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.

Burton: Stage or Film Star?

In the late 1950s, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier, so taken by Richard Burton‘s voice and acting, proclaimed he could become the best stage actor of the 20th century. Being a film star seemed unseemly by comparison. Which would Burton rather be? To which, according to Furious Love authors, Sam Kashner and biographer Nancy Schoenberger, Richard replied, “Both.”

Richard Burton reprised his role in Hamlet and gave over 160 performances in 1964 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. If you watch the “To Be or Not to Be” video below you can see how the two British heavy-hitters could think so. Richard Burton’s masculinity exudes confidence and virility. On stage, his tempo slows and speeds, his pitch rises and falls, and his presence mesmerizes. His memory for reciting poetry was impressive, and he could say the famous soliloquy backward if asked.

In Furious Lovewhich is turning out to be an interesting biography, is about the influence of Elizabeth Taylor on him. Richard transformed from stage acting sensation to film star due to their notorious love affair evolving into a toxic love that would define the phrase “madly in love.”

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I really don’t care to hash up and discuss that toxicity. If you are unaware of their thirteen years together, in summary, they boozed, screamed, slapped, fought, swore, and shagged a lot. Their lustful appetites turned the pair into a global, tabloid extravaganza.

Elizabeth Taylor was the highest paid female film star in show business by 1960 when Richard Burton and she fell in love on the set of Cleopatra. It took three years to make and was hacked and edited into a sprawling mess to the point that it put the kibosh on the career of director Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve). He would blame their affair and its subsequent distractions the reason the film was the bumbling elephant that it was. For my winter project, I haven’t watched Cleopatra yet. The 5h 20m running time has me intimidated. I might skip to the intermission and watch the latter half…

Anyway, Richard was in awe of her film star reputation, but he didn’t understand why Elizabeth just stood there. “She doesn’t do anything!” Burton told Mankiewicz. He replied, “Ah, just wait. Look, look at her on film.” Richard learned from Elizabeth that acting in a film called for subtlety. Try acting in film as you would on stage and they’ll say you’re chewing the scenery in a second.

It appears to me that as I continue to watch Richard Burton films, he seems to swing back and forth between that stage actor where he is brilliant and the film actor that seems at times too conservative. For example, take Becket (1964). Richard Burton was nominated seven times for an Oscar during his career. This film was one of them. In it, Burton underplays his character next to the bouncy Peter O’Toole, a true scene chewer.

Becket is a wonderful film. I wondered while watching Richard Burton’s performance if he didn’t grapple with his stage sensibilities and his acting in the film. Was it erratic? Do you prefer Richard Burton who comes to life and pure energy spills forth out of his mouth and eyes? Or do you prefer Richard whose voice becomes monotone and he seems to be in a body cast? Ha! I guess you know which one I prefer. In other words, it is interesting for me to notice how he delivers his lines. Should he be theatrical or does he convey his character best by curbing his enthusiasm?

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I watched the 1959 kitchen sink play adaptation Look Back in Anger and loved it, especially that fantastic opening directed by Tony Richardson. Jimmy Porter is a young man in Britain who boils under the surface. He is trapped in the drudgery of his life and takes out his frustrations on his pretty wife who cringes and eventually throws in the towel on the marriage and goes home with Daddy. While I didn’t care for Mary Uhr‘s uninspired performance in Where Eagles Dare, in this film, she is convincing as the pregnant, battered wife. I just watched The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and was surprised to see Claire Bloom again. What a coincidence. She’s a fine actress in both films. Watch this clip and tell me if you think Richard Burton’s portrayal of Jimmy is over the top or just right. 4/5  TCM scene clip “The Proper Time”

When Burton performs a play adaptation, these are my favorite performances, so far. I picked Richard Burton because there are a lot of films I haven’t seen. Maybe my opinion will change as I watch more of his films. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is forthcoming in a post of its own. However, one of my favorite Richard Burton performances is in The Night of the Iguana, a story by Tennessee Williams and directed by John Huston. You can read more about the film found here: Night of the Iguana film spotlight

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He’s theatrical and fun to watch. Burton luxuriates in the Puerto Vallarta setting with three bewitching women (with Elizabeth standing guard on the set) and delivers his lines with enthusiasm. I am glad Burton did not go for subtelty in the role of Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, who has troubles living up to the standards expected of a man of the cloth, specifically when it comes to sexual appropriateness. Seriously, what man wouldn’t be tempted by Sue Lyon?  4.5

Oscar Wilde

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He was a flamboyant fop, a man ahead of his time, a brilliant playwright and rebel of the Victorian period. He was a staple in the Western literary tradition since I’ve been alive, so I was amazed the other day when a few younger colleagues had never heard of him.

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FOP: a man who is concerned with his clothes and appearance in an affected and excessive way; a dandy.

Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 and died at the age of 46. He was raised by intellectual parents from Dublin. He was a scholar from Trinity College and Oxford College, and he was an advocate for the rising literary movement called aestheticism. He rubbed elbows with the wealthy. He was popular and funny. Because he was a homosexual, he was sent to prison for hard labor and exiled from both London and Dublin. Sadly, he died destitute in Paris from an ear infection and meningitis.

His epigrams and aphorisms abound with wit and sarcasm. Which one resonates with you?

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.

The heart was made to be broken.

Twenty years of romance makes a woman look like a ruin; but twenty years of marriage make her something like a public building.

Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.

There is only one thing in the world that is worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

I never put off till tomorrow what I can do the day after.

The only way a woman can ever reform her husband is by boring him so completely that he loses all possible interest in life.

Religion is the fashionable substitute for belief.

Men always want to be a woman`s first love – women like to be a man`s last romance.

No man is rich enough to buy back his past.

The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.

Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.

In the world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

The biography of Wilde by Richard Ellmann, is a staple even though controversy surrounds his account of Oscar’s demise. Ellmann suggests Oscar died of syphilis instead of meningitis. I’d like to read about other Irish writers like Yeats and James Joyce by Ellmann, too.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). It’s the manual for aestheticism.  He worshiped the Romantic poets of the 18th century. In the prelude, Oscar described the tenants of aestheticism. Natural beauty, created by God, and conceived beauty by humans are linked. To surround oneself with beauty is essential for happiness. The artist strives to reveal beauty, and in doing so, the artist’s profession is elevated. “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated.”  Ah, well, cultivation has problematic side effects. Taken to extremes, surrounding oneself with luxury could create a pompous and shallow personality. It is a spooky classic–the book and the 1945 film contains a great cast: Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray, George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton, Lowell Gilmore as Basil Hallward, Donna Reed as Gladys Hallward, Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane, Peter Lawford as David Stone, Richard Fraser as James Vane, and Douglas Walton as Alan Campbell.

 

The Importance of Being Ernest (1895)His famous play is lighthearted fun and full of witticisms and puns. It was a favorite choice for high schools and colleges productions for a hundred years. If you liked the recent 2016 Jane Austen film,  Love & Friendship,  you would enjoy the 2002 period comedy adaptation starring: Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, and Frances O’Connor. 

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I few years ago when I visited Paris, I had to visit the tomb of Oscar Wilde at Père Lachaise cemetery. Marked on a pane of glass in front of his tomb was my favorite epigram:

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

Unconventional and smart, he was an entertaining character.

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