Saturday, October 13, 2012

134. US film director Mike Nichols’ debut film “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966): Nichols’ finest work to date

It is nearly half a century since Mike Nichols made his first feature film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Richard Burton, the lead actor, is dead. Elizabeth Taylor, the lead actress, is dead. Its screenplay writer Ernest Lehman is dead. The film’s music composer, famous for his “sparse instrumentation,” Alex North, too, is dead.  He, too, had won an Oscar nomination for this film. No longer alive are the film’s editor Sam O’Steen, who won an Oscar nomination for the film, art director Richard Sylbert, and costume designer Irene Sharaff  the last two of whom  won separate Oscars  for this film.

Yet the movie, all 23 reels of it, (this critic recalls the exasperated look, decades ago, on the projectionist’s face opening the pile of film cans to feed the spools into the projector, at a time when most movies came in lots of 6 to 12 reels at the most) made in black and white, is colorfully alive in the minds of those who can appreciate the celebration of marriage of the finest in drama and in cinema.

If this critic finds this cinematic work memorable, thanks are primarily due to Edward Albee, the playwright. The play is a clinical look at modern social and psychological conditions, then and now. Forget the yelling and screaming and visceral abuse flung between a husband and a wife, both well educated professors in a US university. Forget the constant reference to sex and sexual terms and the open attempts to cuckold and to humiliate the spouse in front of strangers. And ironically the movie is not about sex. It is a mind game at an elevated plane. The play/film is essentially about how two spouses in spite of all their differences and agonies find comfort in each other. Incredible as it seems both the play and the film ends as a toast to love, which seemed to be absent throughout the lengthy play and film. At a time when the western world was enjoying quick divorces, here was Albee searching for and finding the ephemeral strand of love that binds couples together in spite of appearances that indicate otherwise. (An unforgettable quote loaded with meaning and bitterness from the play/film is this one spoken by Martha:  “I swear to God, George, that even if you existed I’d divorce you”. And there is no divorce in the film, only rapprochement and self realization.)

Albee, for this critic, in this play allowed catharsis at its brutal best to sink into the minds of the viewers. An orphan adopted by rich foster parents, Albee never truly felt loved and by many reports never reciprocated any feeling of love towards his foster family in later years. Albee wanted to be a writer while his foster parents were grooming him to be a successful tycoon. And Albee was gay. The lack of love permeates through the pages of Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But what Albee missed in real life and yearned for is revealed at the end of the play–love and appreciation, often not apparent in the play in a cursory view, idiomatically apparent in the movie though when the night ends and the sun’s rays enter through the windows.

Albee, in this play, had brought the finest traditions of Greek theater to America serving catharsis in large dollops. One gets the feeling that couples who watched the play being performed would be persuaded not to  spar with each other afterwards but only mentally re-examine their differences to come closer to each other. Albee, the playwright, must have been truly satisfied that he was able to put on the table a slice of his own life—not about children, but more about the lack of them and the inability of adults to communicate with them and the resulting ire towards the parents formed by the kids. Second, this is by Albee’s own admission, a magnificent play structured around a formidable thought “who is afraid of living life without false illusions?” Third, the play and the film are both a toast to the thin line separating dreams/fiction and reality. The admission of Martha (played by Elizabeth Taylor) to George’s (played by Richard Burton) loaded question Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is “I am, George, I am.”  Any intelligent viewer will realize that this answer is not merely applicable to Martha but to many of us. And it takes an extraordinary gay male writer to transpose those universal shattered feelings/words for a female character to speak, a female character who prior to uttering those words seemed to dominate her husband George for considerable length in the play.

Add to Albee, the contribution of Hollywood’s scriptwriter Ernest Lehman.  It appears Lehman was smart enough to tamper very little with Albee’s play except tone down the expletives for acceptance by the censors and the studio. He also added two minor characters: a roadside restaurant owner (who speaks a few lines) and his wife (who serves the drinks without saying a word). It is often difficult to demarcate who made such decisions while making a film, whether these decisions need to be attributed to the scriptwriter or to a director (in this case Lehman vs the debutant director Mike Nichols). The opening scene in the film of the church bells ringing for instance could merely be an indicator of time, 2 a.m. to establish time frame of the action (late night /early morning to first rays of sunlight in the final scene). But the church bells could take a different meaning (if extended in a Virginia Woolf type of stream of consciousness methodology) if one links up the bells with  the “Libera me, Domine, de morte aetima, in die illa treminda”—Sung in the Office of the Dead and at the Absolution of the Dead, after requiem mass before burial, asking God to have mercy upon the deceased person at the Last Judgement, “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal, on that fearful day...” brilliantly chanted by Richard Burton in Latin, as no one else can, later in the film. Now Albee and students of Albee know that Virginia Woolf had little to do with the play, and that Albee had merely spotted the title scrawled by someone on a rest room mirror and used it. The rest is history. But one suspects Nichols/Lehman/Burton played up the “Libera me, Domine..” chant sequence in the film knowing well that Burton could eloquently speak those Latin lines with aplomb and thus suggestively creating the “death,”  “request for heavenly mercy” and final “absolution” of Martha in an otherwise agnostic film. This idea, though latent in Albee’s play (recall Albee used to run away from compulsory chapel attendance in college), must have been burnished by the film’s creative team.

Mike Nichols (he is actually an American, German born, of Russian lineage, with an original name Michael Igor Peschkowsky) was making his first feature film. And directors are often at their creative best while making their debut. Nichols' decision to cast the Burtons as George and Martha was a masterstroke—the studios were initially considering James Mason and Bette Davis to play the parts. Nichols’ idea to get Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to add weight and look a lot older than what they were in real life was another brilliant move. Today actors play elderly roles if the characters transform in screen time, but not if they have to appear unattractive throughout the screen time. Nichols knew he had a winner with the script and his gifted team, which included cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who also picked up an Oscar for the film).

Now one wonders who actually made the decision to film the movie in black and white instead of color  at a time when Hollywood was quite comfortable with color movies. It is now well known cinematographer Harry Stradling, who had won plaudits and an Oscar for his work with color film on My Fair Lady just two years before, had done considerable preparatory work to shoot the Nichols film in color as well. But Nichols chose young Wexler instead of Stradling to shoot the film on black and white film stock to bring out the dark shades of the psychological tale better. (It is interesting to note that John Huston took a similar decision for making another fascinating film with Richard Burton—The Night of the Iguana (1964)—adapting a superb play by Tennessee Williams for another black and white film.)  Wexler was not able to recapture a similar psychological perspective in his camerawork until he made John Sayles’ Limbo (1999).

Now Nichols subsequently has made so many successful films including Closer (2004), again based on a play, this time a play by Patrick Marber.  The color film with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts was again nominated for multiple Oscars and quaintly resembled the basic structure of the Albee tale involving four persons, one pair considerably older than the other. Closer was all about real sexual encounters and foul mouthed mind games between characters. But there is a cardinal difference between the two Nichols films separated by some 35 years—the Albee film despite its constant allusions to sex was not about sex, which is not so in the case of Closer.  An evaluation of Closer elevates Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to a far superior level of entertainment  in varied aspects of cinema.  Nevertheless, it is amusing to see Nichols being drawn towards similar plots and structures of entertainment that resemble his debut film decades later.

It is obvious even today that the success of Nichols' debut film was largely due to the casting of the Burtons at the zenith of their acting careers. Here is an unusual film where the lead actors mesmerize the viewer without the usual physical allure often associated with actors. Here is a film that attracts us because the characters are not larger than life but plain, ordinary and even downright dowdy. It is the diction and enunciation of the spoken word and the Burtons' body language that carry the film though its unusual length of screen time. When Burton switches to Greek, it does not matter if the viewer does not know that “Kyrie, eleison” means “Lord have mercy” --the viewer remains enthralled nevertheless. It is sad that Burton was deprived of an Oscar seven times, especially for this adorable effort but the Academy instead recognized the efforts of Taylor, Wexler, Sandy Dennis, the art directors, and the costume designer by giving five Oscars for the film. 

But the real winner is the ending of the film with sunlight visible through the windows as George consoles Martha with his hand on her shoulder—an amazing antidote to what has preceded in the film. There is no divorce, no break-up, only reconciliation and closer understanding between man and wife. It is indeed a formidable play about living life "without false illusions." Albee was serving an ancient Greek theater recipe to American audiences and they loved it.

P.S. This film is one of the author's top 100 films. 

1 comment :

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

It's been there in my collection since a very long time, but I never really paid any attention to it, thinking of it as just another cheesy American movie. After reading your review, I finally decided to give it a go. Albeit a difficult watch, I found it unique as well as fascinating. And as always, your review does a great justice to the movie!!!