Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)

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There are occasions — not many, but a few — on which the people most determined to impress upon you their abrasive attitutdes turn out to have a massive heart beating somewhere underneath all the dread and cynicism. It’s not the ideal way to live (seems it’d take too much energy) but it’s a truth we will all run up against at some point. So when you first see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as performance or film, it’s like, hey asshole, watch this insipid argument between two deeply unpleasant people — it’s Art, dude. So this being the age of gratification, if I want to witness this roof-fall-in train wreck, I can hold my ear to the wall of my apartment or Netflix this acknowledged American classic. The first time through all I wanted was a long cleansing shower — but either I’ve changed or I just wasn’t pressing my face up closely enough, because on second pass I felt profound empathy and sadness.

In Mike Nichols’ first film as director, stunt-casted Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton engage in carefully constructed repartee unmistakably the work of vaguely puffed-up and venomous playwright Edward Albee, whose command of the rhythms of speech and of human vocabulary (to say nothing of behavior) unmistakably live in Theatre world. But his poetry runs aground of real life, creating a marvelous dichotomy with the easy intensity of the two lead performances. Typing out “you make me throw up” and “you, kill me? That’s a laugh” is one thing; hearing it delivered with such acid and exhaustion behind it, the weight of years of a sham union with just as many secrets and private routines as any good one, is something that can’t be explained — almost musical.

Albee’s dialogue does have rhyme and reason and meaning, far as it is from the gritty realism it strives toward in its frankness and bite, and you may have difficulty with it even if you can recognize its eloquence: it’s sometimes atrociously hammy, seldom saying in three lines what it can say in eighteen, which contributes to the “actor’s showcase” stigma hanging over the whole production, but in one of the few major films that is successfully about words, it’s handy to note that these are just as often complex and playful and head-spinningly delightful, if morbidly so. You don’t exactly revel in all these ill feelings but there is indeed some marvelous dance and lilt to the way they’re expressed. We should be so lucky to spend our worst interpersonal moments so on-fire and full of spark as Martha and George do here.

At a glance, this is a loveless sham of a marriage, but is it really? The outward aggression of Martha and the more passive dread of George bears some mark of a tradition: the wedding of convenience that degenerates into open disdain, a staying together for the visibility — yet if you look closely enough what you see is a common pathology uniting these two, a love nearly indistiguishable from hate. They’d never state to one another what they are really thinking at a given moment, so they certainly don’t tell us, but there’s something key in the balletic way they manipulate the younger couple who comes calling — first through the discomfort of long-festering career jealousies and mutual animosities, then through the long adulterous drunken evenings that are hell on earth for some and salvation for others. That is, their delight in corrupting the less powerful, the less hardened, in the form of the young professor Nick and his wife is as much an indicator of the depth and function of their marriage as the grand secret that drives the entire story. Witness the way that at certain moments, George and Martha are as playful and light as the grandest of solidly charming couples, specifically when their prisoners are at their most vulnerable. It’s not a pretty or pleasant form of survival, but it may be the only form of warmth they can find. Besides, it’s a mere illustration of how potentially lethal any deep romantic bond is: Martha knows George’s deepest secrets and insecurities and can exploit them to horrific effect, and vice versa.

The narrative is inherently stagebound — though it “opens up” in a couple of stunning moments outside the house, especially the harrowing sequence at the bar — but Nichols makes the most of this with the aid of magnificent black & white photography by the great Haskell Wexler, and indeed does more with the limitations of his story than almost anyone aside from Hitchcock with Dial M for Murder. This story must retain its claustrophobia to be effective, which runs counter to all matters of what cinema is — by which I mean, a form designed to outperform and intensify reality, not to strip it down into the kind of morbid intimacy and direct person-to-person charge of the theater, excited tension with an immediacy the comparatively complacent movies can’t have, any more than a play can have a film’s emotional intensity. So Nichols hedges his bets and meets the matter halfway: it’s not that you ever forget you’re watching a play, it’s that you feel privileged rather than inconvenienced to be permitted to do so, and to see it so sublimely visualized. A performance like Burton’s (and Taylor’s, to a lesser extent; this is very likely the best she ever was) is driven by detail and subtlety to such an extent that any attempt to make it somehow “larger than life,” like a lot of directors probably would, would turn this sensitive drama into pure camp. Three of the four players therefore rise to the occasion, with George Segal’s staid stuffed-shirt Nick the weak link compensated for beautifully by Sandy Dennis, stealing the film (yes, really) as his wife, whose flights of fancy and drunken jolts are the funniest and most directly heartbreaking element cast into this brew — an exuberant, naive sideshow of a life just at the beginning of being potentially stunted.

A few of my original criticisms do stand, but not many. The film is far too long still, by at least forty minutes — plays are better equipped for this sort of sprawl, so it’s understandable in a sense — and it belabors its various points excessively. If you’ve not seen the film before and you’re unfamiliar with the play, you’ll be hard pressed to care much about the climactic revelation as it occurs; it’s only on a revisit, with the prior knowledge of what’s really happening through the entire film and what a certain bleak decision of George’s actually means, that the emotional notes hit and accumulate properly; in retrospect, I now realize how impressive it is that the story buries its devastating content in such subtle terms — it surmises that the worst act of violence is the obstruction of a shared secret or a private and unspoken vice: these are the things that shake a bond to its core, to its end. For this reason, how can we not excuse the length somewhat? There’s enough wit, spark, ache here to let the film sing for almost its entire length once you know its thesis.

It’s still pretty rough going, though — all the fun you have here is the fun of analyzing the components of a plane crash; and emotional content aside, what we really have here is the proto-American Beauty structure of a soap opera as sitcom. It’s focused on people who frankly bear too little resemblance to any form of reality for their trials to apply to anyone watching, which is a weakness because it means we all can and will hold George and Martha at arm’s length, specimens in a jar. What Albee can do is say something about how and why people hurt one another, filtered through considerable abstraction, and let’s go on and look past the bitchery in which the dialogue drowns to allow that the parallel narrative, the film’s rueful glare at academia, deserves a deeper look and isn’t so hollow as it initially seems. On all of the themes touched upon if not the characterization, career-marriage conflicts and adult malaise and marital apathy and on and on, the emotional undercurrent here itself rings honesty — and painfully — and should absolutely not be dismissed.

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