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May Flowers: Liz & Dick

May Flowers blooming daily in the afternoons…

Andrew here to start things off. It only makes sense that the melancholic showers of Anna Karenina and The Truman Show would give root to the gloomy blossoms which open May Flowers this year. Connotatively you’d expect flowers to be a symbol of good things – life, hope, colour. But, not so in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s play it’s just another thing in a long line of objects which sparring couple George and Martha use to play games. Who cares about the danger of confusing truth and illusion when there are so many games to play? 

Here George comes to deliver our bouquet...

What is it about celebrated American playwrights turning flowers from lovely things into sinister symbols? The “flores para los muertos” line which opens this flower scene harks back to the selfsame utterance in Tennessee’s A Streetcar Named Desire where Blanche du Bois has a breakdown. I wonder if the use of the line is a deliberate send-up, by Albee, to Tennessee. In the battle of delusional on-screen ladies one between Blanche and Martha would surely be a fight to the death.

And, the flowers come down to reveal mordant George, ready to play a new game – even if the other players can’t keep up. Sure, all the four actors  in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are excellent, the film easily wins for best cinematic quartet ever for me, but Burton towers towers above them all. He gives what may well be my favourite male cinematic performance. It’s such a difficult role, moving through so many emotions – so many of them deliberately affected. Of course, George is hiding behind illusions, too. He knows his wife has just slept with his colleague but he presents the flowers at the door and feigned belief that Nick is their lost son (“He’s been acting awful funny if he is,” quips Martha) leading into a bizarre affected bequeathing of the flowers to Martha. Nick watches on disgusted and confused; Segal is so good playing affable but smarmy.

George: “Martha. I, uh. Well I brungya dese flowers…’cause I’se….’cause you’se. Aw hell, Martha. Gee.”

Martha: “Pansies! Rosemary! Violence! My wedding bouquet.”

Delightful. These two do love their games.

I’m never sure if inebriated Martha says violence for violets by mistake or if Albee (through Martha) is making a deliberate reference to the debauchery at play in this evening-to-morning drinking party. Even in this very incidental way the scene is another example of how in sync this couple is.  Martha is as willing to continue the games which George begins and vice-versa. No wonder Nick cannot keep up. Still, it’s a shame such a lovely bouquet of flowers (which George walked all the way to Dean’s house to pick in the moonlight) with that lovely bequeathing has to be destroyed by these folks.

Dump these in some gin

George tells Nick. But poor Nick has had enough of grand illusions; the flowers end up on the floor. Moral of the story – all living things get destroyed when they pass through the door of George & Martha. 

How fond are you of Burton’s work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The great Sandy Dennis is not part of this scene but which Woolf thespian wins your best-in-show honours?

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Reader Comments (8)

Love this film (and play) so much. Taylor is best in show, but mostly because of degree of difficulty and sheer iconic status (she's the best Martha I've seen, although both Kathleen Turner and Amy Morton were excellent). Sandy Dennis is great too, but the degree of difficulty there is significantly lower. I love Burton in this moment, but I see him acting at points, not George.

BTW, Tracy Letts in the recent Broadway production was a fucking revelation in this role and should win every award going. Easily one of the five best stage performances I've seen.

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Andrew, this is off topic, but I just read your writeup on The Goodbye Girl, and thank you for what you said about Marsha Mason. Made my day.

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

All 4 of them are great in the film, but I can say my least favorite is Segal.

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSebastian

Oops, meant to say something about the topic. This is definitely Burton's greatest performance, right behind The Night of the Iguana. As far as picking a favorite actor from this quartet, I just can't.

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

brookesboy -- tragedy that Burton didn't win this Oscar. He so wanted to.

Andrew -- fun piece. i haven't seen this movie in so long because i kind of overdid it watching it multiple times the first time in short succession and I'd totally forgotten about this exchange over the flowers. Liz & Dick were so great together in this. But I don't really care for Segal in it that much. And have noever quite understood the obsession people have for Sandy Dennis in it. To me it's ALL about Liz & Dick "hump the hosts!"

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

"the film easily wins for best cinematic quartet ever"
No, the best conematic quarter will always be the cast from A Streetcar Named Desire

The films displays so many raw emotions that it constantly on the verge of putting the viewers off. But as a fan of play-movie style, I think this is one of the absolute best of that style.

Despite all the great performances and chemistries (the intense chemistry between Burton and Taylor for me is what made the film so great), I think the 2 leads could be better cast. Like, in The Streetcar Named Desire, the casting of as Vivian Leigh as Blanche was just perfect (ising her southern belle archetype to make a twist on her character). I would be interested to see Bette Davis (ad originally intended) play the role.

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTombeet

Interesting choice! It's been a while since i've seen the film so i didn't even remember the flowers. This was the first Burton/Taylor movie I watched after i devoured Furious Love. Burton was great but Taylor is MVP for me. I'll never forget my favorite scene where Martha is calling him a flop. I LOVED how awful they were to each other and Taylor is just electric.

and i don't get the acclaim for Dennis either. She seemed kind of off in some places. Especially when she was drunk.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

Everyone - I honestly think Honey is the most difficult character to play here. Both because she's the one with the least screen time (it's like three leads and then her) and because Honey's motives are so illusory so making the comedic nature of the drunkenness work and then the sadness of her breakdown mesh takes great skill. Also, her "I dance like the wind" is one of my favourite line-readings in the film.

Brookesboy - I want to say thanks re "The Goodbye Girl" but I'm stumped on which post you mean. That Burton was nominated for "Becket" over "The Night of the Iguana" is unfair, but I'd have given him the Oscar for either of those roles in '64. Rex Harrison who?

Nathaniel, Sebastian - I know some don't respond well to Segal, but I've so often found nick bland to the point of insufferable in some stage productions. Nick is the least interesting of the four, but he comes across as interesting in some ways not on page under Segal.

May 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

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