Two couples, played by Elizabeth Taylor (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), George Segal (The Owl and the Pussycat), and Sandy Dennis (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), gather together for one night of bitter confrontations and sad recriminations, exposing the truths behind their dysfunctional marriages.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“A drowning man takes down those nearest …” – Elizabeth Taylor as Martha.
Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? took Broadway by surprise with its frank, incisive view of the dynamics of a marriage on the brink of self-destruction. This film adaptation of the award-winning play not only presents the original text with all its spice and vinegar intact, but the film seems to surpass the play with its ability to find a way to expand ideas by the use of ingenious camera angles and clever editing; a claustrophobic play becomes an extraordinary exercise in film technique. Penetrating and brutally honest, this is a movie not easy to forget.
Much has been said about the acting in the film, but what has always attracted me to the film is its technical finesse — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a textbook example of how to make a visually exciting movie out of a gabfest.
Mike Nichols (The Graduate and Silkwood) directed the film — his first effort — and he was greatly assisted by cameraman Haskell Wexler (In the Heat of the Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and eidtor Sam O’Steen (Cool Hand Luke and Chinatown)
Nichols and Wexler fought like cat and dog over some of the technical aspects of the film, but in the end the inexperienced director relied heavily on Wexler’s expertise. From hand-held camera movements to extreme close-ups, Wexler’s aggressive style enhances the story in ways that only cinema is able to do. Wexler’s use of small lights in the background of many scenes adds visual dynamism to what remains an actionless, stagebound film — he won a well-deserved Oscar for his efforts.
As Albee’s mercurial, combative couple, Taylor and Burton give superlative performances.
The famous pair makes the most of their well-developed characters, and both actors display an amount of depth that is hardly seen in movies nowadays. Segal and Dennis (she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) are pretty great too, but this is The Burtons’ movie all the way — this is clearly their best movie as a couple.
At the time Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was filmed, The Burtons were the most famous couple in the world. Their torrid and tempestuous love affair started during the filming of the spectacular multi-million-dollar epic Cleopatra, and continued throughout the ’60s and the early ’70s. Jack L. Warner had serious doubts about using the couple for such a risky production (Bette Davis and James Mason were the mogul’s first choices), but The Burtons proved him wrong by giving two superb performances.
That being said, “Liz & Dick” were clearly miscasted. Burton, with his baritone voice, is too strong for the meek college professor. Taylor is too young and glamorous for the frumpy and vulgar Martha (director Nichols famously said, “it was like asking a milkshake to do the work of a double martini”). She is also actressy in places. And yet the cast-against-type thing works in unexpected ways. Taylor’s naturally shrill voice is perfect for the nagging Martha, and Burton’s sturdy persona makes his character’s emasculation even harder to watch. They are at their best during the film’s few quiet moments (Liz, in particular, has two powerful monologues).
In addition, the fact that Taylor and Burton were married in real life makes you feel like a peeping tom — the whole thing has a voyeuristic quality to it. All in all, the film has very few flaws.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Historically speaking, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a very important film. It was not only one of the first Hollywood movies to present adult material in an honest and unrestricted manner, but it also made history as the film that gave the old Production Code its final blow. Created during the ’30s, the movie industry’s system of self-censorship was designed to help placate the criticism of religious and civic organizations that complained of movies’ lack of decorum. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? marked the arrival of a more daring Hollywood that the old censorship system could no longer fight against. After the staggering success of the film, the Production Code’s offices closed, paving the way for the MPAA rating system. For drama lovers, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a must! B&W, 131 minutes, Not Rated.