On June 22, 1966, The Hollywood Reporter appraised the directorial debut of Mike Nichols, giving high marks to every aspect of the drama. The review, originally titled “‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ Is a Motion Picture Masterpiece,” is below:
The screen has never held a more shattering and indelible drama than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee’s stage play was a masterpiece. The makers of this film have created from it a motion picture masterpiece. It will be nominated for every category it fits in next year’s Academy Awards, and it deserves to win them all. It will tote up an equally impressive score at the boxoffice. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an instant film classic, and Warner Bros. deserves the highest credit for making it a movie without compromise.
Virginia Woolf is a drama that encompasses the whole relationship of man and woman; love and hate, tenderness and cruelty, sad and funny. Ernest Lehman, who produced the picture, also wrote the screenplay. Although it is a true screenplay, he has wisely preserved almost all the Albee language, using his own gifts at making it viable as film. A screenplay is not all dialogue, a hard fact to remember, but this is Lehman’s most potent contribution.
Virginia Woolf is not a play that is hard to bring to life; it bursts with vitality. It is a hard play to kill, as a reviewer who has seen it in six or eight productions, from Broadway to Long Beach, can testify. Film is something else. And the greatest credit for the implacable engagement that the film creates for its audience must go to the director, Mike Nichols. Nichols makes a stunning film bow with Virginia Woolf.
To clear away one subtlety immediately, Virginia Woolf refers, of course, to the late English writer. The meaning is peripheral. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a mixture of pop art and pedantry of the sort indulged in by scholastic types. Such types, in essence, are the hero and heroine of our film. Their names are George and Martha, and they are played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Martha is the daughter of a college president. George is a history teacher in father’s college. He is a failure, as Martha reminds him; “bogged down in the history department,” she says, calling him, with some oblique affection, “Old Swampy.”
Their marriage, too, is a magnificent wreck, a hulk that drifts like the flying Dutchman, a menace to navigation and travelers on the uncertain seas. On the fateful night when the action of the movie occurs, it crosses the path of another young couple. They are called Nick and Honey, and are played by George Segal and Sandy Dennis. The action of the story is almost continuous, or seems so, beginning early in the morning after a faculty party and lasting until the cold dawn, with icy fingertips, climbs again over the rim of the day, and with chill blue light restores reality.
During the night, George and Martha have exchanged badinage of a particularly lethal nature. “There isn’t an abomination award you have won,” says George to Martha at one point. “You’re going bald,” she says to him cheerlessly at another point. “So are you,” he replies. That is a mild example of their fencing and probably unfair to quote out of context. There has been no more brilliant and scathing dialogue in any American play. Just “blood under the bridge,” Burton remarks of one incident, accurately, summing up the married life he has endured and fostered.
Albee divided his play into three acts, giving each act a title, respectively: Fun and Games, Walpurgisnacht and The Exorcism. Lehman and Nichols have retained the rhythm, and in a delicate way, the separation of the moods. George and Martha begin the late night — and early morning — with one of their customary rows, fairly good-natured, only occasionally drawing blood. The temper changes when Martha breaks one of the rules that they have tacitly established for their combat. With the visiting couple, Nick and Honey, present, she introduces mention of a son. A real son to Martha and George? The point is moot until Albee and Lehman spin out their story. “Truth and illusion,” one character or another remarks. Which is which?
Having broken the rules for their private game, George and Martha then begin a bare-knuckled, knee-and-groin duologue that breaks them both before the night is out. That is what the play is, a long, long night of conflict between two people locked in a not quite hopeless embrace. They have been through the thick and thin of a tumultuous marriage, and it has been very thick and very thin at times. To take a word from Albee, the plot is almost unbelievably “convoluted.” Meanings beneath meanings are repeatedly exposed as one layer after another is peeled away. But a complete understanding to all this is not necessary. It is there, put there by a writer, director and actors of extraordinary acumen and ability. But the surface is enough and will be fascinating.
