, 131 min, 1966
Director: Mike Nichols
Writer: Ernest Lehman (screenplay)
Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal
Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an astonishingly literate, vicious, cruel, and fascinating portrait of life in the marital war zone of suburban academia.
The film consists of a long night’s journey into day for George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), an aging couple – he’s a history professor at the local college and she’s the college president’s daughter – who engage in what they call “fun & games”: psychologically and emotionally, always verbally, eviscerating each other with no holds barred, ever spurred on by copious amounts of alcohol. Into the breach comes young new biology professor Nick (George Segal) and his sweet, dumb wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), new and perfect fodder for the seemingly endless psychic battle being waged between their elder doppelgangers-in-the-making.
The film is the brilliant directorial debut of Mike Nichols, from a screenplay by Ernest Lehmann that adapts the modern classic stage play by Edward Albee. It has an astonishingly assured touch; with impeccable black-and-white cinematography by Haskell Wexler, the film never feels like a stage play on film.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Taylor giving a great performance as the bitter old battle-axe who harbors age-old resentments toward her husband. Burton matches her every step of the way, and sometimes exceeds her as the worn-down old spouse who never quite lived up to his promise; their battle of wills and words is a see-sawing back-and-forth of a power struggle. Segal and Dennis are ideal as the proverbial lambs to the slaughter, stepping unbeknownst even to themselves into a claustrophobic feud of somewhat tragic proportions.
Albee’s words are like sniper fire, cutting deep and to the quick, and always spot-on as they tear into their intended targets. The film (as well as the play on which it’s based) is about who is too afraid to live life without illusions. The dialogue reveals layers upon layers of truth and fiction, peeling them back with the precision of a surgical scalpel. The end results are devastating. The cumulative effect is one that’s riveting, absorbing, and horrific. It’s also one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Note: Nominated for a total of 13 Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor (Burton), Supporting Actor (Segal), and Director. The film won for Best Actress (Taylor), Supporting Actress (Dennis), Cinematography, Art Direction/Set Decoration and Costume Design (B&W).