Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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Director: Mike Nichols

Producer: Ernest Lehman

Writers: Edward Albee (play), Ernest Lehman (screenplay)

Photography: Haskell Wexler

Music: Alex North

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis

“Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference?”

So says Richard Burton’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, summing up a film that is so thematically complex that one will likely need to see it more than once to experience the true extent of its power. Casual viewers may have a tough time grasping the depth that pervades the film’s every element, right down to a title that will cause them to say, “Hey, there’s no one in this film named Virginia Woolf…”

Such a question should force viewers to look into the meaning, but alas, most casual viewers will not. So here’s the quick answer: The title actually comes from a piece of graffiti that playwright Edward Albee saw on a bar mirror while he was trying to brainstorm a title for his upcoming play. To Albee, the graffiti was perfect, evoking the memory of famous writer Virginia Woolf, a psychologically-complex life that ended in suicide. He combined it with the Walt Disney song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” to create a catchy jingle that begs the question, “Who’s afraid of living life without false illusions?” (A) Martha replies, “I am.”

With such a deep theme, Albee’s play was bound to be a Broadway success, winning the Tony for Best Play and attracting immediate interest in a Hollywood version. Brought in to adapt the screenplay was Ernest Lehman, a legend in the biz after writing North By Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). As for director, stage director Mike Nichols was given a platform to direct his first motion picture, marking the best stage-to-screen directorial leap since Elia Kazan and laying the groundwork for others to follow, like Sam Mendes with American Beauty (1999). The result was a piece very faithful to Albee’s original play, a biting, in-your-face black comedy of domestic violence, drenched in wit and seething emotion.

The film centers around the aging relationship between emasculated college professor George (Richard Burton) and his vulgar wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the daughter of the university president. Their existence is volatile and sad, the epitome of a love-hate relationship on the edge of breaking but always finding its way back. At the start of the film, the two arrive home, liquored up from a faculty party one Saturday night (technically the early hours of Sunday morning). Unbeknownst to George, Martha has already invited over another couple over for a little 2 a.m. carousing, a get-together that seems doomed from the start. The young couple, a university colleague named Nick (George Segal) and his lightweight wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), are welcomed into the house just as Martha heaves a “goddamn you!” on George. From there, it’s war, and the awkward, argumentative “after party” is on.

In a bizarre contest, the experienced, fighting couple airs their own dirty laundry in disguised phrasing, forcing the newlyweds to expose their own hidden secret, a problem as potent as George and Martha’s. The whole night becomes a series of marital mind games — “Humiliate the Host,” “Get the Guests” and finally “Bringing Up Baby” — fueled by sexual tension, ever-flowing alcohol and disturbing secrets of the past, namely George and Martha’s son who strikes a raw nerve and doesn’t seem to be in the picture anymore.

At one point, Nick gives up, saying, “I don’t know when you people are lying or what,” submitting to the idea that what’s going on is far more complex than his confident young mind can comprehend. By the film’s final moments, the truth finally dawns on him — “I think I understand this now”-– but some viewers will not have made the same jump. After all, our heads are left spinning after such a barrage of truths and illusions. To wade through it all, you should really watch the film more than once. Ask yourselves the following questions: Why can’t George and Martha decide on the color of their son’s eyes? Why does Martha call George a “flop?” And why does the embarrassment cause him to smash his liquor bottle to pieces?

SPOILERS: The secret is that George and Martha had to create a fantasy child, an illusion, because it helped them to deal with their own infertility. Lehman said he wanted to add a twist where the boy was hanging in a closet, but he didnt want to mess with the original play, where the boy was just a figment of their imagination. The film is all the more powerful for it. (B)

Beyond all these head games and hidden secrets, one thing is unmistakable — the violence. The film’s racy elements — drunkenness, profanity, spousal abuse, adulterous passions, shotguns pointed at people — are edgy enough today, let alone in 1966. The first film to actually use the word “goddamn,” (C) Virginia Woolf came during a transitional time in Hollywood when the old Production Code was outdated, but before the arrival of the MPAA ratings (1967-present). Instead, Warner Bros. urged theater owners not to admit anyone under 18, and with that, Nichols was free to stretch the limits of violence in his debut film. (D)

A year before winning Best Director for his masterpiece The Graduate (1967), Nichols introduced a directorial style that was just as in-your-face as the action itself. His camera moves around George and Martha’s home as if it were another guest, providing countless close shots, forward-dollies and subjective cameras, replacing the eyes of the characters to show the dizzy face of Honey as George spins her around, or the young couple’s shocked reaction in cross-cuts of Martha’s pacing diatribes. In this way, Nichols brings us face to face with these characters and the tension between them, most memorably a shot in a bar parking lot where the faces of Taylor and Burton emerge into either side of the frame to lay down the gauntlet: “You’re gonna get it baby!” “Total war?” “Total!”

Nichols’ greatest assets are the personalities in front of him. With just four roles in the cast, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains the only film to have all its credited parts nominated for Academy Awards, from the Oscar-nominated Segal as the falsely-confident young professor, to the Oscar-winning Dennis as his brandy-vomiting wife.

As for the two leads, Liz Taylor gained 30 pounds to play the obnoxious, yet strangely seductive Martha, a role that revitalized her career with a second Oscar win. Burton was equally as brilliant as the quipping husband, earning an Oscar nomination himself. The intimate family drama was a far cry from their roles as Cleopatra and Marc Antony in the lavish costume epic Cleopatra (1963), which came at a scandalous time for Taylor and Burton.

Their real-life love affair was condemned by The Vatican because it happened while both were married. It may even be the biggest love scandal in Hollywood history, with Burton stealing Taylor from Eddie Fisher, who had previously fathered Carrie Fisher (Star Wars) with Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) before having his own affair with Taylor. Burton and Taylor were the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of their day, and their on-screen clashes in Virginia Woolf mirrored their tumultuous off-screen relationship, which ended in divorce eight years later, was reconciled in 1975 and ended for good in 1976.

Thus, Virginia Woolf mirrors these brutal relationship truths, first that marriage is a phenomenon rooted in love and wrapped in a web of emotional games, and second that people often require their own self-illusions to get through the problems of life.

“There are so many different kinds of films. That’s what’s so great about movies,” Lehman said. “But there aren’t many movies that just sock you right in the diaphragm. Virginia Woolf moved me to tears. To me, that’s the hardest thing to find in a movie theater, something that really hits you hard. If it can make you weep, I would say that that is a miracle. I weep every time I see Virginia Woolf on television now.” (B)

Citations:

CITE A: William Flanagan. “The Art of Theater No. 4: Edward Albee”, 1966, The Paris Review, Issue 39: http://www.theparisreview.com/media/4350_ALBEE.pdf
CITE B: George Stevens Jr, Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age
CITE C: Tim Dirks, AMC Filmsite
CITE D: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

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