Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

 

After watching a few burps (The Sandpiper, The VIPs, Dr. Faustus), Richard Burton’s acting was never finer than in Albert Albee‘s vicious play set to the screen. It was Mike Nichol‘s directorial debut. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) received 13 Academy nominations. Although Richard Burton lost to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons, Elizabeth Taylor won her second Best Actress award (BUtterfield 8 was her first)  and Sandy Dennis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Other winners included Haskell Wexler‘s cinematography, Irene Sharaff’s costumes, and Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins‘ art direction. Richard Burton did receive the British Academy Award for his performance of George, the emasculated history professor who rises to the surface to sting his brass and bawdy wife, Martha.

From the sing-song chant of the title, one understands this is a play about games. An all-night party turns carnal as the young academic couple, Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) fall prey to the daughter of the college president, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband George (Richard Burton). The hosts have a lustful appetite for ripping and shredding the mental and emotional selves of their guests and themselves.

The young couple could very well be the future George and Martha. They watch with morbid curiosity. Illusions mask reality. Invention and the dubbing force of alcohol is the playground where George and Martha escape from their trapped lives. George’s dreams of creative authorship are denied by “Daddy”, the president of the college. Martha’s dream of livin’ la vida loca outside the boundaries of the conservative college and her boring husband is denied. Unable to conceive, she punishes herself and her countenance is as sour as her soul. So used to playing corrosive games to spice up their lives, they become dependent upon them and disintegrate.

When George speaks Latin like a priest presiding over the death of their invented son, Martha wails. Under the harsh light of dawn and stripped of their games, will Martha and George survive? The audience is left to speculate without much hope that they will.  “Martha and George,” she chants earlier in the play. “Sad, sad, sad.” Burton and Taylor are a tour de force. It’s exhausting. 4.5/5. 

This is one of my favorite scenes. Burton shows the complexity of frustration and rage.

Out of the Past vs. Lady Bird

I have been thinking about the choices a director makes when making a film. What does a well-made film look like? I watched two films back-to-back on the plane to Italy, Lady Bird written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, and Out of the Past directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum and the femme fatale played by Jane Greer.

I recognize it’s unfair to compare these two disparate films as one was a coming-of-age story, the other a film noir. One was made just this past year while the other sixty years ago. One was the directoral debut by a female while the other by an established male director. There is nothing similar about these two films.

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Unless you consider the quality of each film as an artistic offering. While Lady Bird was nominated for the top writing and directing awards of 2017, I could not help but scratch my head as to why this was so other than it was a political move on behalf of the Academy of Motion Pictures. I just didn’t think it was an interesting story or directed well. The scenes seemed desultory like mud thrown on a wall with little thought. I wouldn’t have noticed as much if I had not just seen Out of the Past. Wow! What a film. Tourneur took his time to frame each scene. He blocked his characters to take advantage of the space. There was movement. There were silhouettes. The staging was aesthetically balanced. Even the costumes played a visual role–don’t you love how Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) started the film wearing white, but as her devious nature became more apparent, her wardrobe darkened? The characters were interesting–Kirk Douglas was an affable villain. Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey was the anti-hero, private detective who you couldn’t help but root for since he tried to leave his notorious past behind and make an honest attempt as a working man and who fell for the girl-next-door. His relationship with the deaf and mute boy (Dickie Moore) revealed Bailey’s goodness in spite of his tough-guy bravado. Every character was interesting and added to the plot purposefully. It was a beautiful film to watch.

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Then there’s Gerwig’s effort. This, a Best Picture contender? It was not structurally interesting. The choppy editing to elicit the passage of time killed whatever emotional investment I had in Lady Bird’s friendships. The only aspect that was quasi-interesting was Laurie Metcalf’s performance as the overpowering mother. The brother and father were a wimpy, wasted pair in a lame plot. I genuinely like Saoirse Ronan as an actress, but her character here in this film was downright boring.

