Friday, September 21, 2012

The Break-up Gab

Wise: Howdy, Werth!

Werth: Don't howdy, me! After all you've done to me, I would think you would be ashamed to even speak to me!

Wise: Hunh?

Werth: I just figured with all the Hollywood couples that have been breaking up, maybe we should have a blow-out so we can make some headlines.

Wise: As opposed to making headlines for being such a great writing team?

Werth: Come on Wise! Bad couples are so much more fun to watch! Take Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Mike Nichols's screen adaptation of Edward Albee's Broadway sensation was the perfect film to showcase this fiery Hollywood couple in all their dysfunctional glory. Taylor and Burton first met at a party in 1952 while Liz was married to Michael Wilding, but it wasn't until the two were teamed up in the mega-budget epic Cleopatra (1963) that sparks and gossip columns started to fly. By 1964 the two had rid themselves of their spouses, laughed at a Vatican condemnation, and tied the knot.

Wise: Plus made themselves the archetype for every Hollywood power couple ever since. 

Werth: In Woolf (Burton and Taylor's fourth screen pairing), the studio played yet again to the public's perception of their wild and passionate relationship only this time the vehicle wound up being a well-crafted Oscar magnet that proved the acting talents of both Taylor and Burton. 
George (Burton) and Martha (Taylor) are a middle-aged couple who live near the campus of the college where George teaches and where Martha's dad is president. From the first shot of the two entering their home, Nichols throws the audience a major curveball. Handsome Burton is wrinkled and worn-out in a sweater and glasses, and the normally glamorous and sexy Taylor is replaced by a frumpy, loud-mouthed house frau. 
Bickering about a line from a Bette Davis movie, Martha continues her drinking jag, "braying" and chewing on her ice while George keeps pace with her drinking and her verbal barbs. It's all a warm-up for the battle of wits royale that will take place in front of (and include) a new university couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) that innocently accepted an invitation for a nightcap, but wind up staying for a night of "games" and revelations.

Wise: Sounds like their martinis were shaken and stirred.

Werth: George and Martha seethe with rancor for one another to the point that you can't imagine why they are together. But that's the real beauty of this work. Taylor and Burton not only masterfully depict the snide resentment, but also the tender attachment of two people who are so lost they only have each other to cling to. 
It's hard to believe that their real-life marriage was full of as much venom and spite as George and Martha's, but considering their divorce, then re-marriage, then re-divorce eight years later, you can't help but think Dick and Liz brought a little of their tumultuous relationship to these characters. However they did it, both were nominated for Oscars (Taylor and Dennis won) and the film remains a mesmerizing example of how to translate a cerebral stage property to the screen.

Wise: Another play-turned-film that also features a couple both at war and in love with each other is The Letter (1940), director William Wyler's adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 1929 play of the same name.  Justly famous for the opening scene where Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie guns down her lover Geoff Hammond (David Newell) on the steps of her husband's rubber plantation in British Malaya, the film follows that initial salvo with a crackerjack combination of marital infidelity, deceit and manipulation.  

Werth: And fantastic lace-making!

Wise: Disguising the crime as an act of self-defense, Leslie is sent to jail as a mere formality until the native assistant to her attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) delivers a copy of an incriminating letter written by Leslie to her lover.  Joyce immediately tracks down Hammond's widow (a scintillating Gale Sondergaard in full dragon lady drag) who insists on an outrageous ransom for the return of the purloined post.  

Werth: Sondergaard would give Myrna Loy and Luise Rainer a real run for their money in a "white chick playing Asian" contest.

Wise: Davis earned a nomination for Best Actress for The Letter, and it's easy to see why: her turn as a killer who's also a wronged woman fighting for her life in a courtroom drama is mesmerizing.  It also represents what Davis did perhaps better than any other classic Hollywood actress: playing the woman who deserved her sorry end and yet was principled enough to know it.  Her performance is a thrilling combination of cruelty and honor.  
Herbert Marshall as the wronged husband has fewer scenes, but is no less potent as a man who would give up anything to save his wife. 

Werth: Herbert Marshall would get more marital woe from Davis when they were paired again a year later in The Little Foxes.

Wise: Of course the film wouldn't gel without James Stephenson's excellent work as attorney Joyce.  A relative unknown when he was cast, he went on to earn an Oscar nomination for the role.  His performance both supports Davis's heavy lifting, as well as functioning as audience surrogate, reacting to Leslie's deeds with both admiration and revulsion. 
Guiding all these performances through an Orientalism-inflected noir landscape, director Wyler suggests that marriage is after all the perfect balance between crime and passion. 

 Werth: I'm sorry I yelled at you earlier, Wise. Let's make up.

Wise: Did you just realize that we could get press coverage by getting back together like K-Patt?

Werth: I realize we'll both be back next week for more Film Gab!

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