Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Marriage, No Mercy


virginiawoolfWhen Elizabeth Taylor passed away two weeks ago, the one film that all commentators would return to was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Sometimes actors fail to win Oscars for the movies everybody recognizes as seminal parts of their legacy, but this is one example of an actress being rewarded for her greatest performance, the one she cherished the most herself. Virginia Woolf remains one of the finest examples of how a play should be transferred to film.

It’s two o’clock in the morning and George and Martha (Richard Burton, Taylor) are headed home after a party on the campus of a New England college. She’s the daughter of the college president and he’s an associate history professor. Both are fairly drunk and tired and start arguing about an old Bette Davis movie when Martha suddenly springs some news on George – she’s invited a couple over for drinks and they’re on their way. George is anything but thrilled and makes Martha promise him not to bring up the touchy subject of their son in conversation. The young couple arrives in the middle of a heated argument, but are cordially invited. Nick’s (George Segal) a professor at the biology department; his wife is called Honey (Sandy Dennis).

The night turns into quite a challenge for everyone involved, as the bitter quarrelling between the older couple escalates, especially when their son is (naturally) introduced in conversation. After a while, issues hidden behind the young couple’s façade surface…

Pouring everything into their performances
Playwright Edward Albee had Bette Davis and James Mason in mind for this film (based on an idea by Jack Warner), and he had his doubts about Taylor and Burton. After all, they were a little too young for the parts and to some extent Taylor’s acting chops was in question. Still, there’s no denying the final results – the married couple poured everything they got into their performances and have never been so good onscreen. Their George and Martha are spiteful, funny, well-articulated and downright cruel to each other… and yet in the end we completely buy into the fact that they love each other and that their relationship depends on the type of games they play, both with each other and their guests, regardless of the pain caused. The final, extraordinary scenes are probably what clinched the Oscar for Taylor.

Segal and Dennis are also perfect for their parts, the seemingly wide-eyed couple who keeps downing drinks while watching their hosts go at each other’s throats… and ultimately getting drawn into the game until they realize that this night of horrors must end. The movie got plenty of attention for its language and frank treatment of controversial subject matters… not that modern audiences might even notice what all the fuss was about. Still, the movie is a harsh, emotionally draining experience. It is Mike Nichols’s first and his understanding of the medium is impressive; it may be based on a play, but so much is strikingly cinematic.

Alex North’s music score provides a sad, discreet counterbalance to George and Martha’s venomous fights and Haskell Wexler’s black-and-white cinematography underlines the darkness of the play; his frequent close-ups throw us straight into the battles. There simply is no mercy.

It’s impossible to watch the movie and not think of Ingmar Bergman. In fact, the famed filmmaker was one of the earliest directors to stage Albee’s play in Europe. In 1963, the drama premiered at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. A passionate performance, the stark setting also reflected the look of Bergman’s contemporary films… and predated Nichols’s vision, which is truly in the Swedish master’s tradition.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1966-U.S. 129 min. B/W. Produced and written by Ernest Lehman. Directed by Mike Nichols. Play: Edward Albee. Cinematography: Haskell Wexler. Music: Alex North. Production Design: Richard Sylbert. Costume Design: Irene Sharaff. Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), Sandy Dennis (Honey).

Trivia: Robert Redford and Ingrid Bergman were allegedly considered for parts. Remade for TV in the Netherlands (1973), Sweden (1985) and Romania (1995).

Oscars: Best Actress (Taylor), Supporting Actress (Dennis), Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design. BAFTA: Best Film, British Actor (Burton), British Actress (Taylor).

Quote: “I swear to God, George, if you even existed I’d divorce you.” (Taylor to Burton)

Last word: “The thing about movies is, you’re there looking all the time at the great movies that great directors have made, so it’s difficult to jump into it and say, Oh, yeah, this is made for me and I’m made for it. It was a kind of total immersion in the process that seemed not difficult to learn, in the sense that I’d read Orson Welles saying ‘you can learn all the technical aspects of movies in one day’ – which is not quite true, but you can learn a great deal about lenses and dollies and montage and so forth, and of course, you’ve been learning about all that seeing movies all your life. I think you can actually see me learning during the course of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’, because we shot it in sequence.” (Nichols, Film Comment)

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