Who’s Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor?

April 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Elizabeth Taylor, one of Hollywood’s greatest stars and one of the most famous film actresses to have ever lived, passed away March 23rd. The first person to receive $1 million for a film role (for the title character in Cleopatra), she created an image that most celebrities mirror today, infamous for her glamorous lifestyle and her many turbulent loves. So it is surprising that for what is arguably her most important role in the grand scope of film history she gained thirty pounds and played a coarse, frumpy character twenty years older than herself. That character was Martha in the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one of the most important American films ever made.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was written by absurdist playwright Edward Albee and appeared on Broadway in 1962, unsettling audiences but achieving success. The play’s themes of women’s rights and the modern irrelevance of marriage resonated with the post-WWII, postmodern theater audience. The play’s obscene language and pervasive sexuality were unheard and unseen on Broadway before that time, but culture was beginning to fundamentally change in urbane circles, and the theater audience accepted it with curiosity. But no one expected Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to be made into a film. It was too progressive, and the Production Code, a set of strict censorship laws created during Hollywood’s Golden Age, was still enforced at the time.

But the film was made. During the screening of a rough cut, a Warner Brothers studio executive was quoted as saying, “My God! We’ve got a seven million dollar dirty movie on our hands!” The scandal improved press, as it often does, and the film went on to make many times its budget in the box office. It is still the only film to have been nominated for every eligible category at the Academy Awards, and it won five. It turned out to be exactly the kind of progressive play that works as a film, because it spoke to its time in a way that could be appreciated, if not fully understood, by a wide audience. The emptiness of the ideal of the 50’s—safety, quiet luxury, and suburban contentedness—was becoming quickly apparent under the fear of nuclear war in the 60’s. People began to realize that just because they acted like everything was alright didn’t mean everything was alright. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? snarled this in the audience’s faces. The vicious language of a deteriorating marriage is set against the backdrop of a middle-class house in a quiet suburban town, revealing some of the deep problems plaguing modern American life.

The screenplay kept virtually identical dialogue from the stage play, a rare occurrence in film adaptation. This kept the integrity of Albee’s original intentions for the play’s message. Too often adapted screenplays alter and dilute original sources, and this is particularly dangerous when the original source is ‘edgy’ or ‘shocking’; if Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hadn’t been treated correctly, it actually would have ended up simply a “dirty movie” instead of a powerful, serious social critique, and it would not be a great film. Director Mike Nichols, an extremely talented stage director who would go on to direct such films as The Graduate, Wit, and Closer, brought the play to life on film. An experienced stage director was necessary because theater focuses more on actors’ performances than technical aspects, as many films tend to; and, after the screenplay, acting is the most important factor in the film. There are only four characters, and each actor is a powerhouse of talent. Each brings a tidal wave of emotions, and the waves all collide with each other at different times and in different ways—belligerence with exasperation, vicious sarcasm with humiliation, flirtation with shame, grief with spite. Every new interaction is captivating like a car crash, and each flows into the next poetically and unexpectedly.

Although technical aspects of the film are not the main focus, these are still masterfully executed. The set is a full-scale house, with complete realistic detail. This realism adds to the effect of the film, the mundane details contrasting with the bizarre and chaotic altercations of the characters. Every room is explored. The house becomes the habitat for the characters’ animalistic degeneration. The film was shot in stark black-and-white, adding a sense of age and setting the tense, sterile atmosphere; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the last film to win Best Black-and-White Cinematography at the Academy Awards. Most of the shots are static, emphasizing the failure of the characters to make positive progress, but other expressionistic techniques are used. In a moment of rage near the climax of the film, an extreme close-up handheld technique is used, suddenly throwing the audience into that emotion. Because the technique is used so sparingly, it stands out and is able to make a stronger emotional impact. In another scene, after a time-lapse blackout following an intense drunken argument, Martha is seen stumbling around the yard talking to herself, apparently thinking that everyone is hiding from her. The shot is taken from a very high angle, possibly from the roof of the house, and Martha’s hopeless alienation is emphasized in the image. When she stops talking, only the ice in her glass is heard clinking around in the dead night, a perfect sound design choice. The final shot of the film, as George and Martha finally come to peace with each other, is a decidedly long zoom that starts with the two of them in full frame, moves into an extreme close-up on their clasped hands, and finally focuses on a building behind trees far off in the distance outside the window. “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” George asks. Martha answers, “I am, George, I am.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is undoubtedly a great film. It is likely, though, that many in its early audiences were attracted to it because they wanted to see a “dirty movie,” without appreciating the important social statement it intended to make. As Edward Albee put it, “Writing should be useful. If it can’t instruct people a little bit more about the responsibilities of consciousness there’s no point in doing it.” But people can’t be instructed if they don’t open their minds to instruction. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? played a role in bringing down the Production Code, which allowed many great films to be made in the way their creators wanted, but also allowed many more crude, tasteless films to be made, which would saturate the cultural consciousness and make it less receptive to quality in the art it consumes. Perhaps the good that came out of it was worth the bad, but there are always negative consequences to major cultural change. Elizabeth Taylor’s glamour and turbulence may make her image romantic and her legacy great, but thousands of celebrities following in her path make our popular culture depraved.

By Aaron Young Smith, staff film writer.

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