Mike Nichols’ career as a film director began with 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a dazzling character-driven piece based on the play of the same name by Edward Albee. Its depiction of domestic chaos in the 1950s is shocking and biting, even with today’s standards, and its story of cruelty remains agonizing to watch at times despite the brilliant performances and awe-inspiring screenplay.
Ernest Lehman was in charge of the adaptation of Albee’s play and he does an excellent job bringing this complex work to the screen. With Nichols simple black-and-white direction and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography, the film has a close feel that really draws the intimacy of the situations and conversations to the fore. It’s a tough film to watch because it feels deeply personal and deeply painful. There is a sense that we, as an audience, are observing something we shouldn’t be.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is set on the campus of a New England college. We are introduced to a couple, George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor). George is an associate history professor and Martha is the daughter of the college president. It’s the middle of the night, around 2 am, and George and Martha are essentially drunk and fighting each other like they usually do. Martha announces that they are expecting company, so George tells his wife to ensure she controls herself.
The company is a young couple: Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis). Nick is an up-and-coming instructor and Honey is not particularly bright. They are an odd but strangely suitable couple. The games begin when Nick and Honey presume they are probably intruding on something volatile between Martha and George. Martha and George insist on the young couple sticking around, however, and this leads to a night of terrifying conversation, innuendo, gamesmanship, lies, and verbal warfare. Nothing is sacred.
Nichols’ picture is absolutely thrilling in the way it utilizes language to get things done. We marvel at how George and Martha carry on with each other; it is shocking to hear the insults and deceptions hurled at one another. We are bearing witness to a marriage in shambles, essentially. There was happiness between George and Martha at some point and time, but they have turned into brutal adversaries.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a volleyball match of humiliation and dangerous games. In leaving Albee’s dialogue virtually intact, Nichols’ picture was the first American film to use the words “goddamn” and “bugger” on screen. It was a shocking movie for audiences at the time and, thanks to the powerful performances of Burton and Taylor, it retains all of its emotional impact to this day.
In using the real life husband and wife team of Burton and Taylor, Nichols was taking a gamble that few others would have taken. Oh sure, Taylor and Burton tag-teamed on the megaflop that was Cleopatra, but something like this was a different beast. This movie required the couple to be absolutely cruel and vile to one another, script or not, and the process must have been draining on the actors.
Grasping the context of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is somewhat tricky but not altogether impossible. America was coming out of the conservative throes of the 50s and, in the post-Ike era, the gloss of American life was beginning to fade to reveal that people had real problems. In many respects, this Mike Nichols film showcases some of those real problems behind closed doors, introducing many Americans to a world onscreen that they imagined only existed in real life. It helped shatter the mould of fantasy Hollywood, proving that films could tackle real stories and real people skilfully and artfully.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an essential motion picture. The performances are tremendous, the script is phenomenal and Nichols directs it all with simplicity and courage. It is a bold movie, even now, and many will be shocked by the lengths George and Martha go to in order to torture one another.