George: Try and I’ll beat you at your own game.

Martha: Is that a threat George, huh?

George: It’s a threat, Martha.

Martha: You’re gonna get it, baby.

George: Be careful Martha. I’ll rip you to pieces.

Martha: You’re not man enough. You haven’t the guts.

George: Total war.

Martha: Total.

Mike Nichols died on Wednesday last week at the age of 83. Born, Michael Igor Peshkowsky in Berlin in 1931, he arrived in New York as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1939 at the age of 7. Perhaps he was therefore the last of the great European Jewish directors who found themselves in the US shaping what we know as Hollywood cinema.

On hearing of his death I spent some time pondering his legacy and whether it is possible to discern a style or themes that run through his films.  Was he just a craftsman  (like say Anthony Minghella) with no claims to an artistic vision of his own.  In many ways he is not a director who you think of as an auteur with a distinctive vision. His films, at first blush at least, seem disparate and without obvious links save for the fact that they are put together with great care and a subtle eye.

But a couple of linking things did come to mind which raise him above a mere journeyman. Firstly, his cinema is that of the  counter-culture that emerged in the 1960s, not you understand the blistering attack on the system that would be seen in a film like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point or the radical lifestyle counter-culturalism of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, but a more mainstream liberal attack on the cultural and political mores of the war time and Eisenhower generations.

His most famous film, The Graduate (1967), is after all a quintessential film of the 60s counter culture with its liberal attitudes towards sex and Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack.   This is a theme that would be carried through his flawed but interesting take on Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 as satire on the Vietnam war quagmire that the US had by 1970, when it was released, found itself in. Carnal Knowledge (1971), would continue the exploration of the liberal sexual attitudes that had come to the fore in the late 1960s, starring that emblem of the counter culture Jack Nicholson.   The Day of the Dolphin (1973) would have mild environmentalist themes with its portrayal of intelligent and inter-active dolphins and one of my teenage favourites, Silkwood (1983) would tell the true story of  nuclear plant whistleblower and labor activist, Karen Silkwood.   Even his late 1980s masterpiece, Working Girl (1988) would be infused with the feminism that emerged 20 years before.

The second thing I think that can be said for Nichols’ films is that he was an actor’s director. He was capable of getting extraordinary performances from his casts whether big stars or not, something that was almost certainly rooted in his background in the theatre with its need for working on a nightly basis with actors to ensure the best is got out of them

This week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation was Nichols’ first film and is a great example of both of these traits in his cinema.   In adapting Edward Albee’s hit play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Nichols got extraordinary (possibly career best) performances out of the notoriously difficult then real life couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.   It is also a film which attacked what was left of the Hays Code (which had by 1966 begun properly to break down) by portraying marriage as a brutal  no prisoners taken war zone, rather than the ideal state to which everyone should aspire of Hollywood’s Austenian Golden Age.

Although it shares with a former Cine-East Presentation, Twelve Angry Men, a certain staginess that its origins as a 4 handed play make hard to avoid, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is perhaps, after Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage,  cinema’s most devastating portrait of marriage as hell.

The events of the film take place over the course of one long night, as history academic, George (Burton) and his wife Martha (Taylor) entertain new biology lecturer, Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), having invited them back to their house  for drinks after an alcohol fuelled faculty party.   Martha’s father is the University President and the unseen patriarch who sets, in Martha’s eyes, an impossible benchmark of achievement and success, which George can never reach.

When we first meet George and Martha they are walking and talking arm in arm as they approach their big old house.   This, once they are inside will develop into what seems to be a jokey and affectionate banter about a Bette Davis film in which she cries ‘what a dump!’ when she returns to her house (as Martha does when they first get back). However, this soon gives way to something nastier and more bitter.   We quickly discover that the markers of their relationship are alcohol and vitriol, and that there are apparently no lengths to which they will not go, to cause each other pain.

The tagline on the film’s poster proclaimed: ‘you are cordially invited to George and Martha’s for an evening of fun and games’.   A terrifying prospect indeed. The embittered couple use Nick and Honey as foils for their own battles, but the young couple also become targets themselves. The good looking and ambitious Nick is used by Martha to taunt George for the man he is not or at least no longer.   Honey is drawn into George’s cruelest game of all, the game in which he reveals that a telegram has been received informing them that their son has died in a road accident, the day before he was due to celebrate his 16th birthday.

