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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols) 1966


    Though Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was originally written for the stage by Edward Albee where the action was restricted to one room, Mike Nichols’ conversion of the play to the screen (in his debut film) is often excitingly cinematic. After an impressively photographed title sequence that shows the beleaguered couple George and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) as stumble drunkenly home after a party, the film begins properly when with their arrival. For the next two hours, most of our time is spent stuck with these two in this setting as they snipe at each other and two guests that drop by. Martha’s first words upon entering her home are, “What a dump!” which she reveals as a quote from an old Betty Davis vehicle, which she describes as “some goddamn Warner Brothers epic,” in her typically larger than life manner. This is a terribly crass thing to say, especially considering Virginia Woolf? is itself a Warners’ epic, but its release signified something of a milestone in Hollywood history. Its vulgar language set a precedent for a Hollywood raciness, and on one occasion when Martha bellows, “Goddamn,” everything seems to pause for a moment, so the word can attain its proper resonance.


    The film’s title refers  to be the punch line of a joke that’s carried on far past the point where it could still consider it funny (almost a metaphor for the movie, but there’s no denying the humor here), but every time it’s brought up, the characters still laugh at it, desperate for some levity. This isn’t surprising considering the circumstances. The tone of the movie is bad at its start, and it rarely brightens as the film proceeds. It seems impossible that this mood could be sustained for an entire movie until you realize that George and Martha have managed to do just that for years. Nichols occasionally offers us a moment of silence by pulling us out of the action, but it only keeps us from being numbed, since he invariably thrusts us back into the fray. The barbs that the characters throw at one another are at once hilarious and harrowing. There’s something riotous about a movie from this era thinking this material is fodder for humor. There are great dynamics between the each of the characters, and as the night progresses and laundry is aired, each of them takes turn in the role of aggravator, wounded victim, and aloof observer.


    Nichols’ camera is never an aloof observer, though. It’s almost always stuck in the middle of the emotional battlefield, and it’s usually far too close for comfort. Even when they finally leave the claustrophobic confines of their living room, the film’s settings are still constraining. There are moments that could be mistaken for quiet respite after each of the evening’s climaxes, but we soon realize that they are only setups for further revelations. The single night that the movie takes place over feels interminable and endless, but it earns the hell that it puts us through by never compromising its vision of it. It’s no small consolation when a surprising amount of tenderness is revealed to be lurking underneath all of the bile.


    Though the film is seemingly focused on the marital ambivalence of its characters, it has as much to say about parental oppression, even if it does so in a less overt manner. Blaming family problems for personal psychoses was something of a fad in the 50’s, and Albee’s play, could easily be interpreted as a comedy underneath all of its tragic pinnings that pumps those notions up until they burst apart. Unearthing the sins of the father and the skeletons in the closet becomes a parlor trick here. George is only observable as such a massive failure because Martha ceaselessly compares him to the unseen specter of her father. The relationship between the couple and their own child is key to understanding how the two of them function.


    The performances are uniformly stellar. The early reference to Bette Davis is appropriate since Taylor exudes the same mix of sensuality and authority here that made Davis a star, but with an undercurrent of alcoholic desperation that deepens it. Resigned, but not so much that he’s lost his cynicism, Burton’s George might be even more vividly realized. He uses his intelligence to guard himself from the world, and twists logic to make a mockery of it. George Segal and Sandy Dennis round out the cast admirably, and it’s no great surprise that Woolf was the first film to receive an Oscar nomination for each of its credited cast members (Taylor and Dennis went on to win). It’s a suitable honor for what is easily one of the best Hollywood films of the ‘60s.


* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman