Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis. Directed by Mike Nichols. Screenplay by Ernest Lehman. Based on the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, produced on the stage by Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder (New York, 13 Oct 1962). Produced by Ernest Lehman. USA Black and White 130 minutes Drama
My DVR was getting quite low on room, so I decided to go back and watch the oldest film that I had recorded to clear up space. For over two years, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been waiting patiently to be watched. Finally on a recent Friday night, we got to it. And after finally watching it, I feel bad about having made it wait so long.
One of the landmark films of the mid-sixties, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is based on Edward Albee’s play, which opened four years previously. At the time, the language used in the play assaulted its audiences and it was considered to be unfilm-able by Hollywood, which had that out-of-date Production Code, which forbade much of the play’s language and subject matter. But, as Bob Dylan had already sung, the time’s they are a-changing.
The play was purchased by Warner Bros. and gave it to screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who also acted as the film’s producer. Lehman made the decision not to change any of the play’s dialogue and despite grumblings for the Catholic Legion of Decency, the MPAA and even Warner Bros., Lehman would prevail.
Originally, Bette Davis and James Mason were considered for the leads. If you’ve seen the film, you can only imagine the delight in seeing Davis do an impersonation of herself from the film Beyond the Forest (1949), in which she had exclaimed the famous line “What a dump!” which is referred to in the play and the film. But sober heads prevailed. Elizabeth Taylor and her then current husband, Richard Burton, whom she had met on the set of Cleopatra (1963), were case in the leads.
Taylor, who had grown up on camera in such films as Lassie Come Home (1943), National Velvet (1944) and Father of the Bride (1950), was considered one of the world’s most beautiful women at the time and about 10 years younger than the Martha character in the play. But Taylor, who had already been nominated four times for an Academy Award for her acting in Raintree County (1957), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and finally winning for Butterfield 8 (1960), had already proven herself to be more than just a pretty face.
Richard Burton was a well-known actor in his own right. Six years older than Taylor, Burton had spent time on stage before getting into the movies with The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949). The Welsh-born actor had also been nominated for his acting, first as a Supporting Actor in My Cousin Rachel (1952), then as Best Actor in The Robe (1953), Becket (1964) and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965).
Like the play, the film had only four credited parts. Rounding out the cast were George Segal, a relative newcomer to film, having only started with 1961’s The Young Doctors and Sandy Dennis, making only her second film after having acted on the Guiding Light soap opera on television.
Virginia Woolf, the well-known writer, modernist and feminist in the early 1900s, mentioned in the title, really has no role in the film other than her name is used in song. Sung to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush", instead of the Disney song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which it references, Virginia Woolf’s name is used instead of the Big Bad Wolf. Albee described the inspiration for the title:
I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.
|At the beginning of the story, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband George |
(Richard Burton) are waiting for their guests to arrive.
The story is set on the campus of an unnamed small New England college. It is two in the morning and associate history professor George (Richard Burton) and his hard-drinking wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the daughter of the college president, have just arrived home from a party. As soon as they're home, Martha informs George that she’s invited a young married couple, whom she met at the party, for a drink. George isn’t in the mood for company and Martha teases him about a song that was sung at the party that got a lot of laughs, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” George is not amused.
|Nick (George Segal), the new biology professor, and his wife, |
Honey (Sandy Dennis), come over for drinks. And drinking they will do.
The guests, Nick (George Segal), a biology professor (even though Martha thinks he teaches math), and his wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis) arrive and the four start to drink. They will not be too far from a bottle of liquor for the rest of the movie. Martha and George engage what appears to be their usual scathing verbal abuse and while Nick and Honey are at first embarrassed, they still stay.
|Early on the two couples share a laugh,|
The wives go into the kitchen and when they return, Honey tells everyone that Martha has told her about her and George's son and that the next day, Sunday, will be his sixteenth birthday. George is visibly angry and upset that Martha has told her their shared secret.
Martha continues to taunt George and his response is passive aggressive. Martha tells Nick and Honey how much of a failure George is, considering that he married the college president’s daughter, he should be more than an only an associate professor. A humiliated George reacts violently by breaking an empty liquor bottle. In order to screen Martha out, George grabs Honey and starts to dance, singing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Too much giggling on top of too much alcohol sends Honey running to the bathroom to throw up.
|Martha taunts George until he smashes a bottle in humiliation,|
After tending to Honey, Martha goes to the kitchen to make coffee. Meanwhile, George goes outside and Nick follows him. Like a lot of husbands, the two complain about their marriages and their wives. Nick confesses to George that he only married Honey because she thought she was pregnant, what is referred to as a hysterical pregnancy. George mentions that Martha has never had any pregnancies before going on to complain about his marriage as a series of accommodations.
