I watched Mike Nichol’s black and white cinematic adaptation of Edward Albee’s famous Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last night. Unfortunately I had a terrible hangover and can report it was not a pleasant experience. Listening to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton argue drunkenly with each other for more than two hours is exhausting, especially when you’ve had too much to drink the night before.
Having said that, when I read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? back in college I thought it was hilarious. Its dark, witty banter and assessment of human malice made my brain tick and also made me glad I wasn’t married. At the time.
I was never fortunate enough to see the stage version of Albee’s story. The groundbreaking play first opened on Broadway in 1962 and won a Tony in 1963. It continued to receive accolades for both the play and the film afterward.
For the time, the play was considered risqué. Indeed, its ballsy dialogue and scandalous content have always made it stand out in my mind, but nothing makes it more memorable than the main characters, Martha and George. George is a history professor and his loud, callous wife Martha is his sidekick in a love-hate marriage that has made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? synonymous with bad relationships.
The play starts after Martha and George return home from a party at Martha’s father’s house on the college campus. After George suggests a nightcap, Martha reveals that the night is long from over, saying that she’s invited George’s co-worker, Nick and his wife, Honey, over to their place for drinks. Nick, a biology professor at the university where George works, and his young, artless wife are new to town and about to get a taste of what their lives could be like in 20 years.
The seemingly emasculated George grumbles when he hears of Martha’s plans and the teasing begins between the two. Martha asks George to kiss her and when he refuses, Martha gets huffy. It’s just after this that Nick and Honey arrive, unknowingly about to walk onto an emotional landmine.
Because Albee was openly gay, some critics have alleged that his play was a masked portrayal of gay, rather than heterosexual, domestic life. Some theater companies even wanted to cast the roles of the two couples with men, but Albee denied permission to use an all-male cast, saying, “If I’d wanted to write a play about two gay couples, I would have done so.”
It’s hard for me to imagine a couple – any couple—so incredibly cruel as this hetero pair. Martha and George play “party games” with each other and with their guests, baiting them with horrifying stories of tortured childhoods and strange stories about their mysterious son. All the while, the drinks are passed around. The characters drink so much it’s no wonder Honey excuses herself regularly throughout the evening to vomit and pass out on the bathroom floor.
When Kathleen Turner bashed Elizabeth Taylor’s acting chops earlier this month, saying that she had done a better job when she played Martha in the 2004 Broadway production, she raised some eyebrows. While Turner is an amazing actress, so is Taylor. After seeing the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Taylor as drunk, brutish Martha.
Taylor reportedly gained 30 pounds for the part and dons a ratty wig and endlessly burning cigarette, beautifully externalizing Martha’s brazen personality. Her hands fly perpetually around her face and she laughs like there’s something really hilarious going on while swearing at George through her teeth when she thinks no one else is listening.
Richard Burton is excellent as George, expertly portraying the character’s quiet, seemingly feeble demeanor that quickly gives way to surprisingly slyness as he proves himself just as sadistic as Martha. One of the best scenes in the film happens when George excuses himself and goes into another room, grabs a rifle, points it at Martha’s head and pulls the trigger. Instead of a bullet, an umbrella pops out of the barrel. Woops! They all have a laugh and another drink.
Interestingly Edward Albee was told that Bette Davis and George Mason were going to play the lead roles in the film, but after he saw Taylor and Burton act in the movie, he reportedly was happy with the casting choice.
Knowing that Taylor and Burton were really married at the time of shooting makes the film that much more interesting. Back at the time, the two were Hollywood’s answer to Brangolina (and a hell of a lot more interesting), having scandalously fallen for each other while married to other people. The two would go on to make seven successful films together, including WAVW and The Taming of the Shrew before their marriage would dissolve.
George Segal and Sandy Dennis play the unsuspecting and naïve young Nick and Honey. Segal skillfully captures Nick’s ambitious and proper character and Dennis gives a wonderful performance as the simple, child-like Honey. The film not only launched Nichols’s directing career, it garnered Oscar nominations for all the actors (Taylor and Dennis actually won). It was also the only film to ever be up for an Academy Award in every category.
Like other cinematic adaptations of plays, the film has freedom to wander. Because it isn’t set on a stage and is suddenly no longer confined to George and Martha’s apartment, Nichols had the artistic freedom to move a bit. He did well in opening up the environment (we are able to see outside of the house in the yard and later at a diner) while still focusing on the sinister and often comical banter between the two couples. In fact, because the camera can focus on one face at a time as well as the character’s individual perspectives, it seemed to get more into the characters’ heads than it could while set on a stage.
The film hardly strays from the play apart from the camera elbowroom and angles and some script editing. Martha’s “Screw you!” becomes “Goddamn you!” because at the time, “screw” was considered profanity.
Overall, the play and the film are long-winded and emotionally exhausting. While I wouldn’t call them enjoyable, I’d definitely recommend both. Each has proven itself a pioneering landmark for the time: The play broke ground for its guts and the film for its amazing acting.
Just don’t drink too much the night before. Your head will thank you.