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Warner Home Video presents
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: The Film Collection (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? / The V.I.P.s / The Sandpiper / The Comedians) (1963-67)

"Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference, eh, toots? Eh?"
- George (Richard Burton), in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: January 18, 2007

Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton
Other Stars: Sandy Dennis, George Segal, Eva Marie Saint, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Rod Taylor, Orson Welles
Director: Mike Nichols, Vincente Minnelli, Anthony Asquith, Peter Glenville

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 08h:38m:54s
Release Date: December 05, 2006
UPC: 012569821101
Genre: compilation


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ B+B-B- B+

DVD Review

In the long and fabulous history of high-profile Hollywood couples, ranging from Pickfair to Brangelina, no pair has ever burned quite as brightly as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Married, divorced, married again, divorced again; two Oscars for her, none for him; as much fodder for the gossip columns and targets for the paparazzi as any couple ever to grace the red carpet. This boxed set captures only very little of their offscreen goings on, instead emphasizing their work as a tandem. The first title in the set towers above the rest, for a handful of reasons; the other three display various degrees of respectability, but really there's only one that holds up after these years.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

"George and Martha. Sad, sad, sad." - Martha (Elizabeth Taylor)

Mine may be a minority opinion, but with the possible exception of Long Day's Journey Into Night, I'm prepared to argue that Edward Albee's first full-length theatrical offering is the Great American Play. Its scabrous language took Broadway by storm in 1962, and if this aspect of the play seems relatively modest to our 21st-century ears, its influence is undeniable. Albee's ear is extraordinary, and his compassion for his characters endless. The absurdist elements of the piece may not hold up so well, but it's an amazingly cathartic piece of work.

It got the full-boat Hollywood treatment, with Dick and Liz signing on to play George and Martha, he an associate professor of history at a middling New England college who never made good on his early promise, she his wife and the daughter of the university president, spending her time swilling vodka and lacerating her husband. She was nearly a full generation too young for the part, without doubt—the Martha of the play is 52, and Taylor was 32 at the time of the shoot—necessitating some rewording of dialogue. But when they lace into each other, the sparks fly—it's almost as if the actors know they've been given great gifts with these roles, and the gloves come off, psychologically laying one another out over a liquor-ridden night, when an ambitious new faculty member (George Segal) and his dip of a wife (Sandy Dennis) come over at an ungodly hour for fun and games.

Ernest Lehman is the credited screenwriter, and all the changes he made to Albee's play were bad. But you can't foul up something as epic in its way as this, and there's some extraordinary work on display here, and not just from the actors. This was Mike Nichols' debut film as a director, and he fuses a Cassavetes-like appetite for the dramatic moment with the sure hand of a storyteller keeping the overall in mind. And he's aided in quite a spectacular manner by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, whose black-and-white work seethes with the anger of the story's characters, yet allows us to savor Albee's language. The musical scoring may a bit thick and overly emotive, and the fact that it's a play with a Big Secret may allow those eager to flinch a chance to write it all off as only so much hooey. But it isn't—it can be searing and painful to watch this movie, but it's exhilarating, too, and a pleasure to see the lead actors take on such challenges when they easily could have coasted on reputation alone.

The V.I.P.s (1963)

"Something tells me the next hour is going to drag a bit." - Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan)

Well, the bottom falls out pretty quickly, and there's not much in this movie that anticipates the triumph of Virginia Woolf. Instead, it's like a dispatch from development hell, an unholy crossing of The Love Boat and Waiting for Godot, for The V.I.P.s is about the gorgeous group of passengers holding first class tickets on a London-to-New York flight, and what they do during the hours they're stuck at the airport, fogged in. It's Grand Hotel at Heathrow, a gloppy romance about flight delay.

