Based on Edward Albee's controversial play, director Mike Nichols' debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) is a bold departure in American cinema. The film – as the play before it - is a psychological microcosm of the steady sad decline in marital relationships. The movie managed to break down barriers in film censorship. Artistically, it’s the best work either Richard Burton or Elizabeth Taylor ever committed to celluloid as a couple. Burton and Taylor are cast (perhaps self reflexively) as middle-aged university professor George and his carping wife, the unrelenting foul mouthed Martha.
George was a once brilliant mind since corrupted by alcoholism and his emasculating wife. Booze helps George to cope with Martha’s bombardment of malicious barbs – a vice that is slowly rotting his soul as much as his wife’s constant humiliations have eroded his sense of self pride.
For her part, Martha is a grotesque shrew - pure acid and one of the all time great female characterizations in American movies. She lacerates her husband’s self respect, brutalizes his inner strength and emasculates his sense of masculinity to such an extent that all George can do is drink. The adage ‘if words could kill’ fairly accurately describes Martha’s malevolent relationship with George. Her bitterness pivots on a thin veneer of polished decadence – an almost lampoon of Taylor’s own on screen persona during the forties and fifties.
The plot thickens – or perhaps curdles is a better word - when new professor, Nick (George Segal) and his naïve wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis) arrive for late night drinks at George and Martha’s. What they are treated to is a chaotic destructive portrait of what marriage may hold in store for them in twenty years or so.
While there was nothing new about this sort of frank and detailed critique of American life turned upside down on the stage, on screen Mike Nichol’s bold handling of the ‘objectionable’ situations and language literally broke new ground in American movies. Never before, in the history of cinema had there been such a toxic exposition. There’s no happy ending here. No resolution, no coming to terms. Just a vindictive backlash of angry, mutual hatred and untiring disgust that permeates, envelopes and dissolves lives to a shattering mess.
What was shocking then seems perhaps a bit tame by today’s standards – but the dramatic irony that saturates the story has lost none of its vim or vicious vigor. Quite simply, this is one hell of a good show and a veritable showcase for private hostilities between two thespians/lovers played out in a very public venue.
Warner Home Video’s Special 2 disc edition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? offers a fairly impressive DVD transfer that accurately captures the stark black and white photography. Shadow and contrast levels are nicely realized. Whites are generally clean. Blacks are overall solid and deep. Occasionally the picture seems just a tad soft but these moments are sporadic and forgivable. There's an incredible amount of edge enhancement in several key sequences that is quite distracting. The audio is mono which is also adequate since the film is largely an exercise in dialogue with limited musical scoring or sound effects.
Extras include two documentaries; one on the making of the film, the other a very dated overview of Elizabeth Taylor’s acting career. Honestly, with all that Taylor has done both on and off the screen it’s a considerable wonder that her life hasn’t been immortalized in a comprehensive 2 hr. biography with restored vintage film clips. That’s what a great actress of Taylor’s enduring legacy and reputation needs and deserves. Other extras include the film’s original trailer and a fairly involving audio commentary; great stuff all around.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)