Elizabeth Taylor’s Greatest Ever Film Performance

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966(Film still)

On what would have been her 86th birthday, we salute the late actress’ finest on-screen performance as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops!” exclaims Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Mike Nichols. The adaptation of Edward Albee’s play of the same name won Taylor the Academy Award for Best Actress, and rightly so. Her iteration of Martha – a middle-aged, crass and slightly overweight character (Taylor had to gain 30 pounds to prepare for the role) – holds a place in cinematic history as one of the finest performances from any actress, alive or dead. We will fight anyone who disagrees with this statement with the same venom that Martha spits at her husband George (Richard Burton) – and believe us, that is something you don’t want to risk.

Albee based Martha and George – the most desperately unhappily married couple of all time – from the nuptial experiences of his friends Willard Maas and Marie Menken, two New York socialites, academics and professional alcoholics whose relationship was described as a “succession of fights and drinking bouts”. Indeed, Taylor is almost unrecognisable in the stark black and white film, embodying a woman as bitter as the liquor she so readily consumes.  “I changed my voice, I wore padding and rubber on my face, so it was almost like watching someone else, I guess,” said Taylor. The Hollywood Reporter wrote in its first review of the film: “Elizabeth Taylor reaches the fullest of her powers as Martha. The actress’ beauty and the richness of her personal life have repeatedly obscured the fact that she can be, when she cares to be, an actress of extraordinary power.”

The Signature Style

Richard Burton once described Taylor’s breasts as “apocalyptic”, and similarly, Martha’s sartorial preference is to display her heaving bosom at all times. Whether this be in a little black dress cinched in at the waist and plunging at the neckline, or a tightly fitting satin top – which George sarcastically describes as her “Sunday chapel dress” – rest assured you will be getting an eyeful at any given moment. During the scene in which Martha seductively dances with her young male guest Nick (played by George Segal), she makes excellent use of her assets, violently thrusting them outwards like a ravishing mother hen. 

At the beginning of the film, when the couple return home from a faculty party, Martha’s hair – black, with streaks of asphalt grey – is coiffed to Elnett levels of perfection. As the night progresses, it becomes increasingly bedraggled, streaks of black mascara running down her face as the emotional games get progressively more sinister. Much like the real life Taylor, Martha isn’t shy with jewellery. Although, rather than Burton’s lavishly gifted diamonds, all George can afford to give her is lacklustre silver. Her favourite accessory of all, however, is a piece of cold fried chicken taken directly from the fridge. To emulate this signature style, you must eat it with no reservations whatsoever, tearing the meat off the bones whilst exclaiming with your mouth full: “WHAT A DUMP!”

The Modern Manifestation

The modern manifestation of Martha exists in every woman who can relate to the following line she recites in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: “I’m loud and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house because somebody’s got to – but I am not a monster.” Sure, Martha is not ‘nice’ and she is certainly not one to mince her words. But, for all her many flaws, she doesn’t hesitate in revealing her vulnerability. And anyway, who wants to be remembered as just ‘nice’ when you can go down in history as one of the greatest loudmouths who ever lived?