WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) B/W widescreen 129m. dir: Mike Nichols
w/Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, George Segal
Edward Albee's brilliant, biting play about the love-hate relationship between a middle-aged, resigned college professor and his vitriolic, denigrating, yet seductive wife is turned into a movie experience to be cherished. It's a cinematic feast thanks to Nichols' astute debut as a director. The entire cast was nominated for Oscars (with only the women winning in their respective categories), and deservedly so: Taylor's towering portrayal of the foul-mouthed Martha is matched all the way by Burton as the tortured George; Dennis and Segal are right on the money as the young couple.
From The Movie Guide: "The Liz and Dick Show. A vitriol Valentine to that most famous of public marriages. The Battling Burtons, in their finest work (together). Our tabloid awareness of their union informs us they were living out their real-life roles, so a side of the viewer champions the authenticity, even when it sometimes looks actorly. Albee's play opened in October, 1962, and shocked even blasé New Yorkers with its language and dark subject matter (Uta Hagen and Arthur Hiller created the Broadway roles). The attendant publicity when the film was cast guaranteed an audience no matter what. And many big names had wanted the roles. (Bette Davis wanted to play it opposite Jimmy Stewart, supposedly. Can you imagine Davis doing a parody of herself saying, 'What a dump!'? We ideally would have cast Susan Hayward and Henry Fonda.) If Taylor's early scenes sometimes seem more like showing off, she ultimately ropes you in --- it's a pity so few films have taken advantage of her bawdy penchant for black comedy. Burton's only disadvantage is his accent; his portrayal seems a trifle more fully realized than hers. ...
"Producer [Ernest] Lehman's screenplay left most of Albee's play intact, which shocked movie audiences not accustomed to hearing four-letter words cannonading off the screen. At first, the Production Code seal was denied to the movie, but Jack Warner used his personal clout and secured the deal. The play was bought by Warners for half a million dollars; an additional million each went to the Burtons --- out of a total budget of $5 million. The movie grossed large numbers at the box office, nearly $15 million the first time around, due, in part, to the draw of the stars.
"Dennis in her second role after a small part in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS was absolutely right in a part that became the definitive Dennis role. The same cannot be said for Segal, who lacks the bulk and WASP look for Nick --- where was Robert Redford when Nichols needed him?. [sic] Burton and Taylor both took British Oscars for their work. Hiring Nichols (comedy partner of Elaine May) in his directorial debut was a risk because the former nightclub comic had done only lighter work. But the script is fueled by acid, sarcastic dialogue which his direction paces flawlessly, his sense of comic timing serving him well. The film was rehearsed like a play for three weeks before a camera ever turned. This also marked Lehman's debut as a producer. Strong stuff, intensely watchable, but definitely not for children."
From the website www.albany.edu, these notes on the film by Kevin Hagopian, University of Pennsylvania:
"WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? is one of the most remarkable adaptations of a stage work in American film history. By using black and white cinematography at the very moment that style was in eclipse, director Mike Nichols and cinematographer Haskell Wexler render George and Martha's interior Hell in unforgettably dark imagery. The story of George and Martha's (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) corrupt, verbally sado-masochistic marriage, and the unwilling recruitment of two nervous dinner guests, 'Nick' (George Segal) and 'Honey' (Sandy Dennis) into a tunnel of anger and desire, may have found its most sublime expression not on a stage, seen from a distant balcony, but on screen, in the harsh greys and blacks of one of the visual masterworks of the dramatic cinema.
"The first half of the 1960's marked the last great flowering of the black and white cinema in America. As the Age of The Epic dawned in Hollywood, some of the most beautiful black and white cinematography ever committed to film flourished in the shadow of behemoths like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and CLEOPATRA. The use of faster film stocks, smaller cameras, and a generation of cinematographers who'd been influenced by combat and newsreel photography, gave to black and white a brief, brilliant Indian summer. Inspiration came as well from an unlikely source: television. There were the great live drama shows of the 1950's, like PLAYHOUSE 90; and there were the episodic television shows shot on film (and depicting contemporary life in a surprisingly humane fashion), such as the THE DEFENDERS, NAKED CITY, and ROUTE 66. From these varied sources, black and white brought back a grit and low-key realism to screens fast becoming the exclusive provinces of elephantine musicals and sluggish odes to empire.
"Once, Hollywood had seen the world in black and white. The shadows, and rich, glistening silver halide greys had been movies' great poetic language, the only plausible aesthetic choice for serious films like THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. Color had been thought of mostly as the medium of musicals and fantasies. When the studios began to sign huge deals to sell their more recent films for special television screenings, such as the landmark deal that brought THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI to the small screen, black and white suddenly became a marketing detriment. By 1968, it was virtually obsolete in the film industry. Black and white was very soon relegated to film history, used only by directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese who saw it, ironically, as a novel design choice.
