For this week’s post, I’m looking at couples with two movies I haven’t seen before. In fact, short of being familiar with the title of one, I had no knowledge of either. This week’s films are:
Mike Nichols – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
George Stevens – Woman of the Year (1942)
I knew both were about couples and my impression was the first was a darker film, and the second was more of a comedy. I normally watch films like this in chronological order, but I decided to watch the darker film first.
Otherwise, I went in blind, let’s see how it went.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
In this film, Martha and George are a married couple who have long since succumbed to the bitterness that surrounds them. After a late night at a party, they go home to some invited guests, Nick and Honey. They initially try to be good hosts, but as the evening goes on, their acrimony for each other breaks through, and they begin using the younger couple as proxies for their own personal war, a series of cruel games. But how far will their games go, and who will they be at the dawn?
The film is directed by Mike Nichols, who we’ve covered before, and stars Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sally Jenkins. In fact, short of two bit players who appear briefly, that’s the entire cast. The film is based on a play by Edward Albee, and it’s easy to see it’s roots. Almost all of the scenes appear in the home of Martha and George, except for one sequence out at a roadhouse. But it still has a cinematic quality. The film was shot by Haskell Wexler, who is a legendary cinematographer, and it shows.
In addition, this is Mike Nichols first film, who started out as a comedian and stage director. He would become one of the most celebrated directors of all time, but what can we expect from a director on his first time out? Well, when he has two of the great actors of their generation, we can expect quite a bit. Burton was a legendary stage and film actor, and Elizabeth Taylor was the biggest star of her time. This movie proved that she was also one of if not the greatest actress of her generation. Taylor and Burton were also married at the time, which I’m sure added a bit of method to their performance.
We get a sense of their lives when they get home from a party. Martha tries to engage George, bringing up a movie line which she can’t remember the source of (“What a dump!”), but he’s sullen and quietly grumbling. They snipe at each other, and then Martha announces that they have guests coming over, a young professor and his wife. George of course is not happy about this and the sniping continues, as Martha cleans up the house.
The bickering is constant and intense, but there are moments of apparent happiness as well. They talk and laugh together briefly, and she asks him for a kiss, when he refuses, the fighting starts again.
We learn a few things about them here. George is a professor at a university, and Martha’s father is someone important at the university, and has asked her to be nice to the couple. George also cryptically tells Martha not to mention their son. We haven’t seen a child, and they haven’t mentioned it before, but it seems to be some source of mystery.
The fighting continues until the moment the couple arrives, even as George opens the door. Martha tosses one last “God damn you!” at him as he greets the couple. They of course hear, and are quite uncomfortable.
When we meet Nick and Honey, Nick seems hyper aware of the dysfunction present, but Honey is either oblivious, or simply ignoring it, trying to have a good time. Martha puts on a happy face briefly, but can’t help but bring up George’s failings. In response, George hurls invectives back at her. In all cases, they don’t aim their anger at each other, they say it to their guests like they’re letting them in on a secret. By using the guests this way, they can spread their anger and resentment through another couple.
Things don’t get better when the couples separate. Martha shows Honey around the house, and George needles Nick about his position. He either can’t or pretends not to remember what department George works in, and gives some advice on the politics at the university. It’s clear he’s threatened by Nick, and also sees a bit of himself in the young and handsome professor. Perhaps he’s looking back on his own failings and trying to help this man avoid them in his own twisted way.
When Honey and Martha come back downstairs, she congratulates them on their son’s upcoming 16th birthday. Again, George warns Martha not to talk about their son, and still we don’t know why. But in addition, Martha comes downstairs in a very revealing and sexy outfit. She’s spent a lot of time in the film commenting on how attractive Nick is, and it appears she’s making her move.
Throughout the evening, the couples continue to drink. It seems like they each consume an entire bottle by themselves. At a certain point, Honey gets seriously ill. Martha takes care of her while George and Nick talk outside. Here they seem to strike up something of a friendship. George tells Nick the story of a boy he knew that killed his mother and his father accidentally.
