Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Decades Blogathon

Mark of three rows back and Tom of Digital Shortbread have brought back their Decades Blogathon, which is the theme is to discuss a film released in a year ending in six. Last year, I wrote about Mildred Pierce. So what am I writing for them this year?

(1966, dir. Mike Nichols)

Admittedly this was just an excuse to re-watch it but I was overdue for a re-watch, especially considering Nichols' passing not that long ago. What struck me upon re-watching it was that it still works after half a century (!), something not many other films of the 1960s can attest to.

Based on the play by Edward Albee, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Nichols' directorial debut. (A fitting choice seeing as how he made a name for himself on Broadway.) The film raked in thirteen Oscar nominations (and won five), and established that Nichols was a director to keep an eye out in Hollywood. (The fact his follow-up film was The Graduate certainly helped as well.)

The two leads would have been completely different had Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman not intervened. Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner had Bette Davis and James Mason in mind for Martha and George respectively. (It would've made that early conversation about which Bette Davis movie the line "What a dump!" came from amusing to say the least.) Though Nichols and Lehman definitely had the right idea in casting a real-life married couple, especially one that had a union as tumultuous as Martha and George's.

Starring as Martha is Elizabeth Taylor, who earned her second Oscar (and rightly so) for her work. A role very noticeably a far cry from Taylor's more glamorous roles earlier in the decade, Martha is loud and brash and doesn't give a damn about what anyone thinks. It's obvious that her drinking only fuels her anger, which is bad news for anyone around her. This is the kind of role that was a rarity for actresses back then, and Taylor just knocks it out of the park.

Garnering his fifth of seven Oscar nominations, it's Richard Burton's work as George that he should've have won for. In stark contrast to the vulgar Martha, George is more quiet but can be just as vicious as his wife. He may looks harmless in his browline glasses and scruffy cardigan but after years of being married to Martha, his temper can be contained for only so long.

George Segal plays Nick, one of the two horrified spectators of Martha and George's alcohol-fueled war of words. Nick goes from being mortified of the older couple's feuding to pitying George to spilling details of his own marriage after a few drinks. But it doesn't take long for him to feel nothing more than utter disgust towards the quarreling duo.

As Honey is Sandy Dennis, providing the second Oscar-winning performance of the film. Much like the others, her personality takes a nasty turn when she starts drinking (brandy's her drink of choice). She goes from being loud to lashing out at her husband. (Sound familiar?) As is also the case with Martha, Honey's true colors start to emerge.

Back when Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? first hit Broadway, its coarse language shocked theatergoers. When Nichols turned the play into a movie, the same happened with moviegoers. (Granted, it's tame compared to the likes of Scorsese, Tarantino and Iannucci nowadays.) And much like what Nichols would do with Closer thirty-eight years later, he provides a battle of the sexes of the vicious kind. Not to mention his debut marked the beginning of the end for the Hays Code...

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