Fun fact: When screenwriter Ernest Lehman earned an Oscar nomination for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which was adapted from Edward Albee’s play of the same name, Albee was not amused. He lamented that all Lehman did was “typing” because the film incorporated so much text from the play. Perhaps that’s why Albee wrote the screenplays for the next two film adaptations of his own work, both of which were basically direct transpositions from stage to screen. Following the made-for-TV Zoo Story (1964), Albee helped bring his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Delicate Balance to movie theaters. Produced for the American Film Theatre and starring the venerable Katharine Hepburn, A Delicate Balance offers more suburban angst in the mode of Virginia Woolf. From start to finish, the movie is filled with sophisticated people unleashing fusillades of extravagant language to attack each other’s psyches. And while A Delicate Balance lacks the wow factor that Virginia Woolf achieved onscreen, it’s still a ferocious rumination on the anxieties of people whose luxurious lifestyles allow them to wallow in their entitled misery.
Director Tony Richardson films the piece simply, letting his camera roam through the interiors of a grand house but often simply locking the camera down while masterful actors burn through lengthy exchanges and monologues. Albee’s verbal style is deliberately literary here, for even though he uses false starts and incomplete sentences to great effect, most of the play comprises perfectly crafted grammar tinged with sad poetry. As the character Claire remarks at one point, “We submerge our truths and have our sunsets on troubled waters.” Not exactly casual chit-chat.
Hepburn and the great British actor Paul Scofield play Agnes and Tobias, wealthy New Englanders in late middle age. As bitter and caustic as they are with each other, Agnes and Tobias descend into outright hostility whenever they engage with their current houseguest, Claire (Kate Reid), Agnes’ alcoholic sister. Things get even worse when the couple’s best friends, neighbors Edna (Betsy Blair) and Harry (Joseph Cotten) show up unexpectedly one evening and announce they’re moving in with Agnes and Tobias because some unidentified fear has made their own home seem terrifying. And then Agnes and Tobias’ 36-year-old daughter, Julia (Lee Remick), arrives following the end of her fourth marriage, adding another set of emotional and psychological problems to the mix.
A Delicate Balance explores many themes, including alienation, betrayal, detachment from reality, and the façades people create in order to tolerate life’s disappointments and indignities. Heavy drinking plays a role, as well. Characters talk about “silent, sad, disgusted love” and the “plague” that personal problems represent when introduced into new environments. Albee tackles this subject matter on a largely metaphorical level, with characters assaulting not just each other but also the qualities they represent. As Agnes says to Tobias in a particularly shrewish moment, “Rid yourself of the harridan—then you can run your mission, take out sainthood papers.”
Whether all this gets to be a bit much is a matter of taste, though the quality of the piece is beyond reproach. Hepburn, Reid, and Remick incarnate the paradox of powerful women who make dubious life choices, while Cotten and Scofield portray emasculated men desperately trying to assert themselves. And while watching 133 minutes of humorless vitriol is not precisely fun, Albee’s extraordinary language and his keen insights make the experience rewarding intellectually, if perhaps not viscerally.
A Delicate Balance: GROOVY