Today’s cinema adventure: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the auspicious 1966 debut feature from director Mike Nichols, based on the much-lauded Pulitzer-winning play by Edward Albee and starring the superstar husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Filmed during a fiercely guarded, top-secret nocturnal shoot, it was an eagerly awaited production which became an instant classic upon its release, and the intensity of its subject matter- particularly its then-shocking language- dealt a death blow to the antiquated Hollywood “decency” standards that dated back to the Hays Code of the thirties, leading instead- along with Antonioni’s Blowup– to the development of the MPAA rating system still utilized in the U.S. today. In essence a powerhouse four-character showcase for tour-de-force acting, it depicts a single night of alcohol-soaked socializing between an older and a younger couple which becomes a vicious, no-holds-barred battle over the pent-up secrets, frustration, shame, and resentments that plague both marriages. It garnered several major acting awards, including a second Oscar for Taylor, whose reputation as an actress was considerably bolstered by her remarkable, career-changing performance.
Faithfully adapted from Albee’s play by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the story focuses on George, a middle-aged history professor, and his wife Martha, the daughter of the president of the small New England college at which he teaches. As they are returning home at 2 AM from a faculty mixer thrown by Martha’s father, George is startled to learn she has invited a new, younger professor and his mousy wife to join them for nightcaps; though he resigns himself to their visit, he admonishes Martha against broaching any taboo subjects in conversation- particularly the impending homecoming of the pair’s teenaged son from boarding school. When the younger couple, Nick and Honey, arrive, Martha belligerently defies her husband’s stricture, goading him into an ugly game of one-upmanship in which they both exploit every possible weakness to humiliate and hurt each other, even using their hapless guests as pawns in a dysfunctional war of wits that- it becomes clear- has escalated throughout their long marriage. As the night progresses, their own secrets are laid bare, as well as a few of Nick and Honey’s, revealing the depth of their misery, the lengths to which they have retreated into fantasy, the extent of their verbal and emotional abuse of each other, and- perhaps most surprisingly- the intensity of the love that still endures beneath all the anger, lies, and recriminations. By the time the sun begins to rise, both of the weary couples have undergone a purging of pretense and illusion that will leave them irrevocably changed- at least, presumably, until the next drunken faculty party.
When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962, its frank and explicit dialogue, coupled with its overt sexual implications and it’s harrowing emotional intensity, led many audiences and critics to believe it was an unfilmable play. Though it was hailed as a masterpiece, and won both the Tony and Critics’ Circle awards for Best Play, such was the controversy surrounding its content that though it was chosen by the Pulitzer judges as the winner of the prize for drama, the advisory board for the awards refused to present it, instead choosing to withhold that years’ prize in the category. Nevertheless, Warner Brothers studio pursued the rights from playwright Albee, and despite protests and warnings from the Catholic Advisory Board and the MPAA, went ahead with plans to produce a film version that preserved the majority of the play in its original, undiluted form. In the end, a few minor concessions were made (“Screw you” was changed to “God damn you,” at least in the American edit) and the script was abridged slightly for length, but, for the most part, the film version was released with its profanity and sexual content intact- and, perhaps unsurprisingly, became a major hit.
Although the publicity over its controversial content no doubt played a role in its box office success, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has sustained its iconic status because it was never meant to be just a sensationalistic shock piece; the brilliance of Albee’s play crackles through every frame, with his dialogue virtually intact and his over-arcing vision maintained with an emphatic zeal for faithfulness. Director Nichols, though already known as a wunderkind for his stage work, was making his film debut here; nevertheless he was given an unprecedented amount of freedom and control over the project, and his determination to translate the cathartic experience of the original work resulted in a film which brings the full, terrible power of the play to life. Underneath the bombastic psychological warfare of its action, the saga of George and Martha’s walpurgisnacht is about the line between truth and illusion- more specifically, the dangers of living a life based on comforting lies and fantasy instead of frankly facing an unpleasant reality. In mid-century America, it was a theme that hit very close to home; a generation after WWII, the cracks were beginning to show in the idyllic façade of the “American Dream,” and the growing discontent and disillusionment with its hollow ideals, which had long been voiced by the counterculture and its underground artists, had begun to find its way into the mainstream. Virginia Woolf, with its portrait of a couple trapped in their nightmare of elaborate fictions and suppressed truth, provided a perfect catalyst for a nation afraid to face its own reality; and though its characters and setting are not overtly subversive, it is nevertheless a film which heralded the rise of anti-establishment sentiment in American cinema. It’s telling that Nichols’ next movie, The Graduate, would be Hollywood’s first bona fide “youth culture” film to express criticism of the social status quo; Virginia Woolf is unmistakably cut from the same radical cloth.
As apt as this film was in capturing the zeitgeist of its era, the significance and power of its themes are undiminished by the passage of time; Albee’s magnificent play retains its relevance today, and this remarkable transcription of it seems as fresh and vital as if it were brand new. Though its then-shocking profanity and its sexual frankness are now milder than much of our prime-time TV fare, the emotional intensity behind them makes for a fierceness that still leaves us reeling; it is not merely the saltier dialogue of Virginia Woolf that packs a punch, but the totality of its language- Albee’s dazzling symphony of words elicits responses on every level from the esoteric and intellectual to the visceral and primal, evoking laughter, horror, sorrow, fear, and every other conceivable reaction, in rapid succession and sometimes simultaneously. By the end of this grueling evening of “fun and games” we are as stunned and exhausted as the film’s four characters, and like them, we are left facing the cold, unfriendly dawn in a world without illusions. Of course, it’s not all dire depression and angst; Albee’s absurdist sensibilities are evident throughout, ensuring the continual interjection of ironic, dry, and dark humor, not to mention the considerable intelligence and wit he bestows upon his antagonistic protagonists. Part of the great power of Virginia Woolf comes from its ability to elicit our laughter even as it is pummeling us with its existential themes and its social commentary. Like the greatest of tragedies, it’s a play (and a film) that is full of out-and-out comedy, providing a much-needed release of tension and underscoring the ridiculousness of the human situation at the center of the drama.
