My wife and I watched Mike Nichols’ film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? again recently. What a well-written and executed sum’ bitch. I know this makes me sound like a smelly curmudgeon, but it got me wondering why we don’t get movies like this anymore. Sure, we get movies based on plays, but they don’t seem to be put together in a way that lets the original work breathe. After seeing the film version of Doubt, with its painstaking attention to visual details and script that insults our intelligence (well, the last scene does, at least), it’s hard to see how the thing could make an arresting piece of theater.
Woolf? relies on long, serpentine bouts of dialogue, set in a handful of uninteresting places – Martha and George’s living room, a tree swing in their yard, a local watering hole. With a goldmine of eloquent, boozy one-liners at their disposal, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton throw themselves into their roles so convincingly, the viewer gets a contact buzz. Burton gets all the best zingers, and his depiction of sad sack George alone makes him one of my favorite actors. When he calls his hypothetical son “the apple of our three eyes, Martha being a cyclops,” the mix of wit and bitterness in his delivery is irresistible.
Great actors delivering great lines. I can’t think of a contemporary movie I’ve seen lately that was that, and nothing more.