Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)


In the wee hours of the morning, two couples gather together for one long, very long session of bitter confrontations, sad recriminations and unexpected revelations, exposing the truths behind their dysfunctional marriages.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“You’re all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops.”

Edward Albee’s controversial award-winning play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? took Broadway by storm with its incisive view of the dynamics of a self-destructive marriage. I would argue that this film adaptation is better than the original stage version because the movie camera brings a great sense of realism and immediacy, thus helping viewers experience the story from a “fly-on-the-wall” point of view.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a textbook example of how to make a visually exciting movie out of an endless gabfest. Mike Nichols (The Graduate) directed the film (his first effort), and he was greatly assisted by cameraman Haskell Wexler (In the Heat of the Night) and editor Sam O’Steen (Cool Hand Luke).

Nichols and Wexler argued over the technical aspects of the film, but in the end the inexperienced director relied heavily on Wexler’s expertise. From hand-held camera shots to extreme close-ups, Wexler’s aggressive style enhances the story in ways that only cinema is able to do. Wexler’s ingenious “tricks of the trade” provide a much-needed visual kick to what is essentially a dialogue-driven chamber piece.

As Albee’s contentious couple, Elizabeth Taylor (National Velvet) and Richard Burton (The Robe) give superlative performances. The legendary duo makes the most of their well-developed characters, and both actors display an amount of depth that is hardly seen in movies today — this Taylor and Burton at their very best!

Many industry insiders doubted that Taylor and Burton could pull it off, and with good reasons. Burton as meek college professor? The beautiful 33-year-old Taylor as a frumpy middle-aged housewife? And yet, the cast-against-type works in unexpected ways. Taylor’s famous stridden voice is perfect as the nagging wife, and Burton’s sturdy screen persona makes his character’s emasculation even harder to watch.

Furthermore, the fact that Taylor and Burton were married in real life adds another unexpected layer to their verbal and physical fights. George Segal (No Way to Treat a Lady) and Sandy Dennis (Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) are pretty great too (Dennis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), but this is Liz and Dick’s’ movie all the way — it’s clearly their best movie as a couple.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was an enormous critical and financial success. It should also be noted that it was one of the first Hollywood movies to present adult material in an unfiltered manner. The film 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 closed down their offices, paving the way for the MPAA rating system. B&W, 131 minutes, Not Rated.

3 responses to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

  1. I was way to young to fully appreciate this film the first time I saw it, and it was maybe a little too close to my parent’s divorce for me emotionally. I’ve avoided it ever since, but I think now I could watch it and appreciate the performances…and now that I’ve read your review, the technical aspects as well (my brother briefly was a cinematographer — very briefly — and he lends a lot of insight to that sort of thing as well).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you are talking about. My parents have a bit of Martha & George in them. Believe me, you are lucky your parents divorced — 50 years later, mine are still at it! Anyhow, cool about your brother being a cameraman. I would have loved to be a cinematographer or editor (acting doesn’t interest me much).

      Liked by 1 person

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