Who's Afraid of Andrew Sarris? (Maybe Mike Nichols Should Be)
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July 28, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 41
By Andrew Sarris
"WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?" (at the Criterion and Loew's Tower East) has been hailed by some critics as a daring adventure for Jack Warner a dazzling vindication of Elizabeth Taylor and still another directorial coup for Mike Nichols. The movie isn't all that good, but it's reasonably entertaining and effective within certain limitations, some evitable and some inevitable. Why Jack Warner should be applauded for bringing a Broadway hit to the screen is a bit beyond me.
I certainly won't hold my breath until "The Zoo Story" and "The American Dream" materialize on the screen as further manifestations of Jack Warner's addiction to the Theatre of the Absurd. From a Hollywood standpoint, "Virginia Woolf" is no more daring a venture than "My Fair Lady," especially with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton providing box-office insurance. Indeed, Mike Nichols was probably hampered somewhat by the studio's reluctance to tamper with a pre-tested property, not to mention Broadway's traditional scorn for any liberties taken with the sacred text of a play. Ernest Lehman's screenplay is so timidly faithtful to the original that the additions are matters of microscopic analysis. We have come a long way since the 1929 credits for the Pickford-Fairbanks "The Taming of the Shrew," to wit PLAY BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE -- ADDITIONAL DIALOGUE BY SAM TAYLOR. The pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that there was never any serious question of a major infidelity to Edward Albee's original text. Consequently many of the flaws in the film have been transcribed in all their intactness from the stage.
As it happens, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a brilliant play about Living and a bad play about Life. Albee is at his best in dramatizing the existential problem of survival through a night of drinking and divulging, and it is no accident that the best moment in the movie is Richard Burton's quiet pronouncement: "The party's over." Even Haskell Wexler's overheated camera rises to the occasion with a reflectively lofty angle of weary compassion. Where Albee goes bad is in projecting his familial fantasies as marital realities. The notion of the imaginary child is too elaborate a conceit for people whose total existence is rendered by a scream in the night. There is no yesterday or tomorrow in Albee's theatre, only a neurotic now of masks and metaphors and masquerades and tinkling symbols.
By contrast, Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is as weak with the rhythm of Living as it is strong with the resolution of Life. We endure the numbness of O'Neill's Now for the sake of the grandeur of his Then and After, and it is the last line of the last act that redeems all that has gone before. With Albee, the third act of "Virginia Woolf" degenerates into hysterical charades which can be vulgarized by middlebrow audiences into the conventional pieties. "You couldn't have children of your own?" George Segal asks solicitously. "Aha!" the audience responds. "That's what all this yelling is about. They really love each other very much, but they can't have children. No, it's not just that. Their yelling is really a form of communication. To show they're alive. That's what it all means."
It's too bad really because "Virginia Woolf" is at its best when it doesn't Mean anything, but simply Is. Albee touched a sociological nerve with his first two acts. The shrill horror of the cataclysmic cocktail party on the campus has become a document of American attitudes, and Burton and Taylor complete the portrait as real-life archetypes of the art of abuse. When they were first announced for the parts, it struck me that Burton was miscast and Taylor too well cast, but it turned out Burton was inspired miscasting. You can't believe that he'd put up with Taylor for 20 years or even 20 minutes, and you can't believe that Taylor had been exposed to a college campus much past her prime, and you can't imagine Burton and Taylor together anywhere except in a suite full of stooges in the St. Regis, but it doesn't matter because Burton has given a performance of electrifying charm. (In regretful retrospect, the ideal casting for "Virginia Woolf" would have been Burton and Patricia Neal.)
If Taylor does not match Burton, it is not for want of trying. Nichols has worked hard with her on her big scenes, and she is never less than competent. What she lacks is Burton's class and charm, particularly in the all-too-rare quiet moments when she is supposed to be listening and reacting, moments that are the supreme tests of acting. It is at those moments that a sullen coarseness invades her dulled features, and Burton simply soars by contrast with inscrutable ironies flickering across his beautifully ravaged face. Without Burton, the film would have been an intolerably cold experience. Not only does Taylor's performance lack genuine warmth. George Segal and Sandy Dennis are degraded even more than the script demands by overemphasized reactions and unnecessary mannerisms. Nichols should have restrained Miss Dennis from acting so much with her teeth, and Segal should have been quieter, but the performances are merely symptomatic of a more serious defect in the direction.
Nichols has actually committed all the classic errors of the sophisticated stage director let loose on the unsophisticated movies. For starters, he has underestimated the power of the spoken word in his search for visual pyrotechnics. Albee's script is pretty strong stuff. There is no need to jump up and down with the camera every time a character suggests humping the hostess or getting the guests or humiliating the host. Nor is there any need to take the action outside where the hypnotic spell of an alcoholic mood can be dispelled by the fakey-emptiness of exteriors. Nichols gained nothing in the way of genuine cinema with his screeching station wagon. He would have been better advised to develop his main interior into a visual vortex into which his characters could sink into their stupor. Compare Losey's apartment in "The Servant" or Cocteau's in "Les Parents Terribles" with the fragmented setting of "Virginia Woolf," but then Losey and Cocteau knew that a sense of hell can never be achieved with facile shock tactics. Hell is instead a room or a house with no exit, a spatial enclosure in which human beings are rendered helpless by their unwillingness to confront the Outside. Such an expression requires a visual style emphasizing the spatial contiguity of the characters. Nichols goes so far in the other direction that, at the climax of the film, Elizabeth Taylor's face in the background actually goes out of focus so as to concentrate attention entirely on Burton's reading of his line. This kind of arty effect is ludicrous in the context of a scene in which the marital relationship is hanging in the balance. Mr. Nichols has always been more of a tactician than a strategist, but by trying to win every battle, he has lost the war, and in the process, he has come up with a film that looks pretentious and old-fashioned at the same time. All that remains is an evening of Richard Burton reading the jokes of Edward Albee, and that is more than enough entertainment for most occasions.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
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