Here Nichols shows his confidence or perhaps his naivete about his first film. When Burton tells the story, the camera sits on his face for what seems like an eternity. He tells the story, barely changing his expression. It’s clearly a deeply meaningful story to him. In return, Nick reveals that he married Honey because he believed she was pregnant, but after they got married, she realized that she wasn’t pregnant. It’s described as a hysterical pregnancy.
But things soon devolve as Nick makes a comment about Martha being attractive. When they go back inside, Nick tries to take Honey home, but George insists he drive them, which seems like a terrible idea considering how much they’ve all been drinking. They end up at a roadhouse that Honey insists on stopping at, while she dances like a maniac, Martha takes the opportunity to get close to Nick.
The drinks keep flowing, and the secrets keep coming out. Martha gets bolder, as does Nick, Honey gets sicker, and George gets more vindictive. This all comes to a head back at home, in a bizarre scene where we find out the rest of the secrets.
This is a dark, intense movie with an amazing script and even better acting. Burton and Taylor are the most hateful people imaginable, but they also have these moments of softness that makes you wonder how things got so bad. In a later scene, the couple turns their ire on Nick at the same time, teaming up against him. In this moment, we can almost root for them. Maybe it will all work out. But they soon turn on each other.
This film cleaned up during award season, winning a Best Actress Oscar for Taylor, and Supporting Actress for Sally Dennis. It was nominated for every other category, and lost quite a few to A Man For All Seasons, which is a perfectly good movie, but having seen both, I think it can’t hold up to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. Of course, at this time film was changing. A Man For All Seasons was much more like the older era of film that came before, while …Virginia Woolf represented the new, smaller, more personal stories that would come after.
I had a tough time writing about this film. It’s deep and complex, and so much of the story is told through dialogue rather than action. I’m not sure I did it justice. But regardless of my skill at describing it, it’s an amazing film. It’s a tough watch, but seeing Taylor and Burton on screen together in this film is magical. Segal and Dennis do amazing work as well. It’s a tough watch, but an all-timer.
Woman of the Year (1942)
This is the story of two newspaper columnists, one, Tess Harding, a world famous reporter who travels the world, covering important topics like World War II, and national intrigue, and the other. Sam Craig, an experienced sports columnist, covering local baseball games and college football. They’re very different, but they fall in love quickly. But when they get married, they realize that no matter how they feel, their lives might not be compatible.
The film stars Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, a legendary Hollywood couple, in their first film together. They met on this film, and fell in love in real life as well. The film is directed by George Stevens, who might not be a legendary director, but was a great product of the Hollywood system in his era, directing some of the best films of the era.
The film starts out introducing our two protagonists. Sam sits in a bar, listening to Tess on a radio program, and she says that suspending baseball until the war was over would be a good idea. Sam is incensed, and writes a column challenging her. She writes a column biting back at him. This ends with them both in the editors office, being chided. Sam has been writing another column about her, but when he sees her, he’s immediately smitten. She seems smitten as well, and when he offers to take her to a baseball game, she agrees.
We see the culture clash begin at the game. He takes her to the press box, and she doesn’t know how to act, or even how the game is played. In the stands this might be ok, but in the press box with professional sports writers, it’s not welcome. She wears a large hat that covers the view of the men behind her, and the other reporters aren’t even pleased that a woman is in the press box. But as the game goes on, Tess gets the hang of it, and is cheering along at all the right times. She has to leave before the game is over, but invites Sam over to her house that evening.
Sam assumes this is another date. But when he arrives, he discovers that she’s actually having a party, with many international guests that are all speaking other languages. He understandably feels totally out of place, and to make things worse, Tess spends her time attending to her other guests. There’s a great moment here where Sam hears two men speaking English and hurries over to join their conversation, but when he gets there, they look at him, and immediately start speaking another language. He leaves soon after.
But she shows she’s still interested, sending him a bottle of champagne and an apology note the next day. He accepts and drives her to the airport. We can see that their relationship is very uneven. Sam is unassuming, with simple desires. His friends are former boxers and people who congregate at the local bar. Tess on the other hand is constantly working. Her friends live all over the world. Her phone is always ringing, and she always seems to be on her way to or from the airport.
Regardless, they quickly fall in love, and Sam proposes, which is accepted. Here we come to another problem. Sam wants a traditional ceremony that’s well planned out, with all their families. But Tess simply wants to get married as soon as possible, meeting the bare minimum requirements. Tess wins out, and they go to a state with simpler marriage laws to get married quickly. Sam’s family isn’t there, but Tess’s father stops by quickly. Her father is some kind of government official, but I didn’t quite catch what his function was. It might not matter. We also meet Tess’s aunt, who she is very close to. They get married and get home on the next train.
Predictably, things start going wrong as soon as they get home. Sam starts talking about the apartment they’ll move to, but Tess objects, assuming they’ll both live in her apartment. Things get worse when an important refugee from the war shows up at her door, and she invites him in. In response, Sam invites a bunch of his own friends over. But eventually they find themselves alone.
Here we see the main story of the film. A marriage is a partnership, but Tess isn’t quite willing to join in that partnership. She wants her life to remain the same, just with Sam around. Sam is looking for Tess to devote herself to him, the way he wants to devote himself to her. But they always come back to each other, because they love each other.
The film obviously plays with gender roles here, as Tess is clearly in charge in the relationship, much more career driven, etc. But what’s interesting, is that Sam isn’t asking her to be a traditional woman. He isn’t asking her to cook him dinner, or quit her job, or anything like that. He just wants her to be as committed to the marriage as he is.
But eventually, Tess’s inability to be flexible for Sam comes to a head. He leaves and she has to decide whether or not she will try to get him back.
I kept waiting for this film to become super sexist, and the final scene very nearly takes it there, but manages to avoid this, into a fairly satisfying conclusion.
I really enjoyed this film. Hepburn and Tracy have an amazing chemistry, and it really shows in the film. Regardless of what’s happening on screen, you feel like these two people are really amazing together, and deeply in love.
Hepburn and Tracy really make the film. There are a few other side characters, but it’s really about these two, and they essentially have equal screentime. I had never heard of this film before, but I’m glad I did. It’s a really enjoyable experience.
The Double Feature
I can’t remember which post it was, but at some point in the past I watched two films back to back, and one was lighter and one was darker, and I felt like it didn’t work well because the darker film was second, leaving me with a kind of negative feeling. This time, I sniffed out which was which beforehand, and intentionally watched the darker film first. This worked out way better.
As a pair, the films work fine. Both films are about couples, and their issues. One at the start of their marriage, and one who unfortunately might not be the end of their marriage. Both speak to the difficulty of making a marriage work. Tess and Sam are just starting, and perhaps a little naive. Martha and George are hardened enemies, with just flashes of what they might have once had. Both are telling different stories, but at the core is that married couple.
And of course, both films star famous Hollywood couples. I don’t know how much that adds to the experience of watching it, but it’s nice to notice.
Right now, it’s looking like I won’t have a job this summer. I have enough money saved to make it through, so that’s fine. But it’s still a little disconcerting. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have a paying job. On the other hand, it might be good to just have nothing to do for a few months. I started this blog as a project when I had about a month between major responsibilities. And I think it’s been a major success for me. So while it’s a little nervewracking for me, I’m sure in the end no matter what happens everything will be fine.
So what about next week’s films? Well, as I’m writing this, it’s April 1st, otherwise known as April Fool’s day. I had initially wanted to post some bizarre films on April Fool’s Day, but obviously that isn’t happening, but I’m still in the mood to watch some stranger films, so next week I’m looking at guilty pleasure films:
Peter Yates – Krull (1983)
Michael Lehmann – Hudson Hawk (1991)
Are these all time classics? Films that everyone should see? Films that we even need to talk about? Probably not. But they’re somehow important to me, and I’d like to write about it.
See you next week.