Watching Mike Nichols’ 1966 adaption of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, I noticed that at several times throughout the runtime I was actually holding my breath. The tempo of the film rises and falls, between a scared and timid little creature to a snarling and vicious beast foaming at the mouth. The film was barred from many theatres when it first premiered, due to its highly provocative and vulgar language and the strict standard of moral guidelines for films at the time which screenwriter Ernest Lehman deliberately defied and reportedly paid a $5000 fine to allow the profanity contained in the original play. Even now there’s something that seems so edgy and provocative about it, not necessarily because of the language, (it’s fairly benign by today’s standards) but because the script and performances are filled with such ruthless vitriol that it genuinely makes it an uncomfortable experience.
Based off Edward Albee’s 1962 play of the same name, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is centered around the volatile and complex marriage of Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and George (Richard Burton), two middle aged academics who have harboured resentment and animosity for years yet are also strangely dependent on each other. Arriving home late from a faculty drinks, Martha informs George that she has invited a young couple she met earlier that night round for a night cap. Throughout the evening, George and Martha become more and more violent and heated in their arguments, and while Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis) are initially uncomfortable in the environment, eventually become engrossed in it and reveal some more sinister undercurrents within their own marriage too.
The play itself was an incredible success on Broadway, and many in theatrical circles were unconvinced that a filmic adaptation would do the play justice, partly because of the highly restrictive censorship standards and especially so when it was announced that Elizabeth Taylor had been cast as Martha. At that stage, Taylor was 33 years old while the character was in her early fifties, and more importantly, Taylor was considered at that time the most beautiful and glamorous actress in the world, far from the frumpy and bitterly middle-aged Martha. Despite this, Taylor’s portrayal of Martha, apart from her role in 1963’s “Cleopatra”, became arguably Taylor’s most famous and widely acclaimed role. She is absolutely terrifying; venomous yet wounded, incensed but vulnerable and confused. She seeks to portray to the world one image of herself but what lies behind the mask she’s donned reflects the dichotomy of the film overall and the ongoing theme of appearance versus reality, or “truth and illusion” as its referenced. Nichols is able to incorporate some pretty interesting camerawork into this aspect of the story too, with many of the low angle shots adding a real sense of surreality as the musings get more and more sinister.
George Segal and Sandy Dennis do well as the young couple being unwittingly intertwined in George and Martha’s twisted world, so much so that Dennis won a Best Supporting Actress at that year’s Oscars and Segal receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. They’re both a little forgettable when next to Taylor and Burton but that’s understandable and even preferable, although Dennis does have some funny moments as she gets trollied on brandy and stumbles over her own toothy smile. The chemistry between Burton and Taylor is phenomenal, perhaps a reflection of their famously tumultuous and passionate marriage off screen. It’s hard to gauge who’s actually scoring points on the other as the arguments intensify, but each knows the deepest and sickest fears of their partner and how to exploit them.
I think Taylor’s acclaim for this film is justified, but I also think that Burton deserves credit here; his character is written as a contrast to Martha so he cannot shriek and embody the same emotional depravity as she does because then it doesn’t work. In a way he actually has the more difficult role since the character of Martha is definitely the more flashy of the two (lots of stumbling and drunken yelling with the classic alcoholic and cigarette laden screech). Burton underplays his role brilliantly, acting with passive aggression to Martha’s aggression, and softly spoken prose to Martha’s brutally hurled insults. This night is significant, because Martha is able to break him and make him lose the control that usually makes their marriage function. They both venture into previously forbidden and untouched territory, thus stripping bare the reality of their relationship and the fact that they are in fact co-dependent and strangely perfect for each other.
This is electrifying, exhilirating filmmaking with some truly iconic performances. Lehman and Nichols took some undeniable risks in their approach, and its resulted in one of those rare instances where the adaptation may have actually improved upon the original source material. It’s understandable why “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is still well respected today; there’s a timeless quality to it and one which will grow and change as the audience grows and changes. I’m closer to the ages of Nick and Honey right now, by the time I’m at George and Martha’s stage of life, with all that life has had to throw at me, I may rewatch this film and discover something different entirely.
By Jock Lehman