiness is too rigged for “getting to the meat of things,” it’s more crotch-enticing than anything Uta Hagen or Bette Davis could dream of achieving on screen. Sandy Dennis is triumphantly shameless in stealing scenes by using her tricks and tics; George Segal physically attractive but the weakest link. True that immersion into parts can change lives, that actors can unwittingly carry what they play: when Taylor’s Martha is going at Burton’s George over his supposed weaknesses, with Haskell Wexler’s camera circling her, you’re not only watching something you’ve never been privy to before, you’re watching premonition. Some years later, when her marriage to Burton dissolved into acrimony, Taylor reportedly said, “We got tired of playing George and Martha.” Once-in-a-lifetime parts often curse actors by merger.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.