|Nick follows George outside and the two talk and open up.|
Sort of out of the blue, George tells the story of a boy he once knew at prep school. The boy had supposedly killed his mother accidentally when he was younger and had joined George and other boys on a pre-holiday drinking binge. George goes on to describe the laughter around the boy ordering “Bergen” instead of bourbon or gin. When Nick asks what happens to the kid, George hesitates, but then tells him how the boy, then sixteen and with a learner’s permit, swerved to avoid a porcupine and hit a tree, killing his father, who was a passenger. The boy, upon learning the news, went insane and has been 30 years in a mental hospital.
Nick goes on to tell George about Honey’s father’s money and how he jokingly plans to move up at the University by sleeping with the wives of the prominent professors and administrators. He even suggests starting with George’s Martha.
Martha comes out of the house and yells across the yard that they’re making coffee and the boys go inside. But instead of coffee, Nick and Honey want to go home. George, even though he’s been drinking, insists on driving them home.
In the car, the talk once again turns to George and Martha’s son, which further annoys George. On the way, they pass a still open roadhouse and Honey suggests they stop to dance. At this hour, they are the only patrons. Honey dances wildly while Nick tries to calm her down. Honey and George watch as Martha and then Martha and Nick dance suggestively. Fed up, George unplugs the jukebox and announces the game is over. Martha alludes to the fact George may have murdered his parents like the protagonist in his unpublished, non-fiction novel, as well as his Bergen-ordering friend from his earlier story. George can only be pushed so far and he starts to strangle Martha until Nick manages to pull him off.
|At the roadhouse, Nick stops George from strangling Martha.|
The owner of the roadhouse (Frank Flanagan) tries to kick them out, but George convinces him to serve them one more round before closing. The owner's wife (Agnes Flanagan) brings them drinks. Soon after George proclaims that he's through playing "Humiliate the Host" and announces the four are going to play a new game, "Get the Guests".
|Still at the roadhouse, George invents a new game, "Get the Guests."|
George then tells the group that in addition to his one unpublished novel, he’s written a second novel and the story he tells, about a young couple from the Midwest, which closely mirrors everything Nick had told him in confidence about the marriage and the hysterical pregnancy. Honey recognizes their story and their secrets and runs from the room. Before Nick goes after her, he promises to get revenge on George.
In the parking lot, George tells Martha that he cannot stand the way she constantly humiliates him, and she suggests that he married her for that very reason. Supposedly fed up they declare "total war." George is still surprised when Martha drives off without him. He watches as she stops to pick up Nick and Honey and then drives off. George resigns himself to walking back home.
Arriving, he finds their station wagon sitting run up on the curb. In the backseat, he finds a half-conscious Honey lying across the backseat. In the second story bedroom window, George sees the outline of his wife and Nick, suggesting they are presently engaged in sex. George overhears Honey's drunken babbling suggesting that her pregnancy was real and that out of fear she had a secret abortion. George then gets an idea for how to get even with Martha.
Back in the house, Martha is obviously dissatisfied after her sexual encounter with Nick. He blames his performance on the liquor he’s been consuming all night. Martha starts to treat Nick like a servant.
George then appears at the door with a bunch of snapdragons. In yet another game, George starts to throw the snapdragons at both Martha and Nick. George mentions their son, which prompts Martha to reminisce about him. She accuses George of nearly destroying him. George counters, accusing Martha of destructive behavior that caused the boy to frequently run away from home.
|George arrives at the door with a bunch of snapdragons.|
Nick also learns how thick George and Martha are when he joins in on berating George and Martha turns on him.
George then announces that they had received a telegram with the bad news that their son was killed that afternoon while driving on a country road. George recounts the details of the accident, which sound very familiar to Nick; the boy swerved to avoid a porcupine and crashed his car into a tree. Honey stumbles in just in time to corroborate George’s story about the delivery. When Martha asks to see the telegram, George taunts her that he ate it.
|Martha turns on Nick the same as she has on George before.|
When Martha argues with George not to "kill" their son, Nick realizes the truth that Martha and George’s son is imaginary. For reasons never explained, they never had a baby and in one more game, they pretend to have a son and invent stories about him. George explains, to Nick and Honey, that their one mutually-agreed-upon rule was to never mention the "existence" of their son to anyone else, and that he "killed" him because Martha had broken that rule by mentioning their son to Honey, earlier in the morning.
