Monday, December 03, 2018

Who's Afraid of Liz and Dick?

They’re movie legends who have appeared in dozens of classic films, both separately and together as a screen team. But arguably, the crowning cinematic achievement in the careers of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) directed by newcomer Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Postcards from the Edge).

For two larger than life personalities considered more to be “movie stars” than serious actors, the casting of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as George and Martha in the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s searing play was a creative risk. 

Even Burton, who once was poised to inherit the mantle of “world’s greatest actor” from his rival Sir Laurence Olivier, was taken less seriously as an artist due to his preoccupations with partying, publicity and purchasing large diamonds for his movie star wife. The poor Welsh boy’s desire for commercial success often superseded artistic fulfillment. 

Burton’s life and career had changed irrevocably his first day on the set of a fabled big budget sword-and-sandals epic. Immediately he found himself with more fame and notoriety than he had ever imagined when he left his wife Sybil to pluck costar Elizabeth Taylor away from her new husband Eddie Fisher during the filming of Cleopatra in Rome in 1962. 

For her part, Elizabeth Taylor had already been branded a man-trap and an erotic vagrant by the press. Fisher had recently left Debbie Reynolds and his family and destroyed his own reputation to be with Taylor after the death of his best friend, Taylor’s third husband Mike Todd. Now Burton was added to the cast of the ongoing Elizabeth Taylor saga that would play out in the tabloids for decades to come, until the actress’s death in 2011. This chapter of the Liz soap opera would now be dubbed Le Scandale by the Roman tabloids. 

Richard Burton as George

Still, with his deep and resonant voice and studied artistry, Richard Burton reminded the world he was a classical actor with his acclaimed performance in Shakespeare’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1964, just before his marriage to Taylor in Montreal. Burton became Taylor’s fifth husband, and probably her most compatible playmate, on screen and off.

After Cleopatra, the couple appeared together in entertaining cinematic puff pieces including The VIPs and The Sandpiper, cashing in on their fame and notoriety. Burton had also turned in a powerful performance in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana as a semi-retired Liz joined him on the set in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. 

But then came a project that both actors could really sink their teeth into. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the story of a late-night cocktail party gone terribly wrong. This is the turning point in the lives of an alcoholic middle-aged couple, the “stupid, liquor-ridden night” when George and Martha go too far in “walking the wits” of their “vile, crushing marriage” for a young couple they’ve invited over for a nightcap. This is the night when the slender thread between truth and illusion snaps.

Elizabeth Taylor as Martha
The 1962 Broadway production of Virginia Woolf had starred Uta Hagen (The Other, Reversal of Fortune), George Grizzard, Arthur Hill and Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and took place in a single claustrophobic living room set. 

Screenwriter and producer Ernest Lehman, who had just brilliantly adapted the Broadway hit The Sound of Music to the silver screen, exercising his flair for transforming stage plays with his cinematic storytelling techniques, took another risk by hiring young stage director Mike Nichols to helm the film upon on Elizabeth Taylor's recommendation. On Broadway, Nichols had just directed the Neil Simon hit Barefoot in the Park after starting his showbiz career as half of a stand up comedy team opposite the brilliant writer Elaine May. 

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s crisp black and white photography, which includes a few moody outdoor scenes to “open up” the stage play, and Alex North’s mournful, downbeat classical scoring set the scene for an unforgettably savage all-night bender. 

Edward Albee’s masterfully poetic use of language is unparalleled here—this is probably the playwright’s masterpiece, though A Delicate Balance and Zoo Story do come close to Virginia Woolf’s perfection. Punctuated by very dark humor, peppered with literary allusions and set off by four-letter words and singsongy baby talk, Albee’s dialogue is rich, dense and often brutal. 

It was said that Albee, a homosexual, had used the drunken verbal brawlings of bitter gay men to bring his characters of George and Martha to life, but Albee never dignified those notions with an answer. His poetic, intricate, searing use of language was universal in its ability to connect with the audience. 