Nichols’ depiction of marriage is one of permanent disappointment manifesting itself as barely repressed hatred, a hatred that will bubble over after a few gins, which are pretty much always on the go.   And at underneath it all are the lies, whether the lie of the ‘phantom pregnancy’ of Honey which with a liberal plying of alcohol and the insistent cross-examination by George turns out to have been an abortion, or the lie at the heart of the George and Martha relationship, a shared imagined child as a mechanism to cope with childlessness.

But perhaps most impressively of all and despite the almost unbearable cruelty between Martha and George, Nichols still draws out a real affection between them, however buried it is.   Martha’s flirtations with Nick (which may or may not have led to a shag) are a poor substitute for George, the man she admits at one stage ‘is the only man who has ever made me happy’.   The impression that you get by the end is that maybe, despite the emotional carnage all around, this is just par for the course for Martha and George, it is just part of what they are and what they do as a couple. Nick and Honey’s relationship might in fact be the one not to survive the night and Martha and George will just go on, playing their games, whichever however cruel they seem are ultimately just that.

The performances that Nichols gets from his cast are extraordinary. The film would gain Oscar nominations for all four of its leading actors.   Burton, who like the fellow Thespy pissheads of his generation, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris, would often take crappy roles and phone it in, almost oozes with self-hatred as George. Taylor (who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance) was only 32 when she played Martha, a woman at least 10 years older, and shows that she really could act with the best with them.

Burton and Taylor were never better together. And that is thanks to Mike Nichols RIP.

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#961: 1969, Nick Drake, Cello Song

by Ray_North on November 25, 2014

On this day, forty years ago, Nick Drake died.

In many ways, Drake is England’s greatest lost artistic genius – an incredible talent, wonderfully gifted in so many ways – an athlete as a boy he gave up all his sport to play the guitar and write folk tunes; a keen and able scholar, he gave that all up, to play his guitar and write songs, and in 1968, whilst still a Cambridge student he recorded the gorgeous, Five Leaves Left, which I’ve already featured on these pages.

Cello Song is the opening song on the second side – it has a haunting beauty, a rare warmth as it entwines the listener around and around its sumptuous melody. The third verse is particularly poignant:
So forget this cruel world
Where I belong
I’ll just sit and wait
And sing my song
And if one day you should see me in the crowd
Lend a hand and lift me
To your place in the cloud

Alas, Drake was already suffering from anxiety and depression – after the recording of the his third, equally brilliant work, Pink Moon, he had become pretty much a recluse – indeed the legend has it that he turned up to his recording company in London, unkempt and bearded, rambling confused with the master tapes in a couple of paper bags. Sigh. Perhaps today, his problems and his obvious drug abuse would have been treated, perhaps he could have been helped – we’ll never know. By the time he was just 26, it was all over, the cause of death an overdose of anti-depressents.

It is probably right that his depression went hand in hand with his genius, many of his songs are so evocative of a a solemn and maudlin mood – the tragedy is that he died so young with so much left to be said and done.

Still, let’s enjoy what he left behind.

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So, what is the Conservatives’ ‘End Game’?

November 25, 2014

What do they ultimately want? What is the ultimate utopian Britain for Conservatives like David Cameron and George Osborne? It’s an important question this, because I fear that if they prevail in the next election, it’s going to take a hell of a lot to stop them from finally creating their neo-liberal conservative heaven. So, […]

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#960: 1961, Jimmy Ruffin, Don’t Feel Sorry For Me

November 25, 2014

As I mentioned in my Cine-East Film Club post on Saturday Night Fever a couple of weeks back I recently saw Northern Soul, a film which is, as the title suggests, about the northern soul movement of the 1970s.  The film isn’t up to much but is a damn sight better than another recent film […]

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Week 47: Prat – Emily Thornberry MP

November 23, 2014

This week, our panel have bestowed our Prat of the Week award on the Member of Parliament for Islington South and Finsbury I’m not sure why a house displaying St George’s flags particularly deserves comment: it is a pretty common occurrence in my part of the capital and indeed much of East and South London. If […]

