In memoriam: Edward Albee, 1928-2016

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols, 1966).

Edward Albee never wrote a screenplay, but it’s through two films that I came to know his work.  When I first saw Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) I was a middle-schooler with a budding interest in writing and acting.  I had never heard dialogue like Albee’s before; it was razor-sharp, crazy funny, and devastating.  Who’s Afraid… felt as brutal and scary and unpredictable as some of the new films I was seeing at the time, like Neil LaBute’s in the company of men (LaBute being a playwright and filmmaker whose writing shows more than a little of Albee’s influence).  Watching Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton spar with each other for two and a half hours (“Total war?” “Total!”), I was electrified.  Up to that point my knowledge of Taylor and Burton was limited to her tabloid love affairs and his presence in schlocky horror movies like Exorcist II: The Heretic, so their performances came as revelations.  They could really act!  And it helped immensely that they were working with such thrilling material.  I don’t think either one of them was ever better onscreen.

Not long after that I discovered Tony Richardson’s film of A Delicate Balance, made for the American Film Theatre in 1973.  It’s a pricklier, more muted work than Who’s Afraid…, a quietly ominous vision of bourgeois life as a series of rituals hanging over an abyss.  The cast is tremendous: Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield as WASP matriarch and patriarch, Joseph Cotton and Betsy Blair as their “best friends” (who behave more like polite strangers), Lee Remick and Kate Reid as the loose-cannon relatives whose personal problems threaten to unsettle the moribund placidity of the household.  It’s an astonishing piece of writing, one to which I took longer to come around, beautifully interpreted by Hepburn and Scofield in particular. 

My sense is that Albee, dyed-in-the-wool man of the theatre that he was, didn’t have much use for cinema: while conceding the talents of Mike Nichols and Elizabeth Taylor he objected to the “opening up” of Who’s Afraid… for the screen, as well as to Alex North’s sentimental music.  And I seem to recall an interview in which he voiced some objections to the performances in Richardson’s Delicate Balance.  But without these films the genius of Albee may never have found their way to me as a kid growing up in a town that, while only several hundred miles from Broadway, may as well have been another galaxy.

Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield in A Delicate Balance (dir. Tony Richardson, 1973).

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