George Segal as Nick

Cast opposite the Burtons as the young Midwestern couple who are invited for an after hours nightcap were George Segal and Sandy Dennis. The chemistry among these four fine actors is truly remarkable as they bring four iconic characters to vivid life: The loud and obnoxious Martha, the ineffectual and embittered George, the ambitious and socially correct Nick, and the high-strung and tightly wound Honey. 

George is Richard Burton’s most difficult and rewarding role. The handsome and heroic Burton, who had played King Arthur and Marc Antony, is transformed into a beleaguered, henpecked milquetoast in a frayed sweater, whose sonorous voice quavers at first and then finds strength as he becomes angrier and surlier and more empowered as the evening wears on. Burton is masterful in all his pas de deux with the other actors—he has unforgettable moments with Segal and Dennis as well as Taylor. 

As good-looking, well-built new associate professor Nick, George Segal is less flamboyant than harridan Martha, poetic George and high-strung Honey, but it is his attempt to remain calm in the face of a storm that holds the story together. It is Segal’s most subtle and effective performance. 

Sandy Dennis is a revelation as the young wife who reveals layers of complexity as she becomes more and more soddenly drunk on sip after ladylike sip of brandy, until she’s literally foaming at the mouth and nose. Her skilled performance made Dennis the go-to actor for any female character labeled as “neurotic” in a script. Nobody ever played it better. 

Sandy Dennis as Honey

Elizabeth Taylor was one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses, uniformly giving wonderful performances in film after classic film, from Father of the Bride to A Place in the Sun to Giant. The Academy finally began to recognize and acknowledge her talents in the late 1950s, when she was nominated as Best Actress four years in a row from 1957-60. Ironically, Taylor had won her first Best Actress Oscar for a role that she felt didn't deserve the honor, as a call girl in the tawdry melodrama Butterfield 8. (Taylor had been near death with pneumonia during the Academy voting process and won the sympathy vote.)

Here, Elizabeth has a field day as the domineering, foul-mouthed Martha. Making the film in 1966, Taylor was only 34 and in lush, full womanhood, still the greatest beauty the silver screen had ever known.  Costume designer Irene Sharaff (who won an Oscar for this film), hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff and makeup wiz Gordon Bau transformed Liz’s look to make her appear 15 years older and 20 pounds heavier with with makeup and padding. (And for the first time, Elizabeth stopped watching her weight and packed on some real pounds as well, the beginning of a lifelong battle of the bulge that would last the rest of her life.)

How did Ernest Lehman get the controversial script past the censors? It was said he substituted phonetic spellings of the swear words (gah-dam or g’dam for goddamn, for example) in the script he submitted for approval, but this film marked the the beginning of a new era in film frankness. Producers and studios basically began to thumb their noses at their own self-imposed censorship and tell adult stories they felt needed to be told. Though Virginia Woolf was not rated at the time of its release, the film was one of the main reasons that the Motion Picture Association of America came up with its (constantly evolving) ratings system that is still used to this day. 

One of the greatest film foursomes ever!
Nominated for 10 Oscars, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf won a total of five. Elizabeth Taylor was pleased to have won her richly deserved second Best Actress Oscar for playing Martha but then cursed the Academy for passing over her husband. Burton did win the BAFTA for his role of George, but lost the Oscar to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons. Richard Burton was never to win an Academy Award, despite a total of seven nominations, the last two for his roles in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and Equus (1977). 

Sandy Dennis (The Out of Towners, Come Back To the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) won for Best Supporting Actress as the high-strung Honey, while Segal (The Owl and the Pussycat, It’s My Party) lost the Best Supporting Actor statuette to Walter Matthau in the Billy Wilder comedy The Fortune Cookie. (Haskell Wexler, Richard Sylbert and Irene Sharaff were the other Oscar winners.)

Together, Taylor and Burton would never experience a critical and artistic triumph on the scale of Virginia Woolf, though they were lauded for their fine performances in Zeffirelli’s production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew a year later. Resounding flops like Boom, Doctor Faustus and Hammersmith Is Out made the screen team box office poison, though they both found some success working separately. All told, Elizabeth and Richard would make a total of 10 films together. But Virginia Woolf was the zenith of their screen partnership.