Much has been made of the directness of speech and the situations in Virginia Woolf. It is vulgar, profane and obscene. But to a purpose. And, in truth, probably less blasphemous in its portrait of life than the cotton candy versions. Children may not attend Virginia Woolf unless accompanied by parents. One cannot escape the thought: will Peter Pan better prepare them for life?
Elizabeth Taylor reaches the fullest of her powers as Martha. The actress’ beauty and the richness of her personal life have repeatedly obscured the fact that she can be, when she cares to be, an actress of extraordinary power. She is purposely blowzy and flabby in this role. Her clothes and makeup deliberately make a ruin of the great beauty. Her voice is as coarse as her speech. A drinker of awesome capacity, Martha has debased herself in every physical way, and Miss Taylor must suggest this. Only at the end, as the camera focuses on her face and then on her hand, locked with her husband’s, does some of the eternal girl and eternal optimist, forever disillusioned, leak out. Miss Taylor is a prime reason the film seems so very seldom a drama, and almost always a violation of privacy, captured with hidden cameras and microphones.
Richard Burton as George, must underplay to Miss Taylor’s vehemence. Although she can strike and wound, he is the master of the situation, recoiling, reassessing, and prepared to return to battle with fresh armies. Martha speaks in what seems direct, violent language. George indulges constantly in circumlocutions. In the final climactic scene, as Miss Taylor tells about their son, Burton in the background in tones the Dies Irae, the mass for the dead. It is a rending performance. Again it is not necessary to know all these subtleties to be impressed by their use. Burton has continuous grasp of the character and the story. It is he who is ringmaster, in a sense, but one whose primacy over the arena is repeatedly threatened. Burton’s eyes, such as the scene where Segal inadvertently reveals his weakness, illumine the screen and the story with as much fervor as another actor’s shouts.
Segal demonstrates a talent that until now, on the screen, at any rate, was only latent. Miss Dennis, as his wife, makes a smashing screen bow. Segal plays one of the men of the future, as Burton puts it, one of those scientists who is going to “rearrange all the chromosomes” to produce a perfect race. Segal must be glib, assured, and then be snapped and broken, and retain some of his cockiness (in one meaning or another), but be different. Segal invests the role with all of these variations. Miss Dennis, as the daughter of a man of God (who spent God’s money and kept his own) is poignant and funny. She is the waif of the world, and achieves sympathy, but she is also one of the bores of the world, and she gets this quality, too.
Lehman’s screenplay deletes one blunt word of the original and changes another. The latter change, where Burton addresses Miss Dennis, is a curious one, but it cannot be gone into here. One important moment where Miss Taylor describes Segal’s performance as a lover, seemed to slip by the preview audience. It was muffled, perhaps purposely, although it lost a laugh. These are not adverse criticisms. They are comments on the whole.
Haskell Wexler did the photography, in the black and white it called for. Fortunately, no one felt the overwhelming need to create a new style. Wexler has made his camera the handmaiden of the story and its wide and diverse meanings. It moves like a wily but congenial Inquisitor, displaying, revealing, highlighting. Alex North’s music generally allows the words to make their own cacophony and symphony. His score introduces the story and provides some connective links, and does so with ingenuity and meaning. Sam O’Steen’s editing catches it all, the fury and the quiet. It catches the pace and never releases it. M.A. Merrick’s sound, with all the moving cameras and brilliant, difficult lines, is always crystalline.
Richard Sylbert’s production design creates a home for George and Martha as demented and cluttered as their minds. Set decoration by George James Hopkins is appropriate down to the glassware favored in the George and Martha household: old jelly glasses. Irene Sharaff’s costumes help tell the story, including Miss Dennis’ fur jacket, one of those garments composed of small skins that look as if the wearer had trapped the animals himself. Gordan Bau’s makeup and Sydney Guilaroff’s hair style for Miss Taylor both deserve a nod for helping deface Miss Taylor without being obvious or grotesque.
Bernard Shaw in his days as a drama critic, once remarked something to the effect that most shows reduced the critic to mere advertiser for entertainments of dubious value. But, occasionally, he said, there was a presentation that gave the critic the satisfaction of being the servant to a high art. That is the effect produced by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — James Powers