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Out of the Past in 1947 was not nominated for an award but was superbly constructed compared to Lady Bird. Maybe if I had not seen both back-to-back it would not have been so glaringly obvious. If you haven’t seen Out of the Past, I highly recommend it. Watch it for the plot. For what a well-made film should look like. For pure entertainment. For the record, I’m all for women directors. Jane Campion and Julie Taymor know what they’re doing. I just wish they’d pass along some tips to Greta Gerwig.

L13FC: The Long Careers of Actors

Today is my lucky day! You’ve decided to stop by and add to the discussion to this month’s film topic on my double-nickel birthday. Thank you!

Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Duvall are lifetime friends who bunked together while honing their craft back in the late 1950s. It’s a fascinating trifecta. Read Flip the Movie Script 2016 article, “A Brief Time in History with Friends Hackman, Hoffman, and Duvall” found HERE.

Considered character actors, they catapulted to stardom when their breakout roles were part of an Oscar winner for Best Picture. (Dustin Hoffman in 1967 with The Graduate, Gene Hackman in 1971 with The French Connection, and Robert Duvall in 1972 with The Godfather) Hoffman and Hackman won Oscars for Best Actor, and Duvall was nominated for his supporting role. As generational friends and colleagues, they’ve grown old on the screen and we’ve watched them do it. Their longevity is remarkable. According to IMDb:

Gene Hackman, b. 1930:  100 credits, 2 Oscars, 30 other wins

Dustin Hoffman, b. 1937: 84 credits, 2 Oscars, 60 other wins

Robert Duvall, b. 1931: 143 credits, 1 Oscar, 55 other wins

Having read Allan Hunter‘s biography Gene Hackman, after his win for Popeye in The French Connection, there was a battle within Hackman. How to navigate a career? Should your choices be picky for art’s sake, daring to fall out of favor if your film bombs? Or should you accept any role because you are afraid your flame will burn out quickly if you don’t maximize Oscar success? For Hackman, he never thought “this ugly mug would be so lucky.” By the middle 1970s, he accepted whatever script was offered, and it deflated his high-quality acting persona. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, he seemed to be cast in the same role over and over. The bastard. The son-of-a-bitch. He became “the man” everyone wanted to stick it to.

Please welcome my co-host, Nancy, my mother who has watched these three actors their entire careers. I asked her, “Because Gene is ordinary looking and plays ugly characters does he become repellent to you? If Gene were gorgeous and played ugly characters would he be as repulsive? Or sexier?” 

Nancy’s observations:

Gene Hackman’s looks have nothing to do with it. To me, he comes across as arrogant, even in comedies.  I don’t see him really “acting”, only playing parts that are him.  I love Robert Duvall.  Every character is different, good or bad, such as The Great Santini, Tender Mercies, and as Lt. Col. Kilgore. I don’t have an opinion on Dustin Hoffman one way or another.  Most of his roles aren’t memorable to me. None of them radiate sex appeal. Not like Richard Harris.

Cindy’s observations: 

Gene Hackman said in Allan Hunter’s biography that he knew if he couldn’t get the girl in the film, he would never become a “movie star” like, well, Richard Harris. His talents were utilitarian to a script that needed a smug, corrupt leader. He was perfect and predictable like a favorite dish at a restaurant. If you didn’t get what you expected, you’d be disappointed.

With actors who have sustainable longevity in the business, there seems to be a young version and an older version of themselves. Actors who play diverse roles are my favorite. They are the artists. One wonders after playing 80 + films, like an old horse down a hoof-beaten path, it’s not acting anymore, it becomes, as Nancy suggested, just the man on the screen. The originality of the initial spark that captivated an audience at the start of a career has long since burnt out.

Since many people have a say in the outcome of the film, it would be hard to know which film to pick. What seems like an interesting, meaty role, could end up being an unbalanced disaster beyond the actor’s control. It is the brave artist on screen who bears the criticism of good chemistry gone sour. For career actors, who make 80+ films, I have to wonder if they feel that filmmaking is a hit or miss endeavor. Maybe if one can count four or five excellent roles in a fifty-year career, that’s a job well done at the end of a life?

Considering Hackman, Hoffman, and Duvall, why do you prefer the one you picked? Their best role?

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