Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?



Every time we start up a commentary track we hope it is going to be as good as the Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh track on the new Warner Home Video Two-Disc Special Edition of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (retail $26.99) is, but 99 times out of 100, it isn't. The Nichols and Soderbergh chat is spellbinding from start to finish, as Nichols describes both his naivete and his acumen as he tackled the project, his first as a film director. They discuss his strategies, his discoveries and his adjustments as the job progressed, and they also speak extensively about the differences and similarities between the story on the stage and on the screen, talk in great detail about the talents of each of the four stars, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, and even share tales about parties they have attended where things have gone awry. It is a consummate talk, an absolute necessity for anyone studying or appreciating the film, and highly worthwhile for casual viewers as one of the rare instances where the mysteries of filmmaking are genuinely uncovered.

"One of the things I think that animated this movie the most was that here were, let's see, one, two, three, four stage people -- Richard, George, Sandy and me -- and starting with Richard, who was the most awed by it, we were all awed by Elizabeth's knowledge of film acting, because it wasn't something you thought of. You just thought she was the world's most beautiful girl, but you didn't realize how much she knew, and they watched her very closely and actually learned from her, and talked about it. And of course, the main thing that Richard learned, and he talked about it, was to do as little as possible. I have hundreds of thousands of feet of Richard listening in scenes, and he does absolutely nothing but listen. I think that they're actually learning from Elizabeth -- of course, she wouldn't talk about it or couldn't talk about it. Over and over, I'd say, after 'Take 18,' 'I guess that's it, there's not going to be any more.' I'd say, 'OK, that's great. Thanks, Elizabeth,' and see it the next day, and it was like 50% better. There was all these things that you couldn't see standing six feet away, but they were there. And then, when I was editing and scoring, I realized she even left some room for the score. She counted on all that in some semiconscious way. So they were watching her, they were learning, and loving working with her, because of the great surprise of her being able to handle all this verbal material."

The first platter also features the informative commentary from cinematographer Haskell Wexler that was featured on the original release (Nov. 1997), which concludes about a half hour before the 131-minute film is over. The black-and-white picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The letterboxing on the initial DVD had no 16:9 enhancement and a crisper picture, although the smoothed out image on the new release looks slightly cleaner in places. In any case, the transfer was great before and is still great on the new release. The monophonic sound noticeably stronger and clearer. There is an alternate French language track and optional English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Korean subtitles.

The second platter contains a very good 20-minute retrospective documentary about the film and another great 11-minute piece about the 1966 film's impact on motion picture censorship and ratings in America. There is a 66-minute look at Taylor's career from 1975 that combines clips from some of her films and sit-down interviews with a few of the men who have worked with her in front of and behind the camera, a fantastic 7-minute collection of widescreen screen tests of Dennis (with Roddy MacDowall!), a 9-minute Nichols interview from 1966, and a trailer.

Woolf has also been included in the Warner boxed set, "Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Film Collection" (retail, $49.97), accompanied by three MGM productions made during the maelstrom of their tabloid romance, "The V.I.P.s" from 1963, "The Sandpiper" from 1965 and "The Comedians" from 1967.

"The Comedians" has what is probably their hottest love scenes ever, as Burton kisses Taylor's neck with confident desire and pulls her away from distraction with his attention. It is also the second best film in the group, after "Woolf." Based upon an ironically titled story and screenplay by Graham Greene, it is set in Haiti (and was deftly shot, in part, in Africa) where a dictator has begun cracking down on dissidents. Burton is the owner of an empty resort hotel, Taylor is the wife of an ambassador played by Peter Ustinov, and Alec Guinness is a would-be gun merchant. Lillian Gish and Paul Ford (delivering one of the best performances in his character actor career) are also featured, along with a litany of terrific black stars who didn't make the jacket credits, including Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Raymond St. Jacques and Cicely Tyson. Directed by Peter Glenville and running 152 minutes, the heroism of Greene's characters are distributed in smaller doses than is usually prescribed for the movies, so it may take a viewing or two to get used to their flaws and shortcomings, but the movie does convey a novel's sense of adventure in its hefty scope. That, combined with the dense moral explorations that are Green's hallmark and the don't-you-wish-you-were-him/her fireworks of the Burton-Taylor couplings can make very satisfying entertainment if you give it a chance.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer is generally in good condition, with accurate fleshtones and solid hues. The monophonic sound is OK, and there are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. A good 11-minute production featurette from 1967 is also included.