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Week 47: Villain – Dave Whelan

November 23, 2014

This Week’s Villain of the Week is Wigan Football Club owner, Dave Whelan Football is in a dark place at the moment and for the second week in a row provides us with our Villain of the Week. Last week saw Wigan FC hire former Cardiff boss, Malky Mackay. Wigan are currently struggling in the […]

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Week 47: Hero – Barack Obama

November 23, 2014

Our award for hero of the week goes to Barack Obama for a hugely progressive announcement on immigration, and in the process, tactically outflanking the Republicans. To paraphrase an often used and well worn phrase – Reports of the political death of Barack Obama are greatly exaggerated. After a calamitous set of midterm election results, […]

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#959: 1954, Elvis Presley, That’s All Right

November 23, 2014

Note to self. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. To conclude our Great Debut Singles, I drafted a feature on Rocket 88 – generally regarded as the debut song for rock’n’roll. After submitting the article, I found that George East had already posted an earlier feature on this song. Time spent without reconnaissance is […]

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Happy Birthday To Us: Allthatsleft is 4 Years Old

November 22, 2014

Hard to believe it really, but when we launched this blog the coalition was only 6 months old.   We are now less than 6 months to the next election and for the blog being able to change its strapline to: ‘the blog that survived the coalition’. Unless of course, as there is every possibility, the […]

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#958: 1987, Sinead O’Connor, Troy

November 20, 2014

George East has set us a theme for our current selection of songs: Great Debut Records. It is on the surface quite an easy one to do: think of a great artist, think of their first song decide if wa any good, check if we’ve featured it before, job done. So, for my picks I’ve […]

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By-Election Special: Rochester and Strood

November 19, 2014

Until 1999, it had been the convention that Prime Ministers did not visit a by-election campaign. Yesterday has marked David Cameron’s fifth visit during this by-election to Rochester and Strood – a clear indication of the level of panic and desperation in the Conservative Party caused by this Thursday’s looming by-election. When Mark Reckless first […]

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#957: 1979, The Specials, Gangsters

November 17, 2014

Another great debut single from a great band. The Specials appeared in the very first week of this blog – and since then, have only appeared on one more occasion (though Terry Hall has featured in The Colourfield) – this though, is their amazing debut single. It’s a classic Ska track, wonderfully remastered with added […]

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Dismantling the public sector: The Conservative economic con-trick

November 17, 2014

George Osborne and David Cameron are the most pathetic (but less funny) double act since Waldorf and Statler. These two wealthy-beyond-belief, born-to-rule idiots think that the public sector is responsible for the UK budget deficit. So, they have frozen public sector pay and will ravage essential core community based services within the public sector, and […]

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Week 46: Hero – The European Space Agency and those involved in the Rosetta Probe

November 17, 2014

I went to see Interstellar over the weekend – fabulous film, but I didn’t understand great swathes of it – instead, Mrs North and myself, sort of sat in spellbound wonder at the awesome possibility of the universe, before deciding that the film was probably actually about being a crap parent and an even crapper […]

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Week 46: Prat – Kelly Tolhurst

November 16, 2014

This week, our award for biggest prat of the last seven days goes to Kelly Tolhurst, the Conservative candidate in Thursday’s Rochester and Strood by-election. In a sign of the increasing desperation of the Conservative Party in the Rochester and Strood by-election, their candidate Kelly Tolhurst issued a leaflet this week comparing her local credentials […]

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Cine-East Film Club Presents #58: 1964, Charulata (Satyajit Ray)

November 16, 2014

Bhupati: ‘Charu, where do you find the time?’ Charulata: ‘you think I don’t have time?’ When I did my review of the first 50 films to have featured in the Cine-East Film Club a few months back, I mentioned that there had been no films yet from the two most populous countries in the world: […]

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Week 46: Villain – FIFA

November 16, 2014

This week’s Villain of the Week Award goes to football’s governing body, FIFA, for its cynical summary of the report on the Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 world cup bids and its attempts to point the finger at the FA  Last week saw FIFA publish a radically shortened summary of the report carried out into […]

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#956: 1979, Dead Kennedys, California Uber Alles

November 14, 2014

The theme week (great debut singles) was going so well, and then Charlie East-West posted a Lib Dem fronted monstrosity. So, getting things back on track, here is an absolutely nuclear debut – coming right at you out of San Francisco, full of anger, energy and with Jello Biafra veritably spitting contempt at the complacent […]

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More tales about Legal Aid!

