Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(American, 1966, 129 minutes, b&w, 35mm)
Directed by Mike Nichols
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 cinemtaography 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 KAWI 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 Scorcese 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 focussed 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.
— Kevin Hagopian, University of Pennsylvania
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), a famous and shocking black comedy, was based on Edward Albee’s scandalous play (Ernest Lehman’s screenplay left the dialogue of the play virtually intact). It was first performed in New York in October of 1962, and it captured the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Tony Award for the 1962-3 season.
The searing film exhibited a fine sense of pacing, comic timing, and gripping buildup in a series of emotional climaxes. The shocking content—the dramatic portrayal of the destructive, sado-masochistic battles in one couple’s tempestuous, love-hate relationship during a late night to dawn brawling encounter—was thought to be too vitriolic, frank, explicitly blasphemous and foul-mouthed for the film screen. However, with studio boss Jack Warner’s insistence on keeping the integrity of the play, and the teaming of real-life husband and wife mega-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the film was guaranteed success.
Woolf won five Academy Awards from its thirteen nominations: Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor), Best Supporting Actress (Sandy Dennis), Best B/W Cinematography (Haskell Wexler), Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. The other eight
nominations included Best Picture, Best Actor (Richard Burton), Best Supporting Actor (George Segal), Best Director (Mike Nichols), Best Screenplay (Ernest Lehman), Best Sound, Best Original Music Score, and Best Film Editing.
— Tim Dirks, www.filmsite.org
In the 1960s, many changes occurred in cinema. One of them was the burial of the Production Code. Once, films were limited by censors who believed in the well-being of audiences, but now, almost anything can be said in a movie. Midnight Cowboy audaciously went beyond the adult content norm, as did Easy Rider, the story of drug-wielders. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, from the controversial play, went through censorship hell before Jack Warner decided he would be true to the play’s essence and keep the phrases "hump the hostess" and "screw" in the film. Mike Nichols and the cast quartet comprised of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis create an eerie, surrealistic film, bitter and dark.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were then at the center of a tipsy-turvy marriage and some say the two, who play an unhappily married couple in the film, didn’t have to act much. I’m sure Taylor’s and Burton’s rocky marriage contributed to the utterly choking atmosphere between the two in the film, and the resulting performances are absolutely riveting. In the tradition of A Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a Broadway play before it was made into a movie. It also has a dark, shaking atmosphere like Streetcar and it also only has four principle actors. . . .
The movie begins when George and Martha are returning home, under a moonlit sky, from one of Martha’s father'’s parties. George is a college professor and Martha’s father is the college president. At home, Martha screams and bickers at the weary George and announces, to his surprise, they are having guests. "At this time of the night?!" George yells.
The guests, Honey and Nick, are flawlessly played by Sandy Dennis and George Segal, and they are new in town. Nick is a professor in biology at the college. The night starts out with few words (they have nothing to say to each other) and then dips into a nightmare of wicked flirtation (between Martha and Nick), bitter mockery (between Martha and George), flowing alcohol, long-kept secrets, and ghoulish games. Honey and Nick are surprised at the ceaseless stream of insults the elderly, middle-aged couple throw at each other and they become ill-at-ease. They are trapped, however, in Martha and George’s web of deceitful and frightening games. . . .
Haskell Wexler’s phenomenal black-and-white cinematography only heightens the emotions on this non-stop two-hour roller coaster. He uses a hand-held camera much of the time and telling close-ups. He uses shadows, creating a dream-like state for some of the reality-fantasy sequences. The shakiness of his camera makes us feel we are looking through the eyes of the four characters as they go through this inferno, this earthquake of a night which begins after midnight and ends at dawn.
The performances are very smart and well-done, especially the two leads. Elizabeth Taylor, in her finest performance, her Hamlet, gained twenty pounds to play Martha alongside her-then husband Richard Burton. She is flaming, red-hot madness: loving George one minute, and pounding him the next. She has so many memorable scenes, never have I seen such a raging performance from her. Richard Burton is not to be outdone—he has quiet moments in the film which are his best. His character, George, has a softness that Martha tries to take advantage of and make fun of. George Segal is very good as Nick, the perplexed, naïve new professor and Sandy Dennis goes from soft-spoken to a loud drunk in the film and it is absolutely fascinating.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? could almost be called a war film. It has the psychological twists and turns of Streetcar but, here, it seems Elizabeth Taylor is the barbaric Marlon Brando and Richard Burton is the timid, ruined Vivien Leigh. The film has been called a black comedy, and though so many scenes scream a humorous irony and preposterousness, there isn’t much that is funny about this difficult drama. Mike Nichols is like Elia Kazan here, pulling out every ounce of emotion from his actors. The anger of the film is unsettling and depressing, like Streetcar’s, and the movie feels stagy during many parts of the film but I have never been moved more by Mr. Nichols, nor have I seen such a well-put-together cast for a long time.
— Andrew Chan, rec.arts.movies.reviews newsgroup
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the best American play of the last decade and a violently candid one, has been brought to the screen without pussy-footing. . ..This in itself makes it a notable event in our film history. . . . The most pressing question—since we already know a great deal about the play and the two stars—is the direction. Mike Nichols, after a brilliant and too-brief career as a satirist, proved to be a brilliant theatrical director of comedy. This is his debut as a film director, and it is a successful Houdini feat. . . .
Any transference of a good play to film is a battle. (Which is why the best film directors rarely deal with good plays.) The better the play, the harder it struggles against leaving its natural habitat, and Mr. Albee’s extraordinary comedy-drama has put up a stiff fight.
Ernest Lehman, the screen adapter, has broken the play out of its one living-room setting into various rooms in the house and onto the lawn, which the play accepts well enough. He has also placed one scene in a roadhouse, which is a patently forced move for visual variety. These changes and some minor cuts . . . are about the sum of his efforts. The real job of "filmizing" was left to the director.
. . . Mr. Nichols has made the most of two elements that were left to him—intimacy and acting.
He has gone to school to several film master (Kurosawa among them, I would guess) in the skills of keeping the camera close, indecently prying; giving us a sense of his characters’ very breath, bad breath, held breath; tracking a face—in the rhythm of the scene—as the actor moves, to take us to other faces; punctuating with sudden withdrawal to give us a brief, almost dispassionate respite; then plunging us in close again to one or two faces, for lots of pores and bile. . . .
— Stanley Kauffmann, The New York Times, June 30, 1966
After all the initial commotion over Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—all the wailing of the censors, the shouting of the reviewers and the mumbling and grumbling of the patrons who have come away stunned and confused—there remains one simple statement to be made about this film: it is a magnificent triumph of determined audacity.
Whatever one thinks about it as a work of art—and that’s as moot as a critical judgment of Edward Albee’s original play—it does manifest a bold endeavor to put upon the screen material as candid and caustic as that which is put upon the stage. It does represent a thrust of courage and integrity on the part of everyone who risked reputations and money to put it across—and that includes Jack L. Warner, who backed it and stuck to his guns, as well as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who play the unglamorous leading roles.
It is, in short an indication of the kind of determination to come to grips with contemporary human and social problems that our American filmmakers sorely need. It is an example of daring that inspires admiration and hope. . . .
— Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, July 7, 1966
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