Wednesday, September 2, 2015

1966: Elizabeth Taylor for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In her second and final Oscar winning performance, Elizabeth Taylor plays a loud, vulgar woman who invites a couple she just met over to her house in the middle of the night to watch her fight with her husband while they all get drunk together.

This is one of those movies that I've heard about for a long time but had never gotten around to watching until now. I wasn't quite sure what to expect going into it, since most of what I'd heard about it was very positive, except from my parents, who both hated it. I thought that was all I knew about it, but once the movie started I remembered that the ending had actually been spoiled for me by a game of Trivial Pursuit. While I'm curious about how I would have reacted to the film without knowing the twist, I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it a lot more this way. And while I can certainly see why people wouldn't like this movie, I can also totally see why it receives so much praise.

I really want to talk about the movie as a whole, but I watched it because of Elizabeth Taylor, so I'll try to focus on her. Basically her performance is astounding. She's completely into her character the whole time, and what a character it is. Don't get me wrong, I'm very glad I don't know anyone like her in real life. She's incredibly obnoxious, but in a way that's really fun to watch, at least from afar. I don't think I would have been quite so amused if I were, say, Sandy Dennis's character. But from the safety of the audience I really liked watching her. Most of what she says and does makes very little sense, which is intentional, but the conviction with which she says and does irrational things almost makes them seem logical, in a bizarre sort of way. That must have been quite a challenge to pull off so effectively. Then there's all the yelling and shrieking she has to do. I don't know how she could still talk after making this movie. It was also a pretty physically demanding role, which one wouldn't expect of a movie that only has a couple of sets and mostly just involves conversations. But she's so dramatic that I got exhausted just watching her. Apparently she also gained a lot of weight so she'd look more like a middle-aged housewife when she was actually only 34. She really put a lot into this role, and thoroughly earned her Oscar. The one thing she probably didn't have to work too hard at was playing Richard Burton's wife, since that's who she was in real life, but while I know they had their issues, I'm pretty sure their actual relationship wasn't quite like their characters' relationship. And not to say that Burton isn't also incredible, or that it didn't help that they had amazing chemistry, but I think Taylor would have been fantastic in this role playing opposite pretty much anybody.

I'm still kind of in shock right now, both because I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I was going to, and also because I can't believe it came out in 1966. Like, okay, today in 2015 we have movies with full-frontal nudity and actors spewing obscenities left and right, and they stick an R rating on it and it's all good, but back then they didn't even have a rating system. That didn't come until nearly two and a half years after this movie was released. Admittedly there's no nudity or f-bombs in this movie, but it's still very racy, especially for nearly 50 years ago. Apparently it was the first movie that unaccompanied minors were not allowed admittance to, so effectively it was the first R-rated movie. I'm just really surprised that it was allowed to be released at all. Reportedly the censors did make them take out the line "screw you," but they left in some other lines that I personally consider more offensive. But I think the main reason they got away with being so obscene is that it enhances the characters and plot. The story as a whole is rather shocking, so the shocking language actually seems appropriate.

To summarize my thoughts: if you want to watch a thoroughly well-deserved Oscar-winning performance, watch this movie. If you want to watch a happy, wholesome, uplifting story unfold, don't watch this movie. If you want to see four people being absolutely ridiculous, and yet somehow serious at the same time, watch this movie. If you already have a headache, don't watch this movie.

This was Taylor's fifth and final Best Actress nomination, having previously won for her fourth nomination for BUtterfield 8, which is my new favorite bad movie. She also was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993, at the same time as Audrey Hepburn. Taylor continued acting through the 1990s, though by then it was mostly on TV, and eventually retired in 2001, five years after divorcing her 7th or 8th husband, depending on how many times you count Richard Burton. She died in 2011, at the age of 78. She had a crazy life, but she also had exceptional talent, and this movie is proof.

Coming up next: Katharine Hepburn finally wins a second Oscar, a mere 34 years after her first one

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