Friday, December 3, 2010

Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Elizabeth Taylor received her fifth (and to date last) Best Actress nomination and second Oscar for playing Martha, a vulgar, alcoholic mess in Mike Nichols' first movie, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This win was probably the easiest one ever: Liz was the only nominee, who was actually a star, she had a huge performance, which was also very unusual and also she starred in a brilliant movie. So it wasn't any competition there, I don't really understand why she skipped the show (they say she boycotted the even because Burton was not going to win).

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is quite simply a triumph. Everything about it is just groundbreaking, unusual, exciting, fresh and everything. It's quite simply perfection. That's why I am so horribly shocked that it lost Best Picture and Director to a great, but usual movie. I guess this movie was considered offensive by the older members, and therefore they went with the reliable choice. The acting is, again, a triumph: Richard Burton was robbed of the Oscar for his extremely moving performance, so was George Segal, who's terrific as the big-faced guy, and Sandy Dennis gives a brilliant supporting performance, richly deserving of the award.

However, just like in the case of Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind (maybe not that much), this is the Elizabeth Taylor Show. There are performances, which could be considered the best of the performer, but there are works which define them as artists. This is such a work by Ms. Taylor. I'll admit without any hesitation that sometimes I can't bear the acting style of Liz. Her loud, over-the-top voice can kill me (Suddenly, Last Summer), her big tears can annoy me to hell. BUT, when she rocks it's an earthquake. If I said that Lynn Redgrave was not a hurricane, than Taylor is Category 9000 hurricane and destroys countries in this movie. It's a showcase of so many complicated emotions, which are so damn difficult to handle.

Martha is one of the most unlikeable characters. I go further: she's just a disgusting, nasty, alcoholic mess, who's just a total waste. Much like Mo'Nique in Precious (she even makes Mo'Nique pale in comparision with her, check out the two breakdown scenes and compare), she doesn't have much to do and therefore tortures the only person on whom they could rely. But in Martha, very deep inside, there's so many love to express and this really makes this character heartbreaking. Taylor shows the hopelessness of Martha, but also the hope inside her. I'm contradicting myself, but so does this performance, which never makes sense and by this it's as natural as it can get.

When we first see her, she's drunk, she's swearing like a sailor, she's disgusting, vulgar and ugly. I don't see how a beautiful, 34-year-old actress at her prime was able to be so ugly. It took tons of courage from Ms. Taylor. Yes, she made the decision to jump into the edge, but with this self-sacrifice she created something for the ages. Something, which is more than Elizabeth Taylor, the superstar, the queen of Hollywood. It's no wonder that the great roles avoided her after this: there was nowhere to go from here. Taylor reached the star and one cannot go further, that's it. Not only is this work her best, but it was revolutionary for acting too. After this, beautiful actresses were not afraid to become fat, ugly and ordinary.

Incredibly the things I most dislike about Taylor's acting make this performance really work. With exaggerating her mannerisms, it just becomes so interesting despite the fact that it's crazily over-the-top. It's quite simply breathtaking to witness this harrowing experience as you get to see the everything, the point (which Nick doesn't see), the soul of this character. Is she mentally ill or is she simply bitter? I think it's the mix of the two, or the illness is the result of her bitterness and disappointments. Martha wanted something more than anything and than it's taken away from her. It's one of the most heartbreaking moments ever.

Also, I am not halfway done with analyzing her performance: this review would be so incomplete without mentioning the crazily intense chemistry between her and Richard Burton. Their fight-and-make-up relationship in real life affected this work of theirs, but in the most positive way possible. George and Martha are addicted to each other, they don't have anyone else. They fight all the time, which is mostly the result of the intense love and hate between them. Her scene in the kitchen (I mean her huge monologue) is simply heartbreaking and explains all the feelings. The emotional force in it is so captivating, that after all this weight on you becomes so heavy, that you actually break down along with the characters. Taylor (with the other actors) makes you a part of their crazy, sick games and you just can't get out. There are breaks for them, but not for you. From the first second, Taylor grabs you by your guts and never lets you go, not for a single moment. And incredibly there's also a fair amount of humor and irony in Taylor towards this character: after all Martha is just a person who seeks happiness like any of us, and it's not only her fault that she is a total failure.

After all, I don't want to let this performance go. I just so want to write and write and write for hours, but you have to wrap it up. The writing flies away, but Taylor's performance stays with me forever, locked up firmly in my mind. An actress, who was able to show another, unknown and much more interesting side of hers, now really got me. I'm under its effect and I can't be sober. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
This is again one of those cases, where I don't need a rating.

What do you think?


Louis Morgan said...

I agree she is absolutely terrific, I would disagree that it is her show. It really belongs to all four actors, and if you talk about the driving force character it is her for the first half, but it is Burton all the way for the second half. After all George ends up "winning".

dinasztie said...

I think it's the other way around. The first half is about George, the second is about Martha. In the first half, there's so much time when she's not on screen.

Louis Morgan said...

I was referring to the dominance. Martha is winning in the first half driving George even more insane, but George comes back all too well in the second half.

Sage Slowdive said...

There's no other choice.

But, I agree with Louis, the entire 4 control it all.

joe burns said...

A fantastic performance....

I have to say it's all of them, except for George Segal, who is just fine, but looking back on it, he was pretty good.

Thiago Oliveira said...

"When she rocks it's an earthquake" Haha, love it. I did see this movie, Taylor's performance is simply incredible. Five stars.

Margo said...

I thought Elizabeth Taylor brought some interesting baggage to this role. When you think of how a woman's beauty is part of her currency, her worth (especially back in the day), the idea that Martha was a once-breathtaking beauty makes her disappointment even more heartbreaking. Here is a character whose looks were supposed to garner her anything, and they brought her very little.

On stage, Martha was often played by plain-looking women whom you could not imagine having been raving beauties in their youth. I think our memory of Ms. Taylor having been "the most beautiful girl in the world" added a dimension to this role that no one else could have rpovided.