One of the greatest directorial debuts in cinematic history came from Mike Nichols who helmed this 1966 firestorm of emotion and gripping drama, faithfully adapted from Edward Albee's famous play. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a compelling, powerful character study of four contemptible characters brought together for an unforgettable night of booze, cigarettes, tension and the edification of secrets. Nichols' auspicious debut feature is a microcosm of human relationships in all their arduous complexities.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a moral modernist fable that hits a raw nerve in audiences for its sheer emotional brutality and the utilisation of profanity (as a matter of fact, this was the first film in history to have the term "bugger" spoken in its dialogue).
This is undeniably a love it or hate it affair. The film is strangely riveting and potent, but it won't likely brighten one's day. It's all-out drama from the first frame 'til the last. It'd be fair to say it gets quite excruciating at times due to the lack of variety and the occasionally head-aching nature of the proceedings. It's relentless realism, infused with heavy adult themes and a depressing inversion of the idyllic 1960's married couple image. By all accounts, it's extremely hard to swallow. Even Kathleen Turner (who starred in a Broadway run of the play) wrinkled her nose at the mere mention of the film version. While not particularly enjoyable, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? boasts four fine performances (all of which were nominated for Academy Awards) and the atmosphere is masterful.
This noir-ish drama chronicles one profane and agonising night in the pathological marriage of two tortured souls: middle-aged History professor George (Burton) and his carping wife Martha (Taylor). After a party, George and Martha return home before welcoming another couple for a late-night nightcap: Biology professor Nick (Segal) and his naïve young bride Honey (Dennis). The night soon transforms into a harrowing descent into the private lives of these two couples. Over the course of this night (fast becoming early morning) the polished veneer of the hosts deteriorates grotesquely, and the character begins to crumble both mentally and physically. As Martha becomes brutal and abusive, and as George responds in questionable ways, the horrified Nick and Honey realise they could be witnessing a troubling preview of what their married lives may eventually become.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had appeared together years earlier in the failed epic Cleopatra. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? denotes the finest filmic hour of Taylor and Burton (together, that is). Their searing chemistry burns up the screen. Violent tempers flare and abusive insults fly across the room. The production period was far from easy. Elizabeth Taylor struggled to cope with Nichols' exacting direction and his frequent use of intrusive close-ups to capture every vindictive jibe and wounded riposte as she and Burton cut deeply into each other's private misery. Indeed, it has been claimed that the filming of this picture placed the couple's marriage under considerable strain, and their relationship never recovered. It's powerful watching the performances of Taylor and Burton while considering the production troubles. Taylor is particularly electrifying; transforming from a joking, carping house-wife to an emotional wreck. Taylor earned an Academy Award for her performance (Burton was additionally nominated), while both of them earned BAFTA awards.
Sandy Dennis also won an Oscar for her compelling performance. The shoot was most troubling for Sandy, who suffered a tragic miscarriage shortly after production wrapped. George Segal (also nominated for an Oscar) and Sandy Dennis as the young couple convey an idealism and naïveté that make them emotionally malleable - ideal victims for the hosts. The film is utterly transfixing for its two-hour duration thanks to these sublime performances.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an emotionally-straining, gripping and poignant film featuring strong direction, precise editing and beautiful black & white photography. This filmic version is specifically separate from the play due to its symbolic camera angles. The filmmakers have the advantage of emphasising the upper hand in a power struggle by employing low or high angle shots. There are also skewed angles and intriguing hand-held camera movements. These wonderful visuals are accompanied by an eerie sound mix and melancholy music.
The script contains gritty realism in its dialogue. It's ugly, haunting and stirring listening to these peculiar personalities exchanging insults and verbal abuse. This is a brilliant film that has a powerful impact on its audience all these years later. The film was vigorously rehearsed like a play over a gruelling three-week period before the cameras rolled; hence allowing the actors to more easily immerse themselves into the characters.
Overall, Who's Afraid of Virginian Woolf? won't ever be regarded as an entertaining or bright experience. It's firmly positioned in a disturbing reality, permeated with seemingly insane characters and tragic occurrences. It builds to a fine conclusion that's beautifully acted and touching. This is strong stuff and it's intensely watchable...but it ain't for children and it's not a film you'll want to watch again anytime soon. If anything must be criticised, it'd be the use of pure drama. It's also grossly overlong, stretching things into agonising monotony at times.
This was the first film in history to carry the MPAA tag "No one under 18 will be admitted unless accompanied by their parent" during its theatrical run. It was also the first movie to successfully challenge the Production Code Office and eventually force the MPAA to overhaul the Production Code Seal with the eventual classification system in 1968.