Archive for the ‘MARITAL DRAMA’ Category

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

05 Feb

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – directed by Mike Nichols. Drama. 132 minutes Black And White 1966.
The Story: A college history professor and his wife host two newcomers to the faculty and engage everyone in a battle royal for marital survival.
Elizabeth Taylor was untrained as an actress but as a child took to it like a duck to water. By the time of this film she was the most experienced film actress of her generation but had long moved out of that rare category and her true forte of a romantic actress into the dramatic category. It is a great loss to movies, for Taylor from a fifteen-year-old up through Giant had a capacity for film acting never seen again on screen – sad, fun, loving, kind, tender – as perfectly strong as perfectly beautiful and at home in being such.

I had lunch with her during Butterfield 8. By that time, she had three children, was in her fourth marriage, and she and I were both still only in our mid 20s. She was a young woman with a big nut and had to work responsibly to meet it. The film roles available were not up to her; they were simply what was available. Over our tuna salad I suggested Nicole Diver in Tender Is The Night as one more Fitzgerald heroine perfect for her. “Eddie and I want it,” she said, “but David owns it and he wants Jennifer to do it, and she’s too old.” Getting good parts was not simple.

As an instinctual actress her very instinctual not-so-private life may have dictated the sort of films she wanted to do or would be believable in or be offered. Perhaps marriage to Mike Todd had coarsened her. She was no longer the romantic girl of The Last Time I Saw Paris. So, while she could write her own ticket, what actual destinations were available?

People came to Elizabeth Taylor’s films to mark the progress of her beauty, inner and outer. No one ever, off screen or on, got more attention. On screen she was gorgeous. Off screen, so beautiful, I could see she was actually un-photogenic. But by Butterfield 8, everyone knew everything that could be known about her. The inner beauty had largely disappeared. So, and with all of that, plum roles did not come along every year. But one did in 1966 when she played Martha. If she had to campaign to get Giant, and she did, she certainly had to campaign to get Martha, and to get Burton hired. It was the perfect film for Bette Davis who was the right age. Taylor twenty years too young, 31, but, stronger than dirt, got it.

I saw the original Broadway production of Virginia Woolf. Uta Hagen, also highly experienced, had a raw coarse texture as an actress. She was very good and right for the role. Arthur Hill was completely believable as her scholarly, refined, and more powerless husband. I recall George Grizzard’s Nick as a tennis coach, but he actually teaches biology, and I don’t recall Melinda Dillon at all, which is probably right, since the character tends to paste herself against the wall to get out of the way of the melee.

Taylor is miscast. She doesn’t look 50, but, more importantly, she does not have the instrument, the technique, the training to play it. Instead she plays Martha as though she had an “idea” of what Martha’s character was. But Martha is not a character; she is a figure in an allegory. Besides, since she is not within Taylor’s aesthetic realm, Taylor can’t really play her instinctually. Instead, she flings herself about in the role at fishwife pitch and gets all the swearwords wrong. Elizabeth Taylor was built for survival; it is her virtue and her vice; the same is true of Martha. Taylor drew on her own strength for survival, but Martha drew only on her own weakness. Martha is weakness miming strength. Either here or elsewhere, Elizabeth Taylor was never that.

But in certain ways Taylor is well cast. Martha is fundamentally Taylor’s specialty, a trophy-wife role. Also, Elizabeth Taylor had a rowdy, cackling sense of humor that worked well for the part. And her performance certainly has its moments. What I remember when I first saw it was a crying scene at the end in which she wept for her soul. Seeing it on VHS now, there is no such scene. Instead, Taylor has a finale on the window seat, and in her eyes is nothing left, which, considering Taylor’s eyes, is even more astonishing.

Still, she is fundamentally miscast. “Elizabeth Taylor is too beautiful a woman for any of that to have ever happened to her,” my wife said to me. “A woman that beautiful has other strategies at her disposal.”

But ya gotta hand it to Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, she does not play the beauty queen; she flings herself into the role like a bucket of slops tossed out a window. And she won an Oscar for it. And I have no criticism of the fact of that.

George Segal is best in the stupidity and naiveté of the guest. George Grizzard, of course, exuded intelligence and class – which gave the play, in the reduction of his character to a klutz, a secondary strong dramatic undercurrent. You don’t get any of that with Segal, but it doesn’t matter. Segal is a klutz to start with. What you get is Segal’s big heart in conflict with the unethical seduction of his ambition, both playing against the want of seduction in his wife.

Sandy Dennis, in her looney, abstracted, tricksey way, works perfectly for the mentally and intestinally fragile wife, Honey, and deserved the Oscar she got.

Richard Burton, it is said, was miscast. I’m not so sure. Yes, he is miscast in the sense that, unlike Arthur Hill, obviously Burton always has power to spare, and you don’t need that to play George, but it doesn’t stand in Burton’s way. It sometimes comes out when Burton employs orotundity to carry passages – always a mistake. But we must remember, at the end of the play George always has one power left, to demolish the frayed bridge of the marriage. He will declare the inviolable secret of a certain love between them to be
false and he will kill it. Burton with his hold on his power or Hill with his want of power – no matter – George will smash the delusion. Hill quietly pulls the switch. Burton quietly pulls the switch.

With it gone, what do each of them have to live for with one another? What do husbands and wives have to live for? Without their old fabrications?

We do not know.

They do not know. That’s the risk George takes, and in that lies the greatness of the play.

In the Burton version, we see him place his hand on Taylor’s shoulder to reassure her of the future. But there is no known future and maybe no future and who knows whether reassurance is a requirement to endure it?

