Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966) 2hrs 11mins
Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis.
“You are cordially invited to George and Martha’s for an evening of fun and games” That was the tagline back in 1966. Mike Nichols’ wonderful adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 play stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George and Martha; a foul mouthed and damaged couple living on a college campus in New England. George is a history professor; his wife is the daughter of the college president. They have just returned from a Saturday night get together on the campus. They are expecting the arrival of a young couple for a few late night drinks. The young couple are Biology tutor Nick (George Segal) and housewife Honey (Sandy Dennis)
Throughout the evening George and Martha square off to one other to the surprise of their guests. The brilliant camera work by Haskell Wexler pans, tilts and zooms to perfect effect through the living room where most of the film takes place. It is indeed the only location of the play. In the film, there is use of space; they are briefly upstairs, out the back garden and out at a dance hall. Edward Albee’s dialogue from the play is left almost virtually intact, in the script adaptation by Ernest Lehman, who wrote North By Northwest (1959) West Side Story (1961) and The Sound Of Music (1965)
Elizabeth Taylor’s performance as the “wilful minded ligour ritten” Martha is a powerhouse, although Albee’s original choice of Bette Davis would have ideal due to the age of the character, Taylor gets away with it and good for her. George Segal’s Nick is a master of timing his reactions to the on going uproar. Sandy Dennis’ Honey is quick with her incessant gawkiness that reveals a truthful form of anxiety, which later appears to be in all of the characters’ psyches.
Richard Burton gives the most outstanding performance of all. The pain and anger he goes through is heartbreaking. How he didn’t win the Oscar is beyond me. The performance will be remembered forever in this critic’s opinion as Richard Burton’s very best.
This film is the only film to be nominated in every category possible with thirteen Oscar nominations and five wins for Elizabeth Taylor, Sandy Dennis, the magnificent cinematography (black and white) costume design (black and white) and production design (black and white)
The greatest shot in the film is a distanced wide shot of the lonely George as he steadily smokes a cigarette while on a swing in the back garden with his back to us. Don’t get me started on the sublime bark of that tree, simply stunning.
Mike Nichols’ directorial debut is his very best work closely followed by the sensational hit The Graduate (1967) The wonderful character study Carnal Knowledge (1971) and the Emmy Award winning Wit (2001) and Angels In America (2003) Nichols’ direction uses the framing and camera moves to perfection by using over head shots and unexpected close ups. It is a great film because it shows you unflinchingly, what real love is about.
The finale, which I won’t reveal, conveys the motion of absolute truth to the characters and there is nothing higher to stride for. It is about the psychology of two exhausted souls George and Martha, who in the most messed up way possible deserve each other because they know each other too well. It is so evident in the magnificent performances. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is unforgettable. A cinematic masterpiece of human pain and relationships, no praise for it is ever too high. When George solemnly says the line “Sunday tomorrow; all day” you’ll know what I’m talking about. “George and Martha: sad, sad, sad.”