Burton and Taylor play a power couple: he is Paul Andros, master of the universe, grandly successful and astonishingly rich man of business, and she is Frances, his lovely wife. But he's more interested in the boardroom than the bedroom, and what he thinks is just a holiday for her to warmer climes is in fact her escape with her gigolo boyfriend, played by Louis Jourdan. Can Paul win her back? Have the embers of their love been extinguished? It plays like a cut-rate, Harold Robbins version of Anna Karenina, with Liz as Anna, Dick as a surprisingly winning Karenin, and Jourdan as an oleaginous Vronsky.

Orson Welles cashes his paycheck and shows up with a wandering accent as a European film director who needs to get out of town for tax reasons; Rod Taylor is a brash young exec who may lose his company, but never the unwavering worship of Maggie Smith, his secretary. And Margaret Rutherford is delightfully dotty as a Duchess looking to cash in on her reputation in order to save the family manse. It's a film of much scenery chewing, and with many painfully expository, one-sided phone conversations; it's like screenwriter Terence Rattigan, who has done much better work (Separate Tables, The Browning Version) takes his dramaturgical lead from old episodes of Lassie. The one redeeming quality of the movie is its look at traveling in the grand style, with everyone dressing, the airport manager greeting each of his passengers with elaborate courtesy and by name, and cocktails freely flowing on the airline's dime. Think of all that the next time you miss your flight because Grandma can't figure out how to get her shoes off and onto the conveyor belt for the TSA x-ray machine.

The Sandpiper (1965)

"I want you, Laura. I want you." - Dr. Edward Hewitt (Richard Burton)

Vincente Minnelli directs this story that seems to have learned all of the wrong lessons from the 1960s—it's an incredibly conventional melodrama in bell bottoms and with huge sideburns. Taylor plays the racy one: she's Laura Reynolds, a single mother (quelle scandale!) and artist, who lives with her son, Danny, in a beach house overlooking the Pacific that today would fetch millions as a Silicon Valley weekend getaway. Laura is home-schooling Danny, who is 9, but the little fellow is acting out, and a judge remands him to the custody of the local prep school, run by the Reverend Dr. Edward Hewitt, a stern sort who likes a snort and, despite having a pretty and devoted wife, seems to have a bit of a wandering eye. (You'll never guess who plays this part.) Laura seems to want to keep her son a noble savage; the Rev is intent on civilizing him; and sparks fly when they get together, and not just in a clash of ideas.

The film so desperately wants to be hip, but it's like watching your parents dance to rock music, deeply embarrassing. All the language of sex here is like a Victorian seminar on euphemisms for infidelity—he wants her, she must have him, they have shared carnal knowledge. Saucy! It becomes a boring little love triangle: the brazen woman, the wronged wife (played by a game but criminally underutilized Eva Marie Saint), the philandering man of God. Yawn.

At times it feels like the movie was simply an excuse to spend some time on location—Monterey and Big Sur are lovely, and we even see Hewitt get in 18 holes at Pebble Beach. The film's other notable assets are its Oscar-winning theme song, The Shadow of Your Smile—a good tune, but you'll be sick to death of it by the end of the movie—and the presence of Charles Bronson, not yet in Death Wish mode, as a sculptor who has convinced Liz to pose in the buff for a mermaid statue.

The Comedians (1967)

"I tried to cheat, but I wasn't any good." - Brown (Richard Burton)

Taylor and Burton encounter Graham Greene, and while the talent level is high, this is alas not a particularly notable outing for anyone concerned. Greene adapted the screenplay from his own novel, and it's got all the familiar attributes of his world: Americans and Englishmen in a Third World country facing political strife and revolution, with linen suits direly in need of pressing, straw hats that droop from so many days in the sun, a world weariness about the futility of human endeavor, the small comforts found in the arms of another or in a cocktail glass. But it's all externalities, and we never come to feel it, the way we do in a movie like, for instance, The Third Man.