The difference between the play and the film versions is that on Broadway the play is thrust forward and takes precedence over the performances. In the movie, the stars take over. To such a degree that Mike Nichols seems not to have coached Taylor away from her gaucheries and not to have forbidden that godawful wig. But no matter. Either way, the play prevails by swallowing its own imperfections as it goes.

The material itself would seem to be about alcoholic excess. But it isn’t. For in this case, there is no truth in wine. The play has the power not of alcohol but of vitriol whose extremes push the four to the bourne of their self-delusion and over its cliff.

The thing that keeps you going is the thing that is killing you? Yes? You agree? But still, are you really willing to sever and surrender the most cherished and most ingrained operational prevarications of your relationships with yourself and others?

52 years since I first saw Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and didn’t understand it either time. Was it too startling to understand or I too young? But now that I understand the the poison it prescribes for a cure and the ritual of decapitation it demands for survival, would I actually risk outliving my own suicide? Would I surrender even one of the superannuated life-strategies I once found vital?


By The Sea

30 Nov


By the Sea – written and directed by Angelina Jolie. Drama. 122 minutes Color 2015.


The Story: A well-to-do married couple travel through the Mediterranean seeking to reestablish their marriage.


Once again, this is a case of a director mistakenly directing her own screenplay. What’s mistaken about it, in this case, is that her own part is miswritten and underwritten.

Underwritten in that the author supposes content to be present by inference, which is to say that because the marriage is in difficulty we must empathize with a situation just because it is there.

Miswritten in that she has written the part she plays as a woman made vulnerable by a mental disturbance. Mental disorders do not inspire pity in an audience. They inspire in an audience an exit from the site of the impossible-to-deal-with.

There is also here an imbalance in the playing forced unto being that Jolie’s husband, Brad Pitt, is a more talented actor than she is.

She also makes the mistake of having her eyes arrayed in opera makeup throughout the piece. It turns her into a power-beauty like Laura Croft  and so many of her other roles and at which she is superb. But it makes no sense here, save to put the actor in a separate category from Brad Pitt, who seems to wear no makeup at all, save that he has died his hair darker than it is, whatever it is – for Pitt is 13 years older than she, into his 50s. Not that that matters much, for from the start of his career he has always registered 10 years younger than his actual age.

As to Jolie, we cannot take into our hearts a performance which takes refuge in the fast food joint of insanity. We are expected to feel pity; instead we feel pathos – pathos is pity made in Japan. At any rate, from the point of view of an actor’s choices, it’s a cop-out. She doesn’t have the resources to bring it off.

Perhaps what Jolie intended was to create a bread-and-butter note to Pitt, for all he has to put up with in being married to her. Her ruthless maternity, her vast income, and her radical physical problems.

And Pitt is cast as just the sort of husband he would be in real life. His character is patient, loving, kind, communicative. He takes good care of a problem wife. He puts up with her lovingly. Every time she does something ugly, she retreats into her persona of a nut case to escape blame. It’s a ruse. This too he forgives. The man’s a saint.

The film is beautifully filmed and staged, and the hotel setting and set decoration are remarkable. It is not a waste of time to see these two together. And they drive the most beautiful car you have ever seen, a Citroen, I believe. Check it out and drool.

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Posted in Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt: MASTER ACTOR, MARITAL DRAMA


Before Midnight

06 Jun

Before Midnight – directed by Richard Linklater. Marital Drama III. A married couple of 40 fight it out on vacation. 108 minutes Color 2013.


How do you make a romantic drama with two stars who are despicable? That’s the question I faced going in. And what I also faced was how you could make a romantic drama with two actors who have no sense of humor? This doesn’t mean that they cannot play comedy, for they certain nail line after line, and both of them at times are very funny, but it does mean that the salve of inner humor is not present to back them or to use as a no-man’s land for truce.

What we get is an opening scene badly over-written and overacted in which Ethan Hawke says goodbye to his 14 year-old son. Hawke plays fatherly solicitousness, a utilitarian emotion, not a real one. The boy carries the scene.

This is followed by a long sequence in a car, which is brilliantly acted by Julie Delpy and by Hawke, a sequence whose writing is so calibrated of waves dashing against one another that we never wish it to end. That’s Act I. Act II is an al fresco lunch of four couples — in their early 20s, their late 30s, their 50s, their 70s — all of whom are partnered, each individual voicing views and tales of married life.  Act III then takes place on the way to and in a hotel room where they can be free of their eight year-old twin daughters for a night.

What Hawk and Delpy do is fight. And fight. And Fight. They do it in the car, they do at the lunch, they do it until The End. Is this George and Martha? Is this Jiggs and Maggie? Is this Kate and Petruchio? It certainly isn’t Tracy and Hepburn or Russell and Grant because it never is any fun. It is a humorless textbook on marital discord. It plays well but only as an object-lesson.

Hawke is marvelous acting his part, and so is Delpy hers, since a more captious actress cannot be imagined than Julie Delpy. She is belligerent by nature and preference, and since she wrote the script with Hawke and the director, what we are really faced with is Ma and Pa Kettle, Delpy wielding the rolling pin and Hawke dodging her in between paper glider valentines he scoots her way.

But it does not work because the fundamental work has not been done by director, writers or actors. The two actors can act the parts; they cannot act the roles. You never believe they are the parents of those three children. You never believe Delpy is a talent in architecture. You never believe Hawke is a writer. You never believe they love one another. You certainly never for a minute believe they are married. And because you never believe they are married, you never believe there is a marriage at peril, and so you are treated to a drama about nothing-at-stake.

I love films in which characters talk a lot and talk wittily. I loved the long sequences in this film in which that talk rises and falls and turns around on itself again, only to rise and fall, and smash itself against a cliff. I am glad the picture was made as it was. I wish it had been made as it wasn’t.

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