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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A night of fun and games with George and Martha.
Liz and Dick as you've never
seen them before (or since).
You have to have something of a warped sense of humor and an exceptional tolerance for Liz and Dick to like this film. Otherwise, the darker themes of personal dissatisfaction, power, booze, broken self-delusions, and the ultimate absurdity of life could send you into deep depression. Without the humor, the same mechanism used by the film’s leads, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as they lay bare the cold, hard truth for both the characters and audience to see, this film would be so tragic as to be unbearable. I first saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shortly after it first came out in June, 1966. I was in the U.S. Air Force at the time, stationed in Alaska. The film blew me away. I went back to see it a second time (at an off-base theater) in order to come to grips with the stunning depth and the cinematic revolution I'd been unable to grasp the first time. Based upon the Tony Award-winning play by famed writer Edward Albee, directed by Mike Nichols from a screenplay by Ernest Lehman, the results were like no movie that had ever been made before. It wasn't just the monumental pile of profanities, nor the character driven plot, nor Taylor and Burton as they'd never been seen before (or thereafter), it all came down to Nichols' deft handling of all the above.

The opening scene...What a DUMP.
Writer, Virginia Woolf, 1902.
Perhaps the first order of business in discussing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is to discuss who the hell Virginia Woolf was. Very well, Virginia Woolf (right) was a British writer, one of the foremost modernists of the 20th-century. She was a significant figure in London literary society between the two world wars and a central figure in the influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), followed by the book-length essay, A Room of One's Own in 1929. She experimented with stream of consciousness writing and the underlying psychological and emotional motives of her characters. Woolf is considered a major innovator in the English language, although her reputation declined sharply after World War II only to be re-established with the growth of feminist criticism in the 1970s. Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness as a result of what is now termed bipolar disorder. She committed suicide by drowning in 1941 at the age of 59. Albee's play may be the only instance in which the title character does not appear on stage. There's also no indication why anyone should be afraid of her.
The cast of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf--Taylor, Burton, Segal, and Dennis--
as the drinksl begins to flow. "Rubbing alcohol for you, Martha?"
The film's advertising changed
after the entire cast was
nominated for Academy Awards.
For those who have never seen the movie, its all about a drunken party after a drinking party. Albee's George (Burton) and Martha (Taylor), whom he based on a real life academic couple and named after George and Martha Washington, come home from a reception at the home of the president of a small New England college. He happens to be Martha's father. George is an associate professor of history teaching at the college. It's well after midnight as they welcome a young couple into their humble abode for nightcaps. The husband (played by George Segal) is a newly arrive biology instructor (something of a stud) accompanied by his wife (played by Sandy Dennis). That's it, just four characters...too much alcohol, too little sleep, too little restraint, all bound together by a masterpiece of profane dialogue delivered with such sharp characterizations that all four were nominated for Academy Awards. Elizabeth Taylor won her second Oscar for Best Actress; Sandy Dennis her first as Best Supporting Actress. Nichols and the other two men should have won but didn't. The film was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Mike Nichols. It is one of only two films ever to be nominated in every category for which it was eligible (the other being Cimarron).

Nick (George Segal) and his wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis). Let the games begin.
When Albee's play debuted on Broadway in October, 1963, the immediate reaction of the critics and theater audiences was that Albee had created a play that would be a great success on Broadway, but could never be filmed in anything like its original form. However, neither group understood how much the Hollywood was changing in the 1960s or that it could no longer live with any meaningful Production Code. In bringing the play to the screen, Ernest Lehman decided he would not change the dialogue that had so shocked veteran theatergoers in New York four years earlier. When Warner Bros. head, Jack L. Warner bought the film rights for the play, he told Albee that he wanted to cast Warner stalwarts, Bette Davis and James Mason, in the roles of Martha and George. The "What a dump" scene in the opening segment would thus have involved Bette Davis doing an imitation of Bette Davis. The line is from the inconsequential 1949 Warner Bros. film, Beyond the Forest, by the way.

An Academy Award for braying.
The problem with casting Davis and Mason in the lead roles were that they were too perfect for the characters. For a play hung around the necks of but two main characters, Nichols and Lehman needed box office dynamite, not firecrackers. Liz and Dick were explosive, especially off-screen. Burton was about the right age and looked the part. Liz seemed too young and definitely lacked the coarse "frumpiness" inherent in the role of Martha. Both, however, jumped at the chance to do something really meaningful as a couple. Liz gained thirty pounds to play the role and dropped her voice a full octave. Her Martha remained still quite sexual but well past her prime.

The final scene, daybreak, and mourning a death in the family.
Nichols shot Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on a budget of $7.5-million. When Warner executives saw the rough cut, one remarked, "My god, we've got a seven-million-dollar dirty movie on our hands." The film was groundbreaking if for no other reason than its level of profanity and sexual implications. Jack Valenti, who had just become president of the MPAA at the time, had abolished the old Hayes Production Code. In order for the film to be released with MPAA approval, Warner Bros. had to agree to minor deletions of some of the worst profanities and to a special warning on all advertising indicating adult content. In addition, theaters exhibiting the film had to bar anyone under 18 from admittance without adult supervision. It was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the equally groundbreaking Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, , also released in 1966, that caused Valenti to begin work on the MPAA film rating system, which went into effect in November, 1968. In order to remain as faithful to the play as possible (with all its profanity), Jack Warner chose to pay the MPAA a fine (bribe?) of $5,000. It was money well-spent. The film ended up grossing $40-million.

Memorable scenes.



  1. Nice article, Jim. I have seen the movie but at the time was not really conscious of all the implications and meanings beneath the surface. I need to see it again more carefully. When I first heard about the movie, I found the title most interesting and tried to figure out the meaning as I watched the movie. No luck so far. :)

  2. Raj--

    In writing the article I found myself wanting to see the film again. I taught introduction to film at a local community college for a year or two. Virginia Woolf was one of the movies i included in the curriculum, though because of the language I showed only brief clips. Somewhere, I have the movie on VHS if I could just get the player hooked up to watch it, which might be more trouble than it's worth. For a small fee, it's probably available on YouTube or Netflix. Thanks for your comment.