Both alcoholics themselves, the Burtons’ hard-drinking jetset lifestyle led to constant bickering and battling, and in the end they became very much like the Albee characters they had inhabited so skillfully. The were never quite able to shed those personas, offstage or on.

Did the Burtons use their own volatile relationship as subtext?
In particular, Elizabeth added a new earth mother dimension to her sex goddess image, providing a perfect transition into character roles that ensured her career longevity. Most of Taylor’s more showy roles to come, including Michael Caine’s scorned wife in X, Y and Zee and the gaslighted heiress in the suspenseful horror flick Night Watch, featured shades of Martha. 

Off the screen, Burton and Taylor tired of playing sparring partners and divorced in 1974 after 10 years of marriage, then briefly remarried and quickly divorced again in 1976. As actors they would team up just one more time after their final breakup, for a brief Broadway run of Noel Coward’s Private Lives in 1983. 

In her later years, Taylor rhapsodized about both Burton and Virginia Woolf, calling him the love of her life and this film her all-time favorite acting experience. It is indeed a masterpiece in filmmaking; everyone involved was truly at the top of their game.

This is an entry in RealWeegieMidget’s Regaling About Richard Burton blogathon. I look forward to reading all the entries about one of the silver screen’s greatest leading men!


  1. Love your title and your great tribute to the Liz and Dick movies. This one on the review pile Thanks for joinig as always Chris for your fabulous take on a movie and its stars

  2. Thanks so much, Gill, for giving me the opportunity to cover this amazing film for your blogathon!
    I look forward to everyone’s articles on the great Richard Burton!
    - Chris

  3. Excellent look at a film, its time and its stars. Virginia Woolf is not an easy watch, but a thoroughly satisfying one. As you say, everyone is at the top of their game - how can you turn away?

  4. This is one I'll have to see again, for, as usual, your excellent write-up has piqued my interest and I haven't seen it in years. I confess the last production I saw of Albee's play was at the Actor's Studio in New York, I believe, a few years ago, and I thought the play was more of a great acting exercise for four thespians than a great play; my opinion of it had really gone downhill, but you can't say the darn thing is boring! Let's just say it's no "Long Day's Journey Into Night," but what is?

    I also thought it was ridiculous that some critics suggested the four straight characters in the play were stand-ins for "bitchy homosexuals." What -- there are no bitchy heterosexuals? The people who thought (or didn't think) along those lines should have gone to divorce court and heard some of the things husband and wives said about each other in public, let alone during drunken arguments at home, LOL!

    And considering some of the campier elements of the play/movie, it may be fitting to note that Liz does a great Bette Davis imitation saying "What a dump!" from "Beyond the Forest" (a movie I like better than most people).

    Last, but not least, Mad magazine did a funny parody of the movie, making the point that Liz did not exactly look like the slattern of the play!

    Great piece, Chris, as usual!

  5. Hi Caftan Woman/Patricia - Thanks so much for stopping by and your kind words. You are right, for those who love good acting, this one is hard to turn away from, even if the proceedings are a bit overwrought!

  6. Hi Bill - I am always so thrilled to see your comments on the blog; your insights on my favorite films always give me a new perspective!

    The last production of Virginia Woolf I saw was in the late 1990s at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida--Elizabeth Ashley was raspy and chilling as Martha, and Anjelica Torn (daughter of Rip Torn and Geraldine Page) was a fantastic Honey.

    The best version of an Albee play I ever saw was the Broadway production of A Delicate Balance in the late 90s with Rosemary Murphy., George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch as the alcoholic sister. Wow!

    Will have to check out that Mad magazine! I just found one that spoofed the first 3 Streisand movies: On a Clear Day You Can See a Funny Girl Singing Hello Dolly Forever! LOL

  7. Hey Chris,

    It's great that you've gotten to see those Albee productions!

    Many great actresses have played Martha: the original was Uta Hagen in her greatest career turn; then actresses like Mercedes McCambridge, Elaine Stritch, Shelley Winters, and later Colleen Dewhurst, Ashley, Glenda Jackson, Elaine May, and Kathleen Turner. I'm sure I'm missing a few. I want to say Ingrid Bergman did a European stage version. And that Vivien Leigh was offered a production, but turned it down as too exhausting for her emotional state. Wouldn't that have been fascinating? But ET deserves credit for taking on such a role when she was still young and beautiful... a remarkable lack of vanity on her part.

