Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Geeky girl that I am, I was very excited when it came time to enter one of my favorite plays into my LibraryThing catalog. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has been my favorite movie ever since I can remember (or at least my favorite drama. who can have just one favorite movie?). My copy of the play is just about as cherished as my copy of the movie.

Edward Albee's play can best be described in one word -- searing. I hate to even try to describe it. You really need to experience it to understand it. It's the story of George and Martha (he's a history professor at a small college, she's the college president's daughter), a couple living somewhere on the edge between love and hate. In an alcohol-fueled, middle-of-the-night party with a new junior professor and his wife, secrets are shared and lives are shattered. The play caused quite a stir when it debuted in New York in 1962. Its subject matter and use of language were shocking to audiences in a pre-Kennedy assassination world.

The movie version of 1966 is famous in its own right. It starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (for those younger readers, they were the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt of their day), along with George Segal and Sandy Dennis. It had any number of things against it: the debut movie of director Mike Nichols; dispute about whether Elizabeth Taylor could handle the weight of the material; the fact that it was shot in black and white; and not least of all the subject matter and language.

In fact, the movie was hugely successful. All four actors were nominated for Academy Awards (Taylor won for Best Actress, Dennis for Best Supporting Actress). Many have said it is Taylor's finest work -- and I humbly agree. It was one of seven nominations that Burton received in his life -- without ever winning one. This site has some interesting trivia about who might have been cast in this movie.

Part of the brilliance of the movie, in my opinion, is the near perfect adherence to Albee's play. There are a few more scene changes in the movie, but Ernest Lehman's script wisely sticks very close to the original. Seriously, how could you even want to change a line like Martha's to George: "I swear, if you existed, I'd divorce you."

It's interesting that most of the sites I found refer to the movie as much as the play. Since the movie version is so famous and was produced near to the time the original play was, it's not a suprise. Check out FilmSite's wonderful summary and Culture Vulture's great essay, and this entry from GradeSaver that puts the film into context with world events.

For true fans, be sure to check out IMDB's site. It's got some color stills that I've never seen before. If you haven't seen it yet, be sure to add it to your Netflix queue.

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