November 12, 2014

I had to share this with you. There I was this morning, walking to Court with another barrister – he’s a nice fella, I’ve known him years. He is also, an arch proponent of the coalition and card carrying member of the Lib-Dems. As we walked he turned to me with a contended look on […]

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#955: 2013, The Reform Club, Piccadilly Circus

November 11, 2014

Welcome to the next song in our theme week series of Great Debut Singles. Tonight we have a real treat for you. It is quite possibly the greatest song of all time. This is the song that all other songs measure themselves against. It is Piccadilly Circus by The Reform Club. The song is written […]

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So what exactly does a feminist look like?

November 10, 2014

Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and grumpier and increasingly cynical – but, I’ve reached a stage where the sight of politicians posturing without any great thought or meaning has become increasingly irritating. The last few weeks have seen the Fawcett Society’s campaign to re-ignite the flames of feminism by getting various politicians to wear […]

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Week 45: Hero – Dissidents of the Former East Germany

November 10, 2014

This week’s Heroes are the dissidents of the former GDR. Last week saw the twenty fifth anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall. We have decided to mark that monumental event by awarding our hero of the week award to those who kept the fight for freedom alive in East Germany during the years […]

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Cine-East Film Club Presents #57: 1977, Saturday Night Fever (John Badham)

November 10, 2014

Frank Manero Sr: ‘Four dollars? You know what four dollars buys you today? It don’t even buy you three dollars’ In the last few weeks I’ve seen a couple of films about music and dance sub-cultures.   In the London Film Festival there was Mia Hanson-Love’s Eden (I’m not sure if it has theatrical distribution in […]

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#954: 1978, Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights

November 9, 2014

We seem to have been a bit male artist orientated of late, so I thought I should put that right with song number three in our Great Debut Record theme week. As George commented four years ago, sometimes when you hear a truly great debut it is so different that you are initially unsure whether […]

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Week 45: Villain – The Mail

November 9, 2014

Not for the first time, this week our regular award for the most despicable villain of the last seven days goes to Britain’s least pleasant newspaper. A week ago, George East and I sat in a Hackney boozer eating a very good, if equally very pricey, Sunday roast. The topic turned to that morning’s papers – […]

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Week 45: Prat(s) – BBC (and the rest of the British News Media)

November 9, 2014

This week’s Prat(s) of the Week Award goes to tbe BBC and the British media generally for buying into George Osborne’s ridiculous claim that he halved the extra amount that the UK has to pay to the EU The headlines that George Osborne got at the end of last week beggared belief. From watching, listening […]

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#953: 1979, Joy Division, Transmission

November 6, 2014

Theme week: blistering first singles, and they don’t get much more blistering than this absolute belter from Joy Division (who I’d wager are in Allthatsleft Top 5 bands of all time). I love this song – and the video shows Joy Division in all their glory – we start with Hooky’s typically driving bass, then […]

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Three Reasons Why The Labour Plotters Against Ed Miliband Are Going Nowhere

November 6, 2014

The BBC has reported today that a number of (unnamed) Labour backbenchers have told the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party that Ed Miliband should go. The only thing surprising about this is that it has taken so long to happen. Ever since September’s disastrous leader’s speech, Miliband and Labour have pretty much been in […]

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#952: 1965, Small Faces, What’cha Gonna Do About It

November 5, 2014

Well, it’s all a bit bloody depressing at the moment, isn’t it?   The Democrats got absolutely creamed in the mid-terms last night, losing just about everywhere, while Barack Obama spends most of his time on the golf course (or at least so it seems). On this side of the pond the possibility of a progressive […]

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#10 The Secret MP: Waiting by the Phone

November 5, 2014

You can call me Keith, Though that’s not my real name. I am a Liberal Democrat MP. I first got an inkling that Norman Baker was about to resign on Sunday night, when the Whips Office phoned me to tell me that Norman Baker was about to resign. ‘Hardly a surprise is it,’ I responded. […]

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