Needless to say, the linguistic alchemy of Albee’s script would never work without the ability of a superb cast to bring it to life. When Nichols chose Hollywood’s hottest power couple for the demanding roles of George and Martha, there was considerable skepticism over whether they would be up to the challenge. Burton, of course, was well-established as a consummate actor, with copious legitimate training and a host of theatrical successes under his belt in addition to his film experience; his bride, however, was a different story. Taylor had been a major star for two decades, and had previously proven herself as a superb actress (having already won an Oscar for her work in Butterfield 8, though many felt it was a sympathy prize); but she was primarily known for her remarkable beauty rather than her acting chops, and the role of Martha- a middle-aged, overweight, alcoholic harridan whose looks were meant to be faded, at best- was thought by most of the cognoscenti to be beyond her grasp. Undeterred by preconceived doubts, the actress committed herself whole-heartedly to the part; she gained 30 lbs. in order to present the necessary voluptuous figure, and sank her teeth into Martha’s ugliness- both physical and spiritual- in order to do justice to the character. Her embrace of these attributes does not result in a stereotyped, surface portrayal, however; her Martha is a monster, yes, but she is also every bit a woman- vulnerable, warm, loving, spiteful, frightened, jovial, capricious, calculating, and fully realized. Taylor’s performance here is the crowning achievement of her career; far from being merely a star turn, it is an example of an actress claiming a role and making it so much her own that it is impossible to imagine another star playing it. It probably goes without saying that her ferocity is matched at every step by her on- and off-screen husband; Burton, also giving a career-defining performance, gives us an unforgettable portrait of George, a character that has been described as an “angel with a devil’s tongue.” Breathtakingly intelligent, unmistakably virile despite his crushing mantle of failure and disappointment, and compassionate behind the hostile irony of his icy mask, he takes us along on every step of George’s difficult journey, helping us to understand and to sympathize with a man who could easily come off as an impotent, disaffected snob, and making it clear that his task, like that of his sainted namesake, is to slay a dragon. Together, Burton and Taylor become a force of nature, making George and Martha appear both as titanic archetypes of marital conflict and painfully real, fragile human beings, and convincingly conveying the familiarity and intimacy of a couple who have been through so much together they seem to think as one despite their embattled dynamic.
Though their roles are less showy, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, as Nick and Honey, respectively, are equally superb; as representatives of the younger generation, they enter the scene wearing the freshness and confidence of a new wave, seeming to embody the perfect picture of up-and-coming success that stands in stark contrast to the appalling discord of their hosts’ dilapidated lives. It doesn’t take long for the shine to wear off, however; confronted with the harsh reality of their probable future reflected back at them in the grotesque form of their elders, their practiced poise begins to disintegrate, and their true natures begin to show through. Segal’s Nick, hiding his own fears of inadequacy behind a smug golden-boy demeanor, lashes out with defensive hostility; while Dennis, a ball of barely-concealed insecurity as Honey, rapidly descends into a drunken spiral of infantile banality. They provide the perfect foils for Burton and Taylor, helping to reveal the repeating pattern of self-deception at the core of the drama by giving us an example of a couple at the beginning of the cycle. Dennis, like Taylor, won an Oscar, and both the men were deservedly nominated, as well, making this one of only three films ever to have gained Academy Award nominations for its entire credited cast (the others being Sleuth– the 1972 version, of course- and Give ‘Em Hell, Harry).
There are so many reasons to love Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Haskell Wexler’s magnificently stark black-and-white cinematography, which captures beauty and blemishes in equally loving detail; Alex North’s haunting and evocative chamber-music score; the completely authentic setting which moves you part and parcel into George and Martha’s cluttered, musty world of booze and bric-a-brac, revealing them both as members of the intelligentsia and as the world’s worst housekeepers; and of course, overseeing it all, the sure and steady direction of Mike Nichols, who appropriately drives the piece like a master conductor presiding over a fine piece of music, finding new ways to position and move his camera, alternating between long, slow takes and short, bursting flurries, building the tension unbearably and giving the impression of heart-stopping action even though most of the film consists only of four people talking. It earned him a place as one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers, and deservedly so.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of those all-too-rare instances when Hollywood has managed to transfer a brilliant stage play to the screen more-or-less intact and done it full justice; though producer Ernest Lehman takes screenplay credit, his work mostly consisted of editing Albee’s original down to a shorter running time and making a few minor adjustments to compensate for the marginally-reduced ages of its lead characters- virtually every word is Albee’s, and apart from moving a few scenes outdoors and taking the characters on an excursion to an all-night roadhouse for one key sequence, the setting remains the same, as well. Ultimately, of course, the play is one of those masterworks, like Hamlet, which can probably never be given a definitive treatment; it continues to be mounted in theaters around the world and performed brilliantly by actors who bring their own unique individual interpretations to its iconic characters. Even so, this important and influential film remains the version which, in the collective imagination of our pop culture, is identified as the ultimate representation of the piece. Though other actresses may give us a deeper Martha, or other directors may find a more visionary approach to the material, this group of artists have left their indelible mark on Albee’s play, and if you only see one version of it in your lifetime, you couldn’t do better than this one. If you have never seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so, as soon as possible; apart from the fact that it is one of the most important pieces of dramatic literature written in the last hundred years, it is also still one of the most searing, surprising and thought-provoking dramas you are likely to see, a far cry from most of the sterile, whitewashed, politically correct fodder that passes for adult entertainment today.