There really is nothing more frightening than a writer. The ability to weave a story together that so touches you with its realism is a very powerful gift. You become cast under a spell, yearning for the next page and the answers to discover what may happen. What occurs when you are the orchestrator of it all, though? Edward Albee attempts to get at this very question, pitting a middle-aged couple, liquored up and ready to verbally spar, at each other’s mercy, using the twenty-something year old guests that arrived at their doorstep as pawns in their game. What appears to be a very late nightcap of sarcasm and sharply stinging jabs soon unravels into tales of deceit, slowly chipping away at the young ones’ resolve while turning the emotional screws of the elders. The film’s title posits the question, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a sing-song joke to the tune of ‘The Big Bad Wolf’ that soon is answered with the fact they all are. George and Martha are writing the evening as the minutes pass, getting angry and violent as they attempt to defeat the other, not only scaring their guests, but also frightening themselves with how far they find they are willing to go.
What makes this film so good, besides a strong story and amazing acting, is that it comes from a first-time director in Mike Nichols. I saw this film many years ago and loved it, so much so that when the play was performed here in Buffalo, I made a point to see it. Albee’s words are the backbone of one of the most intelligent scripts to be put to film, (another of the best being a later Nichols film adapted from the stage in Patrick Marber’s Closer), and succeeds in a theatre-in-the-round, single location set-up or the inside/outside change-up of the movie. I’m currently reading Mark Harris’s bestseller Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood—one of whose five films is The Graduate. Originally slated to be Nichols’ first foray in Hollywood, it soon becomes decided that he’d cut his teeth on this Albee adaptation instead. Harris talks about the former comedian turned Tony-winning stage director and how he reigned in the most volatile couple in America to make Woolf work. A man in need of control, he didn’t let the studio interfere, even hiring Haskell Wexler to complete the cinematography despite the producers wanting someone else, and his own eventual problems with the man. It may help that the story concerns only four characters and plays as though on the stage, but don’t let that demean the shear brilliance on display.
In the hands of a lesser artist, this film could have become a strict telling of the play, both in script and blocking, shooting it all in long-shots, watching the players do their thing. This was not the case. First off, credit should be given to screenwriter Ernest Lehman for taking Albee’s work and making it more cinematic. He allows for a change in scenery in a couple instances that really enhance the words being spoken. Taking George and Nick—the young Biology teacher newly arrived to the college where George works in the History department and Martha is the daughter of the school’s president—outside at one point lets them be more candid in their isolation from the women. Even the fact that they talk while sitting on a tree swing in front of the older couple’s house becomes a subtle inroad to the topic of the son that plays such a crucial role in the games at hand. And the idea of adding a couple drunken drives, with a stop over at a deserted bar for some jukebox music and dancing in between, only increases the tension and animosity constantly growing, serving as the place where ‘Humiliate the Host’ gives way to ‘Get the Guest’ and George’s decision to take control of the night’s festivities.
The second reason the film is much more than just a taped performance of the play is in the extensive use of close-ups. Consisting of so many long monologues and waxing poetic, whether stories of truth or illusion, the camera oftentimes lingers on the character’s face, showing the inebriated stupors, the rage bubbling inside, and the tears streaming down cheeks when the fun becomes to hard to handle. Because of this showcasing style, one cannot argue how good both Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are as George and Martha. These two live a life of both love and convenience. They may have gotten together for reasons that concerned their careers and social statuses in the future, but eventually love did win over. In a couple instances towards the end, we learn how the two revel in their ability to rile the other up, relishing in the delight it cultivates, knowing that the other will stand and fight back. Martha is slightly crazed, picking her battles and asking for all the pain dealt her way; she seems to need the abuse as punishment, letting George lay into her to make up for the fact that she let him fall in love with her. I almost hope these two were drinking throughout the production because the stupors are completely realistic, enhancing the mood swings to impressive effect. Both actors turn so easily from laughter to tears, screams to soothing tones—each transition another nuance to the games, lulling the other into a place of security before lashing out for the jugular.
I think these two powerhouse performances do sometimes overshadow the effective work done by the other two actors onscreen, though. George Segal should not be underestimated as the self-absorbed and short-fused newcomer Nick, doing his best to toe the company line while seeing an opportunity for quick advancement within the school. Egged on by Burton to grasp at this possibility, both to see if he’ll go that far and also to see if his wife will as well, Segal becomes the straight man, seemingly able to hold his liquor and keep his head. Yet that ability to appear sober only makes his transgressions that much more vile, seeing him use his ambition to give into temptation, angrily reacting to show just how weak a ‘houseboy’ he is. And Sandy Dennis is fantastic as his wife Honey. Drunk right from her first frame, she has the most difficult job in having to show her vulnerability through small flashes of clarity when overwhelmed by the activities occurring around her. Often the thinly veiled butt of George’s verbal stabs, her brandy-induced malaise spins from giddy excitement at familiar yarns to horrified embarrassment when she realizes the familiarity stems from the stories being about her. She may be the naïve throwaway that’s along for the ride, but she is also the crucial piece that is played to help make both George and Martha’s changing rules real, becoming an unknowing partner to each.
The games Albee has these characters play are what propel the story forward. Everyone is living within a world composed of just as much fiction as fact. One would agree that this is true for the hosts, but I also believe it is for the guests too. Honey has constructed a past to explain to herself how she got married, lies that make her life bearable while Nick cheats himself by staying with her, not really sure if its love or duty that keeps him there. With the help of alcohol, and the cunning of their hosts, both of these youngsters find themselves spilling all their worst secrets, falling prey to the games and into a false sense of trust. George, on the other hand, knows from the beginning what is to transpire and he does his best to keep his emotions in check. Only when Martha throws the rules out the window does he decide to adapt and change the game so that the tables turn from him to the other three. After his own humiliation is complete, the only thing left to do is dress-down the others, get his revenge, and once and for all put an end to the shenanigans. He must finish what Martha has started, doing the unthinkable by going as far as he can. Truth and illusion become intermingled throughout the entire film; the lies unravel little by little as the stakes get higher, all culminating in a climatic moment of pure unadulterated emotion letting loose from all onscreen. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? crescendos from the very first frame of Burton and Taylor walking from background to foreground, the tension getting heavier as it goes, reaching its peak only when the story is complete.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 10/10