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Archive for the ‘Richard Burton’ 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?

 

The Sandpiper

07 Jan

The Sandpiper – directed by Vincent Minnelli. Romantic Melodrama. A free spirited single mother living in Big Sur, California, must surrender her young son to a private school and its headmaster, an Episcopal ministr, to whom she, before long, surrenders herself as well. 117 minutes Color 1965.
★★★
Shoddy in concept and in execution, this was the first film Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made together after their marriage. It mimics their resounding affair. She draws him away from another woman, played with lackluster efficiency, as best she may, considering the script, by Eva Saint. In The VIPs, he was drawn from his marriage to Taylor to another woman. In Cleopatra she drew him away from his wife. Their work in film tended to create their personal lives, but in that sense, life did not imitate art; art killed life;and life art. Everyone said she drew him away from his proper work as a great classical actor. Wrong. He was a classical actor but he never was, and he knew he never would be, a great one. No, their film lives intermingled in the huge public imagination about them and made their souls change. People who can write their own ticket, tend to go nowhere. This film is an example of their arrival at that locale.

Essentially, she is the better film actor, and therefore the better actor. But her acting was instinctual with her, and as she grew older, her instincts failed her as she failed her life. Here she seems barely competent at times – but nobody else does either, except Burton. The pomp of Richard Burton’s voice carries him through the role on one level, and his shamefaced eyes carry him through it on another level. There is no third level to the part available. All levels are unfair to the word superficiality.

Vincent Minnelli, a stickler for detail, had, of course, fifteen years before, directed Elizabeth Taylor in Father Of The Bride and Father’s Little Dividend, in which she shone. But here the execution looks slapdash and hurried and under-rehearsed. The ghastly thing about it is that it was written by the producer, so, of course, nothing would be changed. One supposes that Elizabeth Taylor accepted it, yes, of course for the money, but also probably because she was 33, and had to make hay while the sun shone upon her youth and beauty. She was no dope. But here her scenes which should be touching and yearning and caring, are not properly held in mood and framing by the cinemaphotographer. Everything looks phony and worked up. Even the party at Nepenthe looks forced – with the sort of “earth-dancing” that never went on there. This is shocking, for Minnelli had a great sense of his extras; he gave them tasks and characters; you can see that so clearly in The Bandwagon – but not here. Taylor is an actress who needs a velvet setting like a gorgeous ruby. Like Garbo, she’s a trophy actress who, because of her remarkable looks, needs protection. Minnelli gives her none. Instead he plays to her weaknesses, which are to allow her to force emotion out, rather than in, and to fail to curb her physicalization of them which is the result of that forcing. Taylor’s acting instrument can only be played by her when it is contained. She is not a virtuoso actor. She is a concert grand, but you must not play Liszt on her, Elizabeth. You are that rare thing, a romantic actress, but you were not meant for all romances. As voyeurs to their romance, we all went to The Sandpiper with our wives in those days and wondered at our marriages as we did so. For, looking at Taylor and Burton in it, we asked ourselves, Are they missing something?

 
 
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