Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Born to be Childless

(Note: Spoiler Alerts)
Oh what a difference sobriety makes. Seeing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf on the big screen while not drunk has helped me see that beneath the film's bravado is the terror of living life as a childless couple, growing old without children to block the vanishing point on the Grim Reaper's scythe swipe horizon. Taylor and George Segal have the 'animal magnetism' - the drive to claw your way up - while Dennis and Burton are the drunken dreamers. It never occured to me until tonight how much the latter two have in common, right down to her hysterical pregnancy mirroring Burton's invisible son. Taylor is ferocious but Dennis is irrepressible, her innocent, booze-fueld mania the upward flip side of Burton's booze-fueled depression.

I dig that, because I'm childless myself, divorced, better, best and bested, and I know lots of other childless folks and we all struggle with it as we pass "the point of no return" - of course it's different for guys, but still... It's a little more acceptable now, but for the couple of George and Martha, having no doubt married in the conservative 1950s, it has to be a bit of a sore spot, hence the creation of their imaginary child, the little bugger. And yet, just as the bugger is imaginary, so too is the ominous specter of the furred and fanged Woolf (pictured left) who looms over the film like an ominous towering menace.

If this blog entry seems a little whacked, forgive me. It's soggy and warm outside and after a stretch of biting cold, my body is reeling in a cosmic puppy dance of uncertainty and emotional ping-pong. Such spontaneous, seemingly off the cuff ramblings seems only too pertinent when attempting to discuss such a sprawling masterpiece as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, wherein great gobs of brilliant psycho-sexual insight come ripping across the screen in torrents of Taylor and Burton, and let's not forget Sandy Dennis! In the newest DVD transfer, things are so sharp and clear you can see the spittle in her mouth. Wait, did I say that already? Have I been repeating myself again? Hannah? Hannah? Oh yeah, Hannah is in Night of Iguana! (pictured at right). Life's a half-familiar song a drunken fiddler plays / staggering merrily along / crooked alleyways.

I wish there were more films with dialogue by Albee or Williams - these were men who knew how to find the nuggets of truth and wisdom amidst the leavings of their rampaging drunken demons. No matter how much tripe the Taylor-Burton pair bond may have served up in their onscreen time together, they'll always be forgiven; even if Woolf was the only film they ever made together they would deserve to be revered forever. Luckily they made one more film based on a good play together, Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, and some decent camp, like THE SANDPIPER, DR. FAUSTUS and BOOM! That's better than a child, any day. Films are immortal and sometimes anamorphic, kids just get uglier, and then morph blurrily into teenagers. What if you have a son and it grows up... you know, drinking bergen?


  1. joseph Aisenberg21 April, 2012

    I like this piece, especially for the phrase, "torrents of Taylor". I don't actually think I've ever seen the movie drunk! But I did see it for the first time skipping school on an afternoon showing on cinemax, while my grandmother napped nearby. I'd been wanting to see it ever since my aunt told me how terrible she thought it was: just a couple alcoholics cursing at one another for two hours straight, which of course I thought sounded awesome. Dennis is amazing, but Liz is the one that holds the whole thing together; Burton is good too, though I think he's a bit too much the fancy Shakespearean actor. I never really believed in his passivity. That means that the only thing you can think about him is that he really did marry her because he liked her monstrously vicious discombobulation. No one I've read before has ever noted that one of the books on the shelves over their bed is The Tin Drum, about a child who decides never to grow up.

  2. Burton's peformance is, I realized on a millionth viewing, a slow burn fuse - he's only passive at the beginning when they're preparing to what he thinks is going to bed, another pair of tired old faculty people. But once the hard drinking and jealous threat perception take hold he gradually spreads out his Mephistophelean wings... There's several moments when they almost call it a draw but then she pushed another button and he escalates as she does. His performance is so larger than life I think you can read it a lot of ways, ala your perceptive Tin Drum comment, but I think he put a bit of gradual escalation, some good ebb and flow - he is a bit passive, but he's learned you have to pick your attacks and retreats with Martha, who seems to have boundless feral energy. He's the only thing close to a worthy opponent she can find.