When Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” landed in 1962 it set Broadway ablaze. Its scorching, abrasive story of a middle-aged couple’s volatile marriage won Tony Awards but was stripped of its Pulitzer Prize for Drama due to its controversial content. It was perceived as a story that could be told on Broadway but could never be filmed due to the infamous Production Code.
But things were changing in Hollywood. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman was determined to keep the play’s coarse language and twisted sensuality in hopes of capturing the same initial shock of Broadway. He succeeded and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is now known as one of the key movies of the 1960s that led to the abolishment of the Production Code. The movie became one of only two films to receive an Oscar nomination in every eligible category (the other being “Cimarron” from 1931).
Real life husband and wife Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were cast to play George and Martha, a venomous, hard-drinking couple in marriage turmoil. George is an apathetic associate history professor at a small college. Martha is the bitter malcontent daughter of the college’s Dean.
After a late night campus party, Martha invites a young couple to their home for a nightcap. The guests are Nick (George Segal), a hunky newly-hired biology professor, and his mousy, reserved wife Honey (Sandy Dennis). George and Martha begin a caustic back-and-forth verbal assault. At first Nick and Honey are terribly uncomfortable by what they witness, but their hosts seem impervious to their rudeness or damaging words. At one point George flippantly explains “Martha and I are merely exercising, that’s all.”
As more alcohol is consumed the conversations grow more toxic and soon the young couple find themselves caught up in George and Martha’s games of emotional destruction. Through various stages of drunkenness the four scratch and claw at every sensitive scar revealing deep-rooted anger and boiling secrets from their pasts. Lehman’s script is deeply loyal to Elbee’s story. Within it no feelings are protected and no verbal assault is too vicious.
The film marked the directorial debut of Mike Nichols who was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Fred Zinnemann (but no worries, Nichols would win the following year for “The Graduate”). Nichols wisely takes a more conservative approach to this material, trusting his four key players and allowing them to do most of the heavy lifting. But that doesn’t mean Nichols vanishes into the background. His hand is seen in several strategic camera techniques ranging from shot framing to camera movement. His direction never overshadows the dialogue, but there are instances where he accentuates it.
But when people talk of “Virginia Woolf” the performances most always top the conversation. The film earned Elizabeth Taylor her second Best Actress Oscar. Taylor dove headfirst into her character, gaining 30 pounds for the role, wearing a wig, and doing anything to shed her image as a beautiful movie star. Burton is equally good and brings a bruising passive-aggressive apathy to his character. Albee originally wanted James Mason but later admitted Burton was fantastic. Both Segal and Dennis also received Oscar nominations (Dennis winning her category) and each add their own unique and specific component to this dysfunctional tale.
There is simply no denying the strengths of “Virginia Woolf”, but your overall enjoyment may depend on your tolerance levels. This is 135 minutes of relentless verbal and mental cruelty. It’s a mean, acidic, piercing drama featuring one combustible scene after another. But the longer you stick with it the more layers are stripped away from the characters – the more we learn about them. And eventually the film asks if we are so different. Perhaps George said it best when watching Honey scratch the sticker off a bottle of brandy – “We all peel labels.” How true it is.
VERDICT – 4 STARS