The revelation that Martha and George’s son is imaginary isn’t a total surprise as there are hints sprinkled throughout the film. As an example, when Nick and George are outside telling marital war stories, George admits that Martha never had a pregnancy. No doubt both men were too drunk to be paying too close attention to who said what. Honey’s motivation for backing George’s wild tale of the imaginary early morning telegram delivery seems to come out of left field, but she no doubt wants to hurt Martha for sleeping with her husband and sees the story as the best way.
As the sun starts to come up, Nick and Honey quietly finally leave. George and Martha are now left alone. They speak quietly, and in the last lines Martha answers the title question with "I am, George, I am."
|George and Martha come to truce after their guests leave.|
There is a stark look to the film, which black and white does much better than color, that’s right for the subject matter and mood. And as crisp as the cinematography are, nothing seems to get in the way of the acting or of the dialogue. Black and white is the perfect treatment for this type of story. As with most of the film, Nichols does not seem to hit a wrong note.
Make no mistake about it, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is slow paced. There are no quick cuts and few reaction shots. Director Mike Nichols rather lets the story unfold like a good stage play. With the exception of drinking, there is little stagecraft. Rightfully, Nichols lets the acting carry the day.
|Director Mike Nichols on the set with Taylor and Burton.|
Nichols knew something about acting himself, having started on the stage. Before directing, he was probably best remembered for his all too brief collaboration with Elaine May. After that comedy duo broke up in 1961, Nichols went back to the stage, but this time more as a director. His big break came when he was chosen to direct Neil Simon’s play Barefoot in the Park. Nichols had found his calling. He would also direct Simon’s The Odd Couple. By 1966, he was very much an in-demand director partially because he knew how to get the most out of his actors.
Elizabeth Taylor shines here, showing a fast range of emotions, though mostly crazed anger throughout. In the hands of a lesser talent, some of her antics could have led to chewing the scenery. But with Taylor, she manages to make Martha seem believable; crazy, but believable.
Richard Burton is also quite remarkable as George. You get the idea both of them feel trapped by the other and rather than take action to change things (divorce, therapy), they weave a web of deception that they hide behind to make life together bearable. They even go so far as to invent a son that is their little secret and seems to be the one thing that binds them together. When that secret is revealed by Martha, things go from bad to worse between them.
And while they are at each other’s throats, both figuratively and literally, throughout, woe be the person who tries to get in between them. As Nick finds out, Martha and George will eat you up and spit you out. Like most people I associate George Segal with more comedic roles, but he really shows that he is a talented dramatic actor as well. He holds his own quite well given the heavyweights he finds himself sparring with on the screen.
Sandy Dennis’ character is on the surface less complex than the other three. She is fragile and sickly, but she is not above participating in the shenanigans, backing up George’s wild story about the nonexistent telegram announcing the death of their nonexistent son. Her motivation in doing so is not apparent, but one gets the idea that she is also a little crazed, perhaps also feeling somewhat trapped in her marriage to Nick.
In fact, as the night wears on, one gets the feeling that Nick and Honey are on their way to becoming their own version of George and Martha. A somewhat loveless marriage in which vows of fidelity are not taken seriously, where babies are imaginary and with a more than generous amount of alcohol showered over the top. Lips are loose and anger over the situation in life simmers just below the surface.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a landmark film in many ways. Its subject matter and use of language, along with Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), was responsible for the MPAA’s film rating system which Valenti unveiled on November 1, 1968 and which, in revised form, still exists today. Though the MPPA required some minor changes and the agreement with theaters showing the film not to allow anyone under eighteen to attend unescorted by an adult, the film was remarkably faithful to the play, something that only four years earlier would have seemed impossible.
When it came to the Academy Awards, the film was only the second to be nominated in every eligible category; the other having been Cimarron (1931). It was also the first film in which all the credited cast was nominated for acting honors; a feat matched twice since, by Sleuth (1972) with two actors nominated and Give ‘Em Hell Harry (1975) in which the lone actor received a nomination. In all, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, winning five. Not only were Taylor and Dennis winners, but so was Haskell Wexler’s stark black and white cinematography, winning the last Best Cinematography, Black-and-White award before the category was eliminated.
So strong was the acting that the unusual step was taken to release a version of the soundtrack that included all of the film’s dialogue in its entirety. While there were some alternate takes used, this was the only way at the time for the home consumer to relive the film once it was out of theaters. In the days before home video, there was no way that this film would be shown on network television, the only secondary medium available in 1966.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? deserves to be seen. If you’re like me and have it waiting on your DVR then by all means watch this film now. While not necessarily the feel-good film of 1966, unless of course you’re comparing your rather mundane life to the dysfunctional marriages depicted on the screen, it is still very intriguing and in its own way enjoyable.