    It was actually Lehman's idea to cast Taylor. And Taylor's idea to give her friend Mike Nichols a chance in movies.

    Like that you're writing more.
    I need to do the same!


  8. Hi Rick, thanks so much for stopping by and contributing the info about all of them Marthas--so cool that Elaine May also played it! And god bless Lehman for choosing Elizabeth and Liz for choosing Mike! The result is one of the all time great films!
    Yes, Rick, we both need to write more and share our passions!! I love your blog!!
    Happy holidays!

  9. It's hard to believe, but I was first shown this film in HIGH SCHOOL during - I presume - an English Literature class. I don't think I fully absorbed it then. Many years later I helped work on a brilliant stage version of the play and watched the movie again. As someone else said, it's not always "easy" to watch, but it's a great example of actors and director firing on all cylinders. I enjoyed your assessment of The Burtons and all their triumphs and squalor. (In fact, there have been movies made in recent times just about them! LOL) Oddly, Burton - who I recall as being old, wrinkled and craggy - actually looks pretty good in the photo you picked near the top. I guess I'M getting old now! Ha ha! Thanks.

  10. Hi Poseidon- thanks so much for stopping by! How cool that you saw this one in high school. I actually first saw this on a videotape at my university library, in a cubicle, where I first saw the film of Streetcar as well for an American drama literature class.
    You are right— Burton does look pretty dreamy in the shot I chose, and for that matter, Elizabeth is kind of sexy if overly voluptuous as Martha! But they are less breathtakingly beautiful as they are as Marc Antony and Cleopatra!
    Thanks as always for your support! It means the world to me! Happy holidays!
    - Chris

  11. Fantastic review, Chris. I agree that everybody shines in the film - I was very much impressed with Sandy Dennis - and Burton and Taylor deliver their vest performances, probably by mixing the script with their real-life quarrels. Virginia Woolf is a true masterpiece.
    Cheers and thanks for the kind comment!

  12. Hi Le, thank you so much for stopping by! I agree that Sandy Dennis is extraordinary here, and Burton and Taylor are also at their very best!
    I love your blog and your take on so many films that I love!
    - Chris

  13. Love you to join;

  14. Hi Gill—thanks, will let you know if I can!
    - C

  15. As per usual, I'm very late to the party here, but you know I love this movie and enjoyed reading your take on it (I hadn't known about how Lehman got the swear words past the censors!)
    Although never much of a fan of Burton, I like him a great deal here, and Taylor is outstanding. Although I saw it during its original release, I was too young and unfamiliar with Taylor to appreciate what a departure the role was for her. Hollywood and its award panels have never outgrown its love of stars transforming (De Niro in RAGING BULL) and deglamorizing themselves (Charlize Theron MONSTER).
    Thanks for the great read, and a very Happy Holiday to you!

  16. Hi Ken! Happy holidays! You are so right, Elizabeth Taylor is outstanding here; it is a glorious performance that keeps on giving on every repeat viewing. I was not aware that you were not as much of a Burton fan...I also love his performances in Equus and Anne of the Thousand Days and even as the mooning Marc Antony in Cleopatra...but his George is spot-on and underplayed in contrast to his flamboyant wifey-poo!!

    Other famous "deglamorized" roles I enjoy: Rita Hayworth in Story on Page One, Grace Kelly in Country Girl, Garland in Judgment at Nuremberg, Marilyn Monroe as the psychotic babysitter in Don't Bother to Knock...but Elizabeth as Martha tops them all!

    Thanks so much as always for stopping by, Ken, and best wishes for 2019!

  17. Hey Chris, Congratulations you are one of my 15 nominees in the Versatile Blogger category...

  18. I'm from a college town in upstate NY, I call this one my hometown movie. Just another Saturday night.

  19. Hi loulou- thanks so much for stopping by. So true...this movie captures the vibe of academia and college towns perfectly!
    Thanks for reading!
    - C

  20. Hi Chris, Hope you can join me for my new blogathon... from Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews