Tag Archives: Elizabeth Taylor

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opens with this gentle, lovely music from Alex North. It’s night, it’s a university campus, a couple is walking silently as the credits roll; the music’s beautiful. Then the couple–Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton–get home. And pretty soon they start yelling at each other. And they don’t stop until the end of the movie, some two hours away–unless they aren’t in a scene together.

Burton is a history professor and Taylor’s suffering husband. Taylor is the university president’s daughter and Burton’s suffering wife. The film starts with them getting home from a faculty party at two in the morning. They’re both drunk and so they start drinking some more. But Taylor has invited over a new professor and his wife so they’re going to have a middle-of-the-night party, much to Burton’s chagrin.

The guests are George Segal and Sandy Dennis. Dennis is a little tipsy when they arrive, but Segal’s basically sober. Burton–correctly–guesses Taylor agreed to host the welcoming party (at her never seen father’s request) because Segal is something of a young blond stud and up-and-comer, not a middle-aged fuddy-duddy career burnout like Burton.

As the film progresses, the group–there are only the four characters in the film (with two uncredited actors at a roadside bar later on)–breaks up and reforms. Taylor gives Dennis a tour of the house, offscreen, while Segal and Burton bond. More Segal realizes his hosts are majorly dysfunctional and wants to get out of there, but ends up sticking around, getting drunker, with Taylor getting bolder and bolder about hitting on him. Dennis is oblivious, Burton is quietly raging.

Eventually–once they’re drunker–Segal and Burton have another bonding moment, while–again–Dennis and Taylor are offscreen. Segal and Taylor get scenes together, Dennis and Burton get scenes together. And little by little, it becomes clear there’s a lot more going on than Taylor’s a drunk unfaithful wife to Burton’s sad sack, drunken academic failure.

Woolf is exceptional on every level. The way Nichols directs the actors. Ernest Lehman’s script–adapting Edward Albee’s play. The performances. That Alex North music. The Haskell Wexler black and white photography, which gives the viewer insight into these uncomfortable moments–like when Taylor starts flirting with Segal and Dennis is in the background and the scene’s not about Taylor’s flirtatious rambling but whether or not Dennis is catching up with what’s going on. And then what her awareness or lack thereof means given Burton’s in the room too.

Dennis has a bunch of surprises in store, narratively and performance-wise, for later in the film. Virginia Woolf gets disquieting before Segal and Dennis even show up at the house, because Taylor’s obviously unstable. Possibly dangerously unstable. The film’s revelations about Taylor and Burton to their guests (and the viewer) drives their character development. This revelation or that revelation calls back to a previous one and where there’s an–intentional or drunken–disconnect fuels the development. Dennis and Segal are different. There’s definitely some development through revelation, but they’re not the film’s subjects. They’re both messed up a little with secrets of their own, but it’s nothing compared to Taylor and Burton.

Taylor gets top-billing and the best monologue. Burton’s second-billed but the protagonist. His monologues are different. He’s not self-reflective drunk or sober. Taylor’s self-reflective sober. Well, sober for her. Burton’s always trying to stay one step ahead of Taylor while she’s just naturally devious and manipulative. They’re both exhausted–the story itself is a marathon, with the two couples getting drunker and drunker as the night goes on. Movie starts at two in the morning, ends four or so hours later. So not real-time, but fairly continuous action. All of the characters (and actors) exhibit the exhaustion in different ways. While Dennis and Segal are the guests and their exhaustion is tied to them being in someone else’s home, Taylor and Burton are sort of in their normal. Their terrifying normal. Exhaustion included.

The script has the dialogue level, with Burton trying to torment his guests with wordplay and maybe embarrass Taylor a little with it, and then the narrative. This development, that revelation, all perfectly plotted out. Nichols hits every one just right. He gets the intensity of the scenes, the dialogue, the performances, all beautifully shot by Wexler, then Sam O’Steen’s editing packages them all together into these astounding, draining scenes. There’s a lot of dread in Virginia Woolf, even if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be dreading. From the first moment after the peaceful opening titles, the film’s primed for an explosion.

Singular acting. Segal’s the least great and he’s still great. Taylor and Burton kind of duke it out for best performance. They’re very different parts with very different requirements. It’s incredible how well Nichols directs the film, given his two leads are operating at different speeds and different narrative distances. And then you throw in Segal and, especially, Dennis. She’s phenomenal in the film’s toughest part. Because she’s got to be quiet. Burton, Taylor, and even Segal all get to be loud but Dennis does this startling, quiet performance.

And even when it seems like you finally get Virginia Woolf as the film goes into the third act, it turns out there are still some big twists. The film’s biggest twist isn’t even its loudest. And the loudest one is head-blowing big.

Richard Sylbert’s production design–the house and its yard where the action mostly takes place (though the roadside bar is also great)–is stellar.

As I said before, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exceptional. On every level. It’s “run out of positive adjectives” exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Edward Albee; director of photography, Haskell Wexler; edited by Sam O’Steen; production designer, Richard Sylbert; music by Alex North; produced by Lehman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), and Sandy Dennis (Honey).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE REGALING ABOUT RICHARD BURTON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY GILL OF REALWEEGIEMIDGET REVIEWS.


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Giant (1956, George Stevens)

Giant has a fairly good pace for running three hours and twenty minutes. Even more so considering almost the entire second act is told in summary, with stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean gradually getting more and more old age makeup. At his “oldest,” Hudson has a bulk harness, which is simultaneously obvious and effective. Hudson’s performance always needed a little heft. The literal visual presence of it helps.

The first half of Giant is Taylor’s. The film starts in early twentieth century Maryland. Texas cattle rancher Hudson arrives to buy Taylor’s stallion. Again, literally. It’s not clear why Hudson wants the horse because once he gets it home, there’s clearly no need for it. But Taylor decides she wants to marry Hudson right after meeting him; she’s engaged to Rod(ney) Taylor, who gets like four lines.

Taylor is Taylor so Hudson marries her, even though she’s already challenged him. Well, not him, but Texas. She pointed out they stole it from Mexico. That conversation ends up being this lengthy subplot through the entire film. And really Hudson’s only complete one. Giant starts as his movie but it’s Taylor’s after her second scene.

When they get back to big empty, pre-oil Texas, Taylor immediately runs into trouble with Mercedes McCambridge. McCambridge is Hudson’s (presumably older) sister who actually runs the ranch. Though Hudson doesn’t seem to understand it. At that point in the film, Giant becomes this glamorous yet discomforting look into the situation of intelligent women. They have to marry dim bulbs.

Besides realizing being a racist prick isn’t good, Hudson’s only arc for the three hours is worrying about who’s going to take over the family ranch. And it’s never dramatic because almost everyone in the second half–once the kids, who arrive about an hour in, grow up into teens then twentysomethings. Giant doesn’t dwell much on the years in between toddler and late teen because Pearl Harbor happens and young men need to be old enough to go off to war.

Taylor’s got a lot going on in the first half, before the aging makeup. She’s got to deal with McCambridge thinking she’s trying to take over the de facto matriarchy, Hudson being a chauvinist and a racist, her husband and his sister starving the Mexican-American workers on the ranch while intentionally depriving them of safe living conditions, problem ranch hand James Dean giving her the eye, and, soon, Hudson’s only parenting instinct to be to instill toxic masculinity.

And she’s great. The script’s always a little too scared to throw down about Hudson’s racism, almost like director Stevens knows it’s going to get too awkward afterwards so why not save it until the end. So Taylor’s got to navigate around that softness while still developing her character. It culminates in Taylor heading back for a “visit” in Maryland, taking the kids. Rodney Taylor gets another line. Real character development on the kids happens, which is cool. And the last time some of the three kids ever get any.

The second half, about when it’s the forties and oil has struck, eventually deals with youngest daughter Carroll Baker deciding to rebel by pursuing James Dean. Dean, in his old age makeup with an awesome pencil mustache, is, of course, old enough to be her father.

That the three kids, both as babies and then adults, look more like not just Taylor and Dean’s kids, but also Taylor and Taylor’s is sadly never a thing. Hudson whines at one point about a grandkid not looking like him but, come on, none of his kids ever have.

Giant’s not a soap. While Dean clearly has the hots for Taylor, her arc with him (in the first half, when she still gets arcs), is more about her coming to terms with her disappointment in Texas. Young Dean is a dreamer who wants to get far away. Old Dean is not a dreamer. The movie doesn’t really do the dreaming thing. Everyone’s too rich. It just happens.

Dean’s fantastic. He’s a villain, of sorts, but a supporting one. He’s not Hudson’s antagonist, at least not after the film’s done establishing the Texas ground situation on Taylor and Hudson’s arrival. But the thoughtfulness of the performance, which carries over (and gets even better, actually) into the aging makeup, is something to behold. There are some flashy scenes, but it’s also impressive in the quiet moments when the film’s still giving Dean an active subplot.

He loses it just before the film starts jumping ahead. He figures into the second half a lot, but he’s not an active presence. Third act, yes. Third act is when he gets to show-off what screen acting can actually be in old age makeup. But in the second he’s all background. He’s no longer in current contention for ranch heir.

Dennis Hopper plays the disappointing son–first he became a doctor and then he married a Hispanic girl (Elsa Cárdenas in the film’s most thankless role, which is saying a lot considering Sal Mineo’s “part”). He ends up figuring into the third act a lot. He’s all right. Better than Baker, who isn’t able to make the minx believable. Old man Dean is a creeper and he doesn’t hide it. It’s never believable Baker would think it was so hot.

Other than Dean being dreamy, apparently. And it’s no wonder. Taylor and Hudson’s old age makeup puts them in their, I don’t know, late sixties? They’re supposed to be fifty (at the most). Only Dean looks close to appropriate.

Screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat bring up the aging in dialogue once or twice, with one full conversation, but it doesn’t play into the rest of the film. It’s never subtext. It’s either obvious or absent. Hudson’s increased drinking, however, seems like it might be a thing, especially since he and Dean both become massive functioning alcoholics simultaneously but separately.

In the finish, the film decides it wants to be about Hudson and his racism, but without ever, of course, being too judgy about it. Giant’s not telling people not to be racist at home, just out in public when some of the good ones might be around. But it does go so far as to tell them it’s still not really okay to be racist at home. Mind who’s around, of course. Good old uncle Chill Wills is all right, wink, wink.

And it almost kind of sort of gets somewhere. Even though it ignores this subplot actually had everything to do with Taylor before the film took it away. Giant comes through for Dean at the end. It comes through for Hudson. Well, his character at least. But it never comes through for Taylor.

Like, Dean is perving on Baker because she’s Taylor’s kid. It’s a thing. And Taylor never gets to deal with it. Stevens really lacks confidence in the leads’ abilities in the oldest aging makeup. So much so he doesn’t even try. He steps back. It works for Dean. It works for Hudson.

It doesn’t work for Taylor. It’s a bummer.

Most of the acting is good. Besides Baker. Earl Holliman’s a little ineffectual as well. But Paul Fix and Judith Evelyn are good as Taylor’s parents. Wills is good. Jane Withers, playing a character who clearly had a lot more to do in the novel, is fine.

Excellent photography from William C. Mellor. Stevens’s direction is good. It’s just a lot of story and a lot of movie. They get through it, but they don’t excel with it. William Hornbeck’s editing is perfunctory, which really doesn’t help by the third act, when the film proves unable to be soapy even when it wants and needs to be.

Still, taking everything into account, Giant’s worth it for Dean’s performance. It’s worth it for some of Taylor’s. It’s a damn shame there isn’t more to hers. The film really needed to be more confident treating second-billed Hudson like he’s second-billed.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, based on the novel by Edna Ferber; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Harry Ginsberg and Stevens; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie Benedict), Rock Hudson (Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr.), James Dean (Jett Rink), Mercedes McCambridge (Luz Benedict), Carroll Baker (Luz Benedict II), Dennis Hopper (Jordan Benedict III), Fran Bennett (Judy Benedict), Elsa Cárdenas (Juana Guerra Benedict), Earl Holliman (‘Bob’ Dace), Chill Wills (Uncle Bawley), Paul Fix (Dr. Horace Lynnton), Judith Evelyn (Mrs. Nancy Lynnton), Jane Withers (Vashti Snythe), Rod Taylor (Sir David Karfrey), Robert Nichols (Mort ‘Pinky’ Snythe), Carolyn Craig (Lacey Lynnton), Sal Mineo (Angel Obregón II), and Charles Watts (Judge Oliver Whiteside).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE ELIZABETH TAYLOR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Father of the Bride (1950, Vincente Minnelli)

Father of the Bride is such a constant delight, it’s practically over before its problems become clear. First off, it’s definitely about the titular Father–a wonderful Spencer Tracy–who not only narrates but is in almost every scene. The wedding reception, when he’s chasing around daughter Elizabeth Taylor to say goodbye, is about the only time he’s not running a scene.

The reception is also where the problems show. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett write a great script, no question, but their situational comedy is so strong… things get lost. Joan Bennett, as Tracy’s wife and Taylor’s mother, gets shortchanged in the second half. She’s around, she has some good scenes, but nothing compared to her first half ones.

There are also a number of plot threads left unresolved or forgotten or just plain dismissed. Goodrich, Hackett and director Minnelli go for the best laugh they can get out of a scene. Some of these laughs do have narrative consequences and no one seems to have much interest in acknowledging them. It’s too bad.

But Bride’s problems don’t hurt the film’s ability to entertain. Tracy and Bennett are great–he’s so energetic, it’s very impressive she can hold her own. Goodrich and Hackett’s masterful script actively works his narration into scenes.

Taylor’s very likable as the daughter, though she doesn’t have a lot to do. Leo G. Carroll has a great part too.

Minnelli does well too. The settings are confined, but he never lets Bride get claustrophobic.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on the novel by Edward Streeter; director of photography, John Alton; edited by Ferris Wheeler; music by Adolph Deutsch; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Stanley T. Banks), Joan Bennett (Ellie Banks), Elizabeth Taylor (Kay Banks), Don Taylor (Buckley Dunstan), Billie Burke (Doris Dunstan), Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Massoula), Moroni Olsen (Herbert Dunstan), Melville Cooper (Mr. Tringle), Taylor Holmes (Warner), Paul Harvey (Rev. A.I. Galsworthy), Frank Orth (Joe), Russ Tamblyn (Tommy Banks), Tom Irish (Ben Banks) and Marietta Canty (Delilah).


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