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No. 21: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)

Nick: “You’ve all gone crazy. Nuts.”
Martha: “Relax. Sink into it. You’re no better than anybody else.”

George (Richard Burton) likes to paint himself as the put-upon husband, an innocent victim shocked by the viciousness of his marriage. His wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) knows better. “You married me for it,” she hisses at him, and right there she breaks through the skin layers and bone and hits the marrow. George feeds on her boozy tirades, but it’s more than that. Martha’s tantrums give his life — which, he’s concluded, is nothing but a string of compromises and failures — a bizarre kind of purpose. With her, he’s browbeaten and emasculated; without her, he wouldn’t exist at all.

Fulfilling, lasting marriages are hardly built on such relationships, but great movies are. (Happy marriages don’t sell as many movie tickets.) Adapted from Edward Albee’s incidiary Broadway play, Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” works beautifully as a study of marital misery — sadism, masochism, abuse (all kinds), profanity and alcoholism included — and an explosive/quietly revealing character study. How can a film be both at once? The pyrotechnics come nearly every time Burton and Taylor open their mouths. They take the heat between them to dark places, lunging at each other like starved pitbulls. Both go so far that the line between acting and reality isn’t just blurred, it’s totally erased. Albee’s biting dialogue, mostly preserved here, is what provides the gentler insights into the dynamics of George and Martha’s marriage, their individual character and that of their unfortunate guests, Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), as well.

And what an unholy flaming hell the couple’s unwitting guests find themselves in. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” begins with what, somehow, we sense is a familiar scene: George and Martha, fairly well-liquored, stumble in from a social gathering held by Martha’s father, president of the bucolic New England university where George teaches history. She mimics Betty Davis’ “what a dump!” and claims she can’t remember where she heard it. Taylor’s face clues us in that she’s baiting George. Burton sighs, but he’s barely hiding a smirk that suggests he knows the game well and enjoys it. There’s no time for a battle, though, before their guests arrive. Why a visit at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning? Martha’s father arranged it, and George has resigned himself to accommodating the whims of his employer, whom he calls “the white mouse with tiny red eyes.”

In come Nick, new to the university’s biology department, and Honey, both nervous and looking for any excuse to split. Presented with fresh blood, Martha and George aren’t about to let that happen, so drinks are poured and the trap is set. So commences the first of two wars, with the hosts hurling scaldingly insults (one of the best: “Martha is 108 … years old. She weighs somewhat more than that”) and picking open old wounds related to their mysterious son. Next is “Get the Guests,” where Martha and George intend to divide and conquer their weaker guests — Martha by bedding Nick and George by preying on Honey’s fragility. Segal, in his moments alone with Taylor, lets sadness and recognition pass over his face, and his still moments with Taylor, including a drunken porchfront tête-à-tête and a scene where she admits George is the only man who’s ever made her happy, are some of the film’s best.

But let’s boomerang back to the fights, which earned Taylor that Best Actress Oscar and Burton that Best Actor nomination. Whether it was life experience (Taylor and Burton married and divorced each other twice), raw talent or some combination that made them such a great team here is anyone’s guess; the power of their work, however, is undeniable. Such towering rage their words have, and such pain we see in those expressions as they play their one-up-on-you games. Their energy, captured expertly and artfully by Ernest Lehman, is what pushes the film from showy melodrama into the kind of psychological subterfuge that leaves us drained, reeling and affected for days to come.

Review: “The Graduate” (1967)

The_GraduateSometimes we choose the films we watch, but the most important ones seem to choose us. And so it was with “The Graduate,” one of those timeless classics I kept meaning to see but never did. This always seemed a grave error in judgment, waiting so long to meet Benjamin Braddock. Then “The Graduate” finally cycled up from its lowly queue ranking, I watched it, at age 28, and I knew. I saw this movie at precisely the right time.

Oops. Was that too crunchy, maybe too reflective? Absolutely. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) would hate it. He’s not that reflective, lives mostly inside his mind. So why should I wax all philosophical? Refer back to “precisely the right time.” Bittersweet and poignant, “The Graduate” is a film best enjoyed after the angst of the early 20s — OK, the whole of one’s 20s — has passed. In those youthful moments where The Future and all its infinite possibilities are terrifying, perspective doesn’t exist. All that does is fear, the kind that doesn’t go away until you stop feeding it and it wanders away.  

In Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” we don’t get to see that transition for Benjamin. Right on. Benjamin, in Hoffman’s estimation, is the listless owner of some unnamed of bachelor’s degree and one of those real-world useless fellowship accolades with a name no one can keep straight. Back in his parents’ California home, he’s forced into one party after another in his honor, and each one makes him more and more uncomfortable. Everyone has big opinions about what Benjamin should do with his life (one word: “Plastics”), but he hasn’t the slightest clue. All his frustrations — “I’m worried about my future” he says pointedly — are ignored, and this only magnifies his anxiety. 

Then comes the summer-long Affair Heard ‘Round the World (it lives on in infamy through Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”) with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a confident, attractive, overtly sexual friend of Benjamin’s parents. In a dumber film, Mrs. Robinson would play teacher and impart scads of life lessons to the shy, inexperienced Benjamin, who’d gobble them up and grow into a mature, successful businessman. But who wants to see that movie? Certainly not Nichols; thus, the affair serves mostly to exacerbate Benjamin’s confusion, mixes up the concepts of dreams and sexual desires in his brain. Not good for a regular 20something guy, let alone one who’s as rudderless as Benjamin. Then things get worse: He falls for Mrs. Robinson’s young daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). This is an odd plot point, one that could be a little soap opera-esque without Nichols’ knack for finding the right pitch (helped along by Simon and Garfunkel’s deceptively peppy score).

So the web of Benjamin’s world is, ahem, decidedly tangled. Sex tends to do that, particularly if it happens with the best looking of all your parents’ friends. (Eek.) Yet these entanglements don’t matter nearly as much as the way they affect Benjamin. “The Graduate” is first and foremost a coming-of-age film, for though Benjamin’s technically an adult his emotional development hasn’t come close to catching up with his age. And the strange escapades in his life don’t produce the effects we might predict. To a degree, his affair with Mrs. Robinson does enlighten him — he taps into his sexuality in a way he hasn’t yet. But Benjamin thinks his affair with Mrs. Robinson will mean something. She’s bored and wants sex. (Bancroft does a wonderful job of not backing away from Mrs. Robinson’s palpable sexuality.) Then he believes his love — however misplaced and desperate — for Elaine will give him purpose. We get the idea that Benjamin’s seeking the right things; he’s just looking in the wrong places.

This much becomes clear in the ending (one of the best in cinematic history), and in Hoffman’s distracted performance. Hoffman closes down his face and shrinks his shoulders to play Benjamin, who’s separated himself from reality. He’s spinning around with no sense of direction until the end. Even then, when he’s learned something, he doesn’t seem to know what. Neither do we … and that’s just as it should be.

Grade: A