Monday, 11 January 2010

If You Existed I'd Divorce You.

Mike Nichols made his directorial debut in a searing fashion, helming super-couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the film version of Edward Albee's stage production Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (That question mark at the end is an awful thing to do to anyone hoping to then write about the film - it completely alters the perceived meaning of any sentence! Cruel, Albee. Cruel.)

Taylor and Burton, happily ensconced in the first incarnation of their marriage, play Martha and George in this four-hander, a couple together for years who have become so familiar with each other as to appear completely and irreparably dysfunctional - except that they're not. After a dinner party at Martha's father's house (who is the head of the college at which George is a member of the history department), the couple, already quite drunk, retire home, where Martha reveals that a new member of the faculty and his wife are shortly to join them, also coming from said party. The couple continue to argue as they drink, Martha superficially tidying the house, and are quite entrenched in a screaming match when the new couple, Nick and Honey (whose names I don't remember being mentioned once in the film, played by George Segal and Sandy Dennis) arrive. Initially uncomfortable (something that really doesn't change throughout the film) they are effectively coerced into staying by the fact that Nick's boss is Martha's mother.

The four play games around each other, full of vitriol and slander, innuendo and tension, as they gradually get drunker and drunker. Secrets are revealed, people are sick - it's almost like watching an American frat party movie, except that the stakes here are much higher. The wordplay back and forth, and the revelations of their relationships to each other, each character with each other character separately and together, is remarkable. It's a wonderfully rich screenplay (with striking similarities to Nichols' 2004 picture and stage adaptation, Closer) and masterfully performed by all involved - consequently, this must be one of very few films where every credited member of the cast was nominated for an Oscar, and deservingly so.

Taylor and Dennis won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively, and I would rank Taylor's performance as one for the ages. The film itself lost out to Fred Zinnerman's A Man For All Seasons (as it did for Director and Adapted Screenplay), but coming just as the New Hollywood revolution was about to sweep American cinema, it did push many boundaries. Apparently, the first film to use the word 'bugger' in its dialogue. In fact, many of the words uttered struck me as being very controversial for a film of this time (1966), but it powered through the classification body with very few changes, probably not hurt by the incredible star wattage and, presumably, influence of the Taylor-Burton combo. Haskell Wexler's Oscar-winning black and white cinematography was superb, rendering the film timeless despite the fact that colour films were about at the time, and the look of the film is spot-on. Nichols manages to, for the most part, avoid the feeling that it is a filmed play (the dialogue and back-and-forthing of the repartee does diminish this, but the words and performances are so rich as to make one overlook it), but it is those performances that I keep coming back to. The performances, and the film's examination of what it is that keeps couple ticking over. What holds them together. The fact that under the demonstrated hatred and ire expressed between Martha and George, there are so many other deep feelings of love and respect that are almost darker than the anger they elucidate. Their happiness is buried so deep inside, only at times of intense emotional turmoil do they really come out.

A glorious example of filmmaking, and very highly recommended. 5 stars.

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