At last I got a proper view of the legendary actress and not just a glimpse from a news magazine. Elisabeth Taylor. I can’t believe it took me so many years to see one of her movies and realize that she wasn’t just gossip fodder. She was also quite a fantastic actor.
Until last week I had a somewhat twisted impression of her. Basically all I knew was what I had learned through a bunch of women’s magazines from the 60s. In the absence of TV, computers and mobiles, they were the only entertainment provided in the cottage in the mountains where I spent many summers as a child.
We had three activities to alter in front of the fireplace: playing cards, reading novels (restarting the Foundation trilogy again as soon as I had finished it) and looking in those old papers, a leftover from a previous owner of the cottage who was a dentist and had brought them from his waiting room as soon as the ladies where done with them.
As far as I can recall, apart from gossip about the royal families of Europe, most of the articles were about either Elisabeth Taylor or about the Kennedy family. I suppose they were royalties too, of the US sort.
What I knew
If you had asked me about what I thought of Elisabeth Taylor as an actress, I would have shrugged, putting up a face of embarrassment.
“Well, you know… She did all those BIG movies you know, from the time when everything was supposed to be huge and taking place in history. Cleopatra, that was she, wasn’t it? Not quite the kind of movies I watch you know…. She seemed to be unhappy and married and divorced and married again, sometimes with the same guy. They had an on-off-relationship didn’t they? And was there some alcohol problem as well? But the quality of her acting? To be completely honest: I have no idea. I can’t remember seeing her in a single movie. I might have unknowingly, but I can’t remember where or what I thought of it.”
And I would have felt like a horrible, horrible film buff.
But now we’ve finally met, and what a meeting it was! She swore at me, she spitted out the most devilish lines, she made faces and raged and behaved in the way you do when you’re drunk as a skunk and genuinely unhappy with yourself, your marriage and life overall. And she was fantastic, about as far as you could come from the soulless but beautiful generic film star I had imagined her to be.
The movie that introduced us to each other was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I hadn’t heard of it until recently, when my mother sent a copy to me, insisting on me to watch it. I met you know about it already; after all it was nominated for no less than 13 Academy awards and it won five big ones. That’s quite something considering it was the debut film of the director Mike Nichols.
It’s based on a play by Edward Albee and you can certainly spot its origins. The theatre vibe is strong, despite the efforts of the cinematographer to be innovative, bringing a movie feel into it.
The story is about two couples, both with the husband working in the university world. The older couple, played by Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (who also had a real life relationship to Elisabeth, how tickling mustn’t that have been as the movie came out?), invites the younger to their home a late night. Discussions and incidents will follow.
At the start Taylor’s and Burton’s characters are already pretty drunk and as the night progresses, they get increasingly poisoned, not only by alcohol, but also by the harsh words they say to each other.
The movie runs for a little more than two hours, and most of it consists of non-stop fighting, mostly with words.
“George: You can sit around with the gin running out of your mouth; you can humiliate me; you can tear me to pieces all night, that’s perfectly okay, that’s all right.
Martha: You can stand it!
George: I cannot stand it!
Martha: You can stand it, you married me for it!”
“George: You’re a monster – You are.
Martha: I’m loud and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house because somebody’s got to, but I am not a monster. I’m not.
George: You’re a spoiled, self-indulgent, willful, dirty-minded, liquor-ridden…
Martha: SNAP! It went SNAP! I’m not gonna try to get through to you any more. There was a second back there, yeah, there was a second, just a second when I could have gotten through to you, when maybe we could have cut through all this, this CRAP. But it’s past, and I’m not gonna try.”
“Martha: I looked at you tonight and you weren’t there… And I’m gonna howl it out, and I’m not gonna give a damn what I do and I’m gonna make the biggest god-damn explosion you’ve ever heard.
George: Try and I’ll beat you at your own game.
Martha: Is that a threat George, huh?
George: It’s a threat, Martha.
Martha: You’re gonna get it, baby.
George: Be careful Martha. I’ll rip you to pieces.
Martha: You’re not man enough. You haven’t the guts.
George: Total war.
It’s just a few samples, but I think you get it.
Shocking in the 60s
So what did I make of this movie? Well, it’s definitely not as shocking as it was once upon a time. Back in the days, the rough language and the explicit sexual references created a lot of debate. The production company advised anyone under 18 not to watch it unless accompanied by a parent. This movie also became igniting spark which led to the development of the current rating system in US.
45 years later the content isn’t something you’d consider protecting younger theatre visitors from watching because it could be harmful to them.
But on the other hand I don’t think a young audience would like it particularly much. The movie is about experiences, thoughts, emotions and layers within a 20 year old marriage, things that I imagine are hard to relate to for a teenager.
George’s and Martha’s power games feel quite modern. They could easily take place in more recent movie.
One parallel that I got to think of was Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy from this year. Both movies show a couple engaged in a conversation. And in both movies you realize after a while that things might not be the way they appear to be. It’s a case of tromp d’oeil.
However the take is very different. Where Certified Copy is distanced, cool and intellectual, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf goes under the skin with its dirt, heart blood and raw emotions. If I made a top list of films that mostly consists of a couple arguing with each other, portraying a dysfunctional marriage, this one would certainly take a spot on it.
And I’m glad that I finally met Elisabeth Taylor. She deserves to be famous for more than just her love affairs.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, US, 1966) My rating: 4/5