The locale here is Haiti, and the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier terrorizes everyone, with his Tonton Macoute, the Haitian militia, the enforcement arm of his stern rule. Burton plays a Port au Prince hotelier carrying on an unwise affair with an ambassador's wife—Taylor plays her with an inconsistent French accent, and Peter Ustinov is her cuckolded husband. The action concerns a group of visitors, including Alec Guinness as Major Jones, reputedly a British spy, and Lillian Gish and Paul Ford as stalwarts of the old American left; the talent level assembled is very high, and you've got to feel particularly for the black actors, who get very little to do in servants' roles, a particular shame given that they include James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Cicely Tyson, and Zakes Mokae.

Burton discovers that it's rather difficult to run a first-class hotel when the guests regularly find corpses in the drained pool, and as you might expect, he gets a last, best chance at the redemption of his soul, but things inevitably go awry. The movie is much too long—over two and a half hours—and it's phoned-in Greene at best.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: All four movies were shot in the 2.35 aspect ratio, and it's clear that the most attention has been lavished on Virginia Woolf, the only one of the pictures shot in black and white. Wexler's photography looks remarkably sharp; the same can't be said of some of the gloppy Technicolor transfers, the most oversaturated and unpleasant to look at of which is The V.I.P.s.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: Only The Comedians lacks a French mono track; all the titles are marred with a fair amount of hiss.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 117 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
4 Original Trailer(s)
2 Documentaries
6 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Haskell Wexler (track one), Mike Nichols with Steven Soderbergh (track two), both on Virginia Woolf
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
5 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The Woolf special edition replaces an earlier release, a flipper disc, and this one brings some new treats to the party as well. Ported over is a commentary track from Haskell Wexler—as you might expect from a cinematographer, this is technically oriented, especially given that he was working with a first-time director. He describes the hard-drinking crew and their healthy respect for actors, though by the time the movie gets into its third act, he's about out of material, and there are many long blank patches. New to this release is a second track, with Steven Soderbergh acting as interviewer for director Mike Nichols, and it really is one of the very best commentaries you'll hear, a pair of terrific filmmakers talking shop for a couple of hours. Nichols describes having to fire his first cinematographer, and his journey from Broadway performer to film director—it's all very engaging, though only occasionally their memories fail them. (Smith College, where the exteriors were shot, is in Massachusetts, not Connecticut, for instance.)

A bonus disc is anchored by Elizabeth Taylor: An Intimate Portrait (1h:06m:27s), a worshipful biographical piece hosted by Peter Lawford, and including interviews with Liz intimates Roddy McDowell, Vincente Minnelli, Rock Hudson, and Richard Brooks, among others. It's a celebration and a career overview: she's beautiful! She's talented! Men love her, and she loves men! You can practically hear the paparazzi in the bushes.

Also here are Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: A Daring Work of Raw Excellence (20m:11s), most notable for including new interview footage with Albee, along with film historian Drew Casper, critic Richard Schickel and Wexler; and Jack Valenti among others discusses the movie and its role in the death of the production code in the next featurette, with its title misspelled on the menu as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Too Shocking For It's Time (10m:34s). A Sandy Dennis screen test (07m:10s) shows why she landed the part; and an assemblage (08m:57s) of interview footage with Nichols from NBC features the director discussing reviews, Elizabeth Taylor, and his onetime partner in crime Elaine May. The disc also includes trailers for all four titles in the set, and there are a couple of more featurettes on the other discs. A Statue for The Sandpiper (04m:28s) is an MGM promo piece from back in the day, focusing on the Bronson magnum opus, and Burton narrates The Big Sur (08m:29s), a valentine to the film's location. And finally The Comedians in Africa (10m:44s) is a vintage making-of piece, with on-set interviews, and Taylor swarmed by small children.

Extras Grade: B+

 

Final Comments

A decidedly mixed bag, with one remarkable film and three mediocre ones. Unless you simply cannot get enough of Liz and Dick no matter the quality of the material, your hard-earned dollars may be better off spent on the special edition of Virginia Woolf only.

 


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