"Martin Ritt's 1965 adaptation of the John Le Carre thriller THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD perfectly crystallized the glories of black and white in its fin-de-siecle period. With a visual styles as grim and overcast as the East German sky, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD was as emotionally chilling as its subject, the Cold War dance of espionage. There was the claustrophobic FAIL-SAFE of 1964, told almost entirely in sleek, modernistic offices, command posts, and bomber planes --- most of them in near-darkness. Blake Edwards' THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES and John Frankenheimer's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE dealt more with the mind than with the external world. Whether the minds in question were pickled in alcohol or briskly scrubbed by totalitarian demons, black and white seemed the appropriate medium for stories about conflict so internal, so abstract, that color would have seemed over-earnest. And then there were the 'little films' of the early 1960's, like Alexander Singer's A COLD WIND IN AUGUST, which used black and white not only to keep down expenses, but to keep their scope intentionally limited, and tightly focused on the concerns of a few agonized characters. Orson Welles' brilliant THE TRIAL made black and white seem the only true lens through which to see an absurd postwar world, in which apocalypse was only a bomber flight away, and the life of the everyday citizen was becoming, to Welles' eye, increasingly surreal. Even lesser films like Jack Garfein's SOMETHING WILD, with its trashy New York City exteriors, brought a semi-documentary look and an intimacy to a cinema which was increasingly refusing intimacy.
"WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? is the work of cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Harry Stradling. Stradling was a veteran of color photography, and indeed, the film was originally scheduled to be shot in color; it was Stradling who initially planned most of the film. A much younger cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, fluent with the smaller-scale technology and subtler effects of black and white, was brought in relatively late to render the film in the melancholy blacks and greys which so effectively mirror George and Martha's bitterness toward one another. Because Stradling had done so much work during the preparation phases, his name appears on the credits. But it was Wexler who was awarded that year's Oscar for Best Cinematography.
"The engineers behind the adaptation of Edward Albee's dark stage masterpiece were stars Burton and Taylor, then at the height of their popularity. Their on-screen chemistry together in CLEOPATRA, and their complete domination of the nation's gossip columns with their endless romantic shenanigans had whetted audiences' appetites for more Taylor-Burton films. Yet, their recent films together, THE V.I.Ps and THE SANDPIPER, were disappointing, overcooked melodramas, in which relatively trivial emotions were sprayed across cinematic canvases too that were just too large for them.
"Perhaps Burton's experiences with black and white in THE SPY WHO CAME I FROM THE COLD, which he finished just prior to doing WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, helped to sway the production to black and white. As an adaptation of a major Broadway hit, the film had been purchased by Jack Warner with little thought to the play's content, but with a wide eye on the profits to be gleaned from a prestigious dramatic success. If he thought the young wunderkind he had also imported from the stage, Mike Nichols, would see things his way, he was wrong. Nichols found the heart of the drama in the beleaguered emotional barrenness that surrounded George and Martha's elaborate and sinister wordplay. Nichols realized right away that the film's cramped emotional landscape, and the dingy, flyblown interior of George and Martha's house, could be amplified by the limited palette of black and white. Wexler, whose previous credits included Elia Kazan's essay on his own ethnicity, AMERICA AMERICA, and Gore Vidal's political thriller THE BEST MAN, had begun his career with an intense semi-documentary feature, THE SAVAGE EYE, in 1959. It was Wexler's black and white cinematography that made vivid Nichols' understanding of George and Martha's tortured life together as a precarious balance between self-loathing and a suicidal need for love.
"The play had been set entirely in George and Martha's house. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman had obeyed the traditional dictum to 'open up' the screenplay with some scenes set outside the house, but Wexler found a way to make these new places seem, if anything, even more cloistered. The scenes in George's backyard, for instance, so still and restful compared to the bloody-minded goings-on inside, seem to offer a moment's respite from the hothouse wordplay in the living room. But it turns out the backyard only allows Nick a moment of breathing room before he is sent back inside to enact his role in George and Martha's pitiful, dangerous game. The roadhouse sequence, screenwriter Lehman's most important addition in an otherwise extremely respectful adaptation, allows Nichols and Wexler full cinematic rein. Their out-of-context, canted close-ups and jittery hand-held shots make us wonder if the world outside of George and Martha's house has taken on the contours of the asylum, as well.
"But it is inside, in George and Martha's middle-class, middlebrow dwelling, a house that is never a home, that Wexler's cinematography achieves the foreboding and anxiety that are so written so deeply into the souls of George and Martha by Edward Albee. This is less a house than a labyrinth, its weary wretchedness a reminder to Martha of her husband's failures. Wexler's camera follows George and Martha through this house of games doggedly. By the end of the film, the house seems, in its own way, as epic a landscape as anything the screen was used to seeing in the widescreen warhorses that were then so popular. Wexler treats the house set, designed by art director Richard Sylbert and set decorator George Hopkins, as a battlefield, and his camera catches George and Martha trapped in a space far too small for their massive, twisted egos to maneuver in. And there, on the sofa, are Nick and Honey, wide-eyed and trapped by social convention and professorial rank. Gradually, they find themselves drawn into George and Martha's hideous, crabbed narrative, and they are lost in the long shadows of the couple's delusions, shadows into which an entire school of American dramatic cinema was so soon to disappear."
The film won Oscars for Best Actress (Taylor), Supporting Actress (Dennis), B&W Cinematography (Haskell Wexler), B&W Art Direction (Richard Sylbert), and B&W Costume Design (Irene Sharaff). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Burton), Supporting Actor (Segal), Screenplay Adaptation (Ernest Lehman), Editing (Sam O'Steen), Original Music Score (Alex North), and Sound (George Groves).
Haskell Wexler, the film's Academy Award-winning director of photography, provides commentary about the film on the Warner Bros. DVD. FilmFrog urges you to take advantage of the opportunity to view this film through a fascinating and different perspective.