Friday, December 5, 2014

Watch This: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Directed by Mike Nichols

Last month, American cinema lost one of its most celebrated directors in Mike Nichols, who passed away at the age of 83.  Nichols started out as a performer, first as part of the group that founded Chicago's famed Second City improv company, and later as part of the comedy duo Nichols and May, alongside the great comedienne and screenwriter Elaine May.  He then found his true calling as a director in the theatre, and would go on to win eight Tony awards for his direction over the course of his career, the last for a 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman.  Not surprisingly, when he became a filmmaker, his directorial debut was an adaptation of a stage play, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

And what a remarkable debut it is.  Nichols could be forgiven for helming a stagy, dry adaptation, but instead delivers an intense, captivating, and distinctly cinematic piece of filmmaking that establishes many of the hallmarks of his work: a confident, polished visual style that is rarely showy; a sophisticated treatment of adult themes; and great performances from his cast members.

The film centers on middle-aged married couple George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), whose relationship is defined by alcohol-fueled bouts of insult and verbal abuse.  George is a History professor at a small New England college where Martha's father is the president, and late one night after a faculty party, they host young Biology professor Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) at their home for cocktails.  George and Martha, already drunk when the film begins, have been at each other before the younger couple arrives, with George criticizing his wife for her hard drinking and lewd behavior, and Martha taunting her husband and attacking him for his lack of ambition.  As the night progresses, they draw Nick and Honey further and further into their web of manipulation and invective, and we see cracks in the younger couple's marriage as well.  There is recurring mention of George and Martha's son, a topic that leads to especially heated exchanges between the two of them.  All of this leads to a shocking final revelation at the film's conclusion.

When it was originally released in 1966, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was groundbreaking in its use of profanity and its frank treatment of sexuality.  Nearly fifty years later, it still feels edgy, and it remains a more devastating portrait of marital discord than recent films like Revolutionary Road (2008) and Blue Valentine (2010).  Much of this can be credited to Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who wisely decided against a tame adaptation of Albee's play.  However, the film's success is due primarily to the work of the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom give career-best performances.  The ferocity of their portrayals can probably be attributed in part to their famously tempestuous off-screen marriage, but their commitment to their respective roles (Taylor reportedly gained thirty pounds for the part) is clear, and these are undeniably brilliant performances, with the quiet, subdued moments shining just as brightly as the intense verbal sparring.

Nichols would follow up his debut by directing the generational touchstone The Graduate in 1967, and would go on to direct gems like Catch-22 (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), Silkwood (1983), Working Girl (1988), The Birdcage (1996), and Closer (2004).  Over the course of his career, he would direct his cast members to an impressive seventeen Oscar nominations, a testament to his ability to work with actors.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? showcases two of the best performances from his oeuvre, and is rightly regarded as one of the most auspicious directorial debuts in all of American cinema.

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