Fifty years ago this week, the world got its first stunned, plastered look at the film version of Edward Albee’s Tony Award-winning 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Depicting one long, cruel marathon of a night in the home of college professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), as they engage in “fun and games” with their naïve guests Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis), the film was an instant sensation. Audiences lined up, especially drawn by the star power of Taylor and Burton, and the movie was later nominated for 13 Oscars — one for every single category in which it was eligible. (Taylor and Dennis were among its five wins.)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is available on DVD/Blu-ray and also for streaming on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play. Here are five reasons why the classic is worth revisiting or checking out for the first time.
1. It features the best real-life husband-wife pairing onscreen ever
They were perhaps the two most miscast actors in such heralded parts: Burton, the virile Welshman, in the role of a weakling professor, and Taylor, then just 33, as his pudgy, inelegant 50-something wife. Each of them transformed — Burton retreating deep within himself, Taylor ballooning out — and created a dank battle royale that roils without a hint of movie star vanity. Burton and Taylor would later divorce, remarry, and divorce again, but these two performances have a mixture of cruelty and caring — in other words, love — that seems almost intertwined within their DNA.
Check out these two scenes — just two among many — for proof of the couple high-voltage electricity.
2. It launched the movie career of Mike Nichols
The editing and camerawork of that second scene — especially when George aims a rifle right at the back of Martha’s head, provoking a horror scream reaction from the disbelieving Honey — is evidence of the freshness and talent of the man behind the camera. Mike Nichols was famous as a comic performer and stage director but had never made a movie before. And that fortified him with the necessary brio to make this one on his own tough, uncompromising terms, which included fights with producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman and studio chief Jack Warner on just about everything.
Less than a year later, Nichols would direct The Graduate, arguably more of a cinema classic than even Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He won an Oscar for that and would continue directing films, television, and theater for the next four decades. In 1980, he even played George in a stage production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with his great comedy partner Elaine May as Martha.
Nichols died in 2014. For a deep insight and analysis of his attitude and techniques while making his first film, definitely check out this full audio commentary he conducted with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? superfan Steven Soderbergh.
3. It helped introduce dark Freudian psychology to the mainstream
Seems strange to put a spoiler alert on a movie that’s 50 years old (and a play that’s even older), but — spoiler — there is a fifth character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and that is the 16-year-old son of George and Martha. He happens to be imaginary. Many of the audiences stumbling out of the theater in 1966 would have gotten their first taste of Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion. The book, with its central thesis that “Illusions need not necessarily be false,” was a touchstone for Albee while writing the play. (Various critics have interpreted the play as a metaphor for a homosexual relationship, a proposal that Albee has always denounced as ludicrous.)
The film’s title, by the way, has nothing explicitly to do with the British author of Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, who died by suicide in 1941. It comes, per Albee, from a phrase he saw scribbled on a bathroom wall in New York’s Greenwich Village. Freud would certainly have something to say about that.
4. It was filmed in gorgeous, haunting black-and-white
Director of photography Haxell Wexler won the Oscar for Best Cinematographer, Black and White, the last award given in that category before it was discontinued. But the film’s black and white traps the characters within a dream-fugue state. Once you’ve seen the movie, production stills in color like this one appear absurdly melodramatic and television-ish. The wild gestures and excessive drinking of the characters is reigned in, made a bit more real, in fact, by the noir lensing.
In Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution, Nichols is quoted about his adamancy for black and white from an aesthetic/thematic point of view. All of his filmmaking heroes like Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini shunned color (at that time), and he was concerned that color would reveal the makeup used to age Taylor into a woman 20 years older than her age.
The studio did not agree. “We went back and forth forever with all that s—,” Nichols said. “and finally [Jack Warner] said, all right, black and white.” Nichols’ cinematographer Harry Stradling, according to Harris’ book, “came back to Nichols with a final proposal to shoot the film in color but print it in black and white; Nichols, with no particular animosity, fired him and replaced him with his own choice: Wexler, who was twenty-five years younger than Stradling.”
Wexler commented on the film in the great documentary Visions of Light (beginning at 4:30 in the video).
5. It hammered a nail into the coffin of Hollywood’s censorship-happy Production Code
Since the 1930s, all American movies were in the vice of the Catholic conservative Hayes Production Code, which prohibited content in movies that the Code deemed immoral or lacking in wholesome values. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? included language and situations that were considered very risque in 1966 — though tame by today’s standards — and forced Warner Bros. to maneuver the film past the Code by emphasizing its cultural quality. Of course, the studio didn’t want a code of disapproval to hurt the film’s box office performance.
But the Code’s approval of the film essentially broke the system of moral judgment that had ruled for three decades. Within two years, MPAA head Jack Valenti had commenced an overhaul of the ratings system — not by any means a complete elimination of system-sanctioned censorship, but a giant leap to where the more challenging and idiosyncratic content of movies and television live today.