Home Video Reviews
As a stage production, it started off with a bang, winning the Tony and New York Drama Critics' Circle awards for best play of 1962. Then it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama-until the Pulitzer advisory board vetoed the accolade, complaining about the play's foul-mouthed dialogue and oversexed atmosphere. Score one for the puritans.
As a film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? broke Hollywood taboos by spewing words like "bugger" and "goddamn," becoming the first picture released to theaters with an adults-only warning tag. But aside from that, the puritans didn't win this round. The movie got enthusiastic reviews, racked up good box-office grosses, and earned a whopping thirteen Academy Award nominations, five of which turned into wins. Along with the European art film Blowup, which included female nudity, it put a final nail into the coffin of the Production Code censorship office, paving the way for the MPAA ratings system inaugurated two years later.
Nichols's movie, available on DVD from Warner Bros. Home Video, stays quite close to Albee's play, focusing on two married couples who cuss, taunt, bicker, and battle their way through a long, hard-drinking night in an old house on a college campus. The home belongs to George, a middle-aged professor with a stalled-out career, and Martha, whose fondness for fighting words is exceeded only by her taste for alcohol.
Their guests for the evening are Nick, a newcomer to the faculty, and Honey, a vulnerable loser who's extremely bad at holding her brandy. Fueled by booze and cigarettes, the four of them lurch through a series of abusive verbal games. By the end of the party we realize that George and Martha are linked by equal measures of love and hostility, and that no matter how well-matched Nick and Honey seem at first glance, their marriage probably won't last another year. We also learn that George and Martha share a deeply concealed secret, and its revelation marks an unsettling change in their emotional future.
Preproduction of the film was almost as dramatic as Albee's play. After deciding that the Broadway hit could be adapted into a first-rate movie, writer-producer Ernest Lehman acquired the rights and Warner Bros. honcho Jack Warner told Albee he wanted to cast Bette Davis and James Mason in the leads. This was a great idea-in the first scene Martha does a wild Bette Davis imitation-but Lehman wanted Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, a dream team from the publicity angle, since their high-voltage star power and increasingly rocky marriage were getting ink in every publication around.
They jumped at the parts. Then the quirky stage actress Sandy Dennis agreed to play Honey, and George Segal took on Nick after Robert Redford rejected the role because he thought the character's constant humiliation would be bad for his image. In its riskiest choice, the studio asked young Mike Nichols to direct-it was his first movie-and he immediately said yes, even though this meant postponing his own production of The Graduate for a year.
Although the play's reputation for rough language and sexual hijinks gave Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lots of free publicity, everyone at Warner Bros. knew the dialogue would have to be toned down. Lehman adapted the script himself, opening the story up with scenes in new locations (a car, a backyard, a saloon) and making numerous changes that Nichols promptly unmade, preferring to stay as close as possible to Albee's original. It's a good thing he did, since at least one of Lehman's changes-transforming George and Martha's secret from a pathetic fantasy to a run-of-the-mill misfortune-would have destroyed a key element of the drama's metaphorical meaning.
As things turned out, the movie keeps the play's corrosive cleverness and scalding wit mostly intact, preserving the tone of its blistering language, if not all of the razor-sharp dialogue. Taylor and Burton are absolutely perfect as Martha and George, giving the best screen performances of their careers-even though, as Albee points out in a DVD extra, Taylor was twenty years too young for her part and Burton was five years too old for his. Nichols's directing is brilliant, especially for a debut film, and Haskell Wexler richly deserved his Oscar for best black-and-white cinematography. (This was the last year separate Oscars were given for color and black-and-white camerawork.)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the high point of Warner's marvelous Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton Film Collection, which also includes the duo's two previous pictures, The V.I.P.s and The Sandpiper, and The Comedians, made in 1967. Among the extras are two commentary tracks--one by Wexler, who discusses everything from technical matters to gossip, and one by Nichols, who talks with Steven Soderbergh about the picture's history. Both commentaries are worthwhile, partly for the information they provide and partly for the disagreements they reveal. For example, a couple of exterior shots show George and Martha's car parked in the driveway with its right-turn signal still blinking. Wexler takes great pride in saying this was his idea, while Nichols says it was his brainstorm, planned weeks in advance.
Who's right? It doesn't matter, but it's fascinating to hear such diametrically different accounts. It's even more fascinating to hear Nichols admit how ignorant he was about filmmaking at the time-worrying that if he set up a tight shot in a doorway, for instance, the opening door might knock the camera for a loop. (He hadn't heard about long lenses yet.) This kind of good-natured candor is what high-level commentary tracks are all about, and Nichols's dialogue with Soderbergh is an excellent specimen, supplementing an excellent movie.
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by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt