George, a history professor and his wife, Martha, are a middle aged couple who have invited a young couple, Nick, a biology professor and his wife, Honey, back to their home after a faculty party. As the after party progresses, the drinking increases, and the two couples engage first in conversation which becomes interrogation, which progresses into verbal sparring and ends in emotionally damaging mind games and painful revelations. As dawn arrives, a deep secret shared by George and Martha must be confronted and the two couples part, having shared a shattering night.
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WON 5 OSCARS: Best Actress (Taylor), Best Supporting Actress (Dennis), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction Black and White, Best Costume Design
Edward Albee’s groundbreaking play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a brutal emotional journey aimed at dissecting two outwardly respectable marriages. It was controversial on its debut on Broadway in 1962 for its language and for its frank discussion of sex. However, to the contemporary viewer it is no longer shocking. When it came time to make a movie version, director Mike Nichols fought to keep most of the original dialogue and, as a result, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” became the first film to carry an adults only warning, the precursor to our current version of the ratings system.
The casting of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was seen as somewhat of a publicity stunt at the time, designed to add more controversy to the release of an already controversial film. Although Warner Brothers had originally wanted Bette Davis and James Mason as Martha and George, it was producer and writer, Ernest Lehman who demanded the two biggest celebrities of the era. The choice of the most famous married actors in the world did not appear to be a wise one on the surface. The previous pairings of Taylor and Burton on screen (Cleopatra (1963), The VIPs (1963), The Sandpiper (1965)) had not been particularly distinguished. Although these movies were financially successful, they seemed not to have much artistic merit nor purpose other than to profit from the huge public interest in the stars’ off screen love affair. Watching these earlier films, one would never guess that either Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton had in them the performances they give here.
The film was written for the screen by Ernest Lehman. Besides the award winning pedigree of the material (the play won the Tony and the New York Drama Critics Award), the movie version features an extraordinarily assured directorial debut by Mike Nichols and Oscar winning black and white cinematography by Haskell Wexler. Nonetheless it is an actor’s film and it relies greatly on the memorable performances delivered by the four principals. Both Taylor and Burton seem to understand these parts eerily well. Martha is the showier role and the more obviously complex as it is at her instigation that the contest of wills and psychological games begin. She admits this to Nick at one point, in a rare moment of quiet reflection, when she finally speaks about her deeper feelings for her husband:
“There’s only been one man in my whole life who’s ever made me happy .... George. George ... who is good to me. Whom I revile. Who can keep learning the games we play as fast as I can change them ... Who has made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me and must be punished for it.”
Taylor does the extraordinary here. She is an extremely famous woman who makes you put aside your assumptions about her due to her notoriety and forces you to focus only on the emotional turmoil in which this woman is drowning. It is a completely realized performance, that shifts seamlessly from humour to vulgarity to anger to pathos and finally to an amazingly revelatory final confrontation with George. Elizabeth Taylor won her second Academy Award for Best Actress in this role and it was justly deserved.
She is well matched by Richard Burton as the seemingly ineffectual George, a man who married the university president’s daughter and was never able to fulfill her expectations. Apparently defeated and exhausted with Martha and her endless taunts - “I swear if you existed, I’d divorce you,” - George is a man who misses nothing, who bides his time waiting for his opening to strike and who, in the end, is as much devoted to the vicious games the couple plays as Martha. Burton understands the barely suppressed rage behind the bland horn rim glasses and worn cardigan that George sports. He understands equally well how much George and Martha are a team and he matches Taylor’s performance in energy and emotional force.
George Segal as the callow Nick and Sandy Dennis as his neurotic wife, Honey, both succeed in their respective roles and in keeping up with the harrowing pace set by George and Martha.
The controversies which swirled around this material and its production in the ‘60s have long since passed and that’s all to the good. The film can now be judged on its own merits and it more than stands the test of time. Due to the penetrating insight of Edward Albee into the psychological labyrinth of these relationships, and the searing performances of these four actors, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is still an extraordinarily riveting experience.