A "Grand Hotel" tale set in the waiting lounge of a London airport and then later in a hotel when fog prevents any flights from taking off, "The V.I.P.s" feels as if it were hastily constructed to capitalize on the notoriety of Burton and Taylor's romantic involvement, even though, within the film itself, they portray a long-married pair who are on the outs, though not with the vindictive fervor on display in "Woolf." The film is mostly claptrap, with Rod Taylor as an industrialist who is in danger of losing his company, Maggie Smith as his overly devoted secretary, Margaret Rutherford as a pill-popping duchess who is in danger of losing her estate, and Orson Welles as a film director in danger of losing his tax shelters. Louis Jourdan is a gambler who has come between the Burton and Taylor characters. Rutherford somehow managed to nab an Oscar for her presence, though it was more likely to have been in appreciation for her efforts as "Miss Marple" and such during the same period of time. Nevertheless, Taylor gives a lovely, delicate performance, and really rescues the movie from being a complete waste of time. If, in "The Comedians," you can see their passion, and in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" you can see their familiarity, than in "The V.I.P.s," you can at least catch glimpses of the starry-eyed affection they have for one another.

The color transfer looks gorgeous, with vivid, crisp fleshtones and bright, solid hues. The presentation is in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The monophonic sound is clear enough to hear Welles' ADR work-it is a real shame he and Burton couldn't have a scene together. The 119-minute program has an alternate French audio track, and optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The only film Taylor and Burton made that is exclusively about the romance between the two characters they are playing, "The Sandpiper" would be far more compelling if parts of it weren't so snickeringly giggleable. Burton plays a cleric and the head of an exclusive parochial school, and Eva Marie Saint is his wife. Taylor's character is a Bohemian artist, and atheist, living in a nice-looking house that has no apparent plumbing and no electricity, above the waves of Big Sur. When her young son commits a felony by shooting a deer, he is sent by a judge to the school-that part of the story is actually legit, since Family Court often makes use of such facilities -- and in no time at all, Burton and Taylor's characters go from arguing about the legitimacy of religion to grappling in the sand. The film's credits list five different screenwriters, including Dalton Trumbo, and each one seems to have had a different agenda. It was directed by Vincente Minnelli, who was, by that time, starting to lose his masterful touch. What happens is that as a scene progresses, there will be a cut to an exaggerated reaction by either Taylor or Burton that will be completely out of keeping with the tone of their performances up to that point, breaking whatever spell they had established. And then it will happen again -- a passage of dialog, a look, an expression of emotion-something always seems to pop up to distract the viewer from the atmosphere and drama the filmmakers are trying to establish. Taylor's body shape also seems to alter from scene to scene. The folds of skin on her belly are delectable, but it becomes disconcerting when in other shots she's as thin as the legs of a piper. More so than even "The V.I.P.s," however, the 117-minute film captures the thrall of their shared midlife crisis and awashes the viewer in its foam. The popularity of the films that shadowed their real romance was a phenomenon unique to its era, and quite possibly, now that the world is oversaturated with celebrities, may never happen again.

Like "The V.I.P.s," the color transfer is gorgeous, with rich fleshtones and vivid hues. The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The monophonic sound is fine. There is an alternate French audio track, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a good 4-minute black-and-white production featurette about making a redwood statue of Taylor that is used in the film, and an 8-minute black-and-white poetic portrait of Big Sur narrated by Burton.