Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sandy Dennis in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Sandy Dennis won the Oscar on her first and only nomination for her performance as Honey in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In the two horse race for Best Picture of 1966  between Fred Zinnemann's staid, noble stage adaptation A Man for All Seasons and Mike Nichols' rage-filled, bawdy stage adaptation Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (they were the only two films to receive Picture and Director noms), history posits that the Academy made the wrong decision by choosing Zinnemann's "safer" film over the film that has stood the test of time and entered cinematic history. Well, I'm not so sure myself. I like-not-love both films, and admire the steely seriousness that each has, albeit in slightly different ways. While Seasons at times seems anti-cinematic, my problem with Woolf is that Nichols seems to be juggling too many balls at once, juggling the play's complex (borderline convoluted) storyline while also adding interesting directorial choices that both distract and enhance the film. It makes for an interesting directorial debut, that's for sure. Amidst all the chaos, it's the cast that truly kept me interested with a collection of interesting performances from an unusual, eclectic group of actors.

The plot is simple enough on paper, featuring married couple George (Richard Burton) and Martha (an Oscar-winning Elizabeth Taylor) receiving as guests married couple Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Dennis). Martha is the daughter of the president of the university where George and Nick teach (in the history and biology departments respectively. I very nearly typed the math department), and Nick and Honey are new to the university. As simple as this little meeting sounds, there is a series of mind games and arguments between the hosts from the moment the young couple arrive (and even prior) that serve as the crux of the drama of the film. George and Martha clearly have experience with these games, and openly express amusement at trapping this unassuming young couple into their web of personal issues. At first, Honey and Nick react very similarly to George and Martha's incessant carping much the way we do, with awkwardness and confusion. Oh, and by happily accepting alcohol to cope with the stress of being around these two unpleasant shrews. The first impression Dennis makes is spot on, giving Honey something of a prim, folksy politeness to her. Her gangling, spider-like body is all bones and skin attributing much to her unexpected marriage to the very frat-like Nick. She's a simple married woman unexpectedly entering the lion's den.

For the first thirty minutes or so of her performance, Dennis is carefully setting the seeds of what is to come with her character later in the film. It's a very affected, technical performance but not in an overtly flashy way that distracts. Instead, it's carefully calibrated through a series of vocal inflections, pointed looks, and background work. Things like the way she eagerly sips her cup of brandy and the jolly way she calls for more ("never mix, never worry!") or the insecurity she feels as Martha openly and boisterously flirts with her husband--and he flirts back. The simple ways in which Dennis crafts a background performance that isn't too flashy or try-hard pays off in dividends when her character finally joins the scenery-chewing. The unease that Honey feels with each and every character onscreen (even her husband) is clearly felt, and her unease comes from a subtle place of understanding for each of them. They all regard her with various forms of annoyance, contempt, or condescension yet Dennis underlines her simplicity with understanding and intelligence that the rest of the characters cannot see.

To cope with the awkwardness, Honey downs numerous glasses of brandy until she finally cracks under the pressure and begins to puke and actively play more heavily into the dramatics of the situation. Segal and Dennis do a good job at showing how the couple goes from being embarrassed for their hosts to reveling in the confrontational tête-à-tête between those two. After puking her brains out (a common occurrence, according to her husband), we see a definite shift in the direction of  Dennis' performance. All of Honey's inhibitions fade away, and she beings to revel in the interesting evening she is having. It's at this point that the character of Honey becomes somewhat detached from the rest of the group, attempting to separate herself as much as possible from the sick games that might reveal more about some hidden truths. Dennis takes the designated path of her character in an incredibly interesting way. For the remainder of the film, she has the tough task of keeping Honey detached from the goings-on between the other three main characters, prancing around at the dance hall they decide to visit "dancing like the wind" and falling asleep in a car. But at the same time, this seemingly detached exterior hides a truly thorough understanding of what is going on around her. The beginning of the dance hall scene is funny and truly bizarre for this category, but not really the meat of the performance.

An important part of Honey's journey is the dubious relationship she has with her husband, which all four at one point or another express confusion over their being together. Nick is handsome and athletic, while Honey is gawky and dweebish. For the entirety of the film, there are numerous hints about the true nature of their marriage, with Nick and Honey both dropping hints that she got pregnant and forced them to marry and that that pregnancy may have even been staged by Honey. George seems especially interested in the dynamics of their relationship, and after Nick confesses his suspicions George uses them against him in a big way.

Everything comes out emotionally as she listens to George tell a story about the "mouse", which serves as a very thinly veiled allegory for the way that Honey "trapped" her husband into marrying her by feigning pregnancy. On her face we see the flurry of emotion going through her, the worry that her husband might find out that the false pregnancy story has more to it than she thinks, as well as the guilt she feels for doing it. It's a very "loud" scene that Dennis handles with her studied technicality and lots of acting with a capital A. Even more so, her final big scene in which George confronts her as Martha and her husband are upstairs "having sex", is filled with lots of screaming, tears, and emotion. He has clearly caught on, much like we have, to the fact that Honey knows more than she is putting on about the evening's events, and is clearly more skilled at playing the type of emotional games that George and Martha often play. When she pushes George to the climactic moment of the film, we see her for what she truly is--an savvy game player and an instigator in getting some kind of revenge on Martha. But Dennis continues to hide this, instead continuing to play Honey as a fragile, drunken mess. This performance is filled with contradictions, as Dennis carefully weaves in the hidden duality of the character into every scene and affectation. She captures a wonderful balance between portraying the naive side of Honey and the devious side.

When I first watched Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nearly two years ago for a class, I'll admit I wasn't a fan of Sandy Dennis' performance. I didn't quite connect the dots of all the subtle emotional seeds she plants, and I'm sure even now I haven't connected them all. But this second time, I felt much more complexity brewing in this seemingly small character hidden underneath all that dancing. I'm still not sure I out-and-out LOVE this performance, but I absolutely admire what Sandy Dennis brings to this role. It's a very calculated "Method" performance that comes with a bit of the overdoing it that those types of performance very often come with, but underneath all that artifice is a complex center waiting to come out. Dennis shows Honey to be a seemingly average, perky young woman who is hiding her secrets carefully, only for them to come bursting out in an emotional, twisted evening. I admire this performance in this difficult film very much, so it's 4.5/5 for me. But the dancing gets a 5/5 :)

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