Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Reviews
Mike Nichols' spellbinding film drops all-time acting greats Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton right in the middle of a Shakespearean-grade study of alcoholism. Burton and Taylor spit daggers at one another, each sharper and shriller than the last - the sense of history and sheer bitterness between their characters evoking an air of authenticity seldom seen on screen.
But Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is much more than a showcase for some of cinema's best acting and bitterest dialogue. In fact, the note-perfect coupling of Taylor and Burton is but a bonus factor in a film that offers an eerie exploration of the link between drunkenness and insanity, punching as opposed to poking the creaky boundary between the two at every opportunity.
On the surface, Nichols' film is a piercing theatrical melodrama. Underneath, it is a psychological thriller, a ghost story, a black comedy, a brutal romance and more. In fact, one might argue that the film offers one of the richest, most honest and resonating commentaries on the age-old concept of true love that the screen has ever seen.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was not only controversial for its day (one of the movies that helped bury the Hayes Code) but also a wonderfully warped mind trip that is still shocking almost 50 years after the fact. The movie has multiple layers of depraved entertainment; it is a marriage farce, a battle of old time wits (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at their most imprudent), a coarse perspective of relationship counseling, and of course, it has a plot twist so brutal, you'll never play games at the dinner table again. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has two things going for it: it's based on a play by Edward Albee (the best scripted films are always based on plays) and it's directed by Mike Nichols who has an enormous sensitivity when he's directing couples on screen. This PG rated drama is still the most disturbed thing you'll see in any given month.
What I Learned: I really think Edward Albee and Mike Nichols' creation is where I got some of my harsh and caustic wit. Of course, I always thought really disturbed and funny things in my own head, but until Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf I never knew it could be so deliciously fun to torment people with using only your quick-witted mind. There was great sadism in this sarcasm and it helped me realize there is no need to bite your tongue-at least not in art.
This pitch perfect masterpiece feels like a burning fuse; a bitter and angsty work of genius that is volatile and angry. Mike Nichols' stupendous direction has an omniscience to it that keeps things rolling along with ease.
The two play a college history professor and his wife, who is also the dean's daughter, and we quickly come to know that they are (a) very unhappy and frustrated with one another, (b) highly blunt and sarcastic in expressing this, and (c) functioning alcoholics. The first scene which lasts something like 50 minutes and has a younger professor and his wife (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) coming over to drinks is absolutely stunning. The script and Taylor and Burton's performances are outstanding. Humiliation, flirting with the opposite sex, telling stories and confusing "truth and illusion" to play mind games with the other are the order of the day, and the two serve it up again and again in ways which may make your jaw drop.
The movie is minimalistic in the sense that it only has these four major characters, two extremely minor characters (who briefly appear when they visit a roadside bar), and it all takes place in a single night, mostly in their home. However, the performances are explosive and 'larger than life'. Taylor in particular really put herself out there, because let's face it, putting on weight and acting like a loud, cheap, bully is far more dangerous for a woman than it is for a man. Images of the SNL sketch from a decade later may come to your mind as she munches on a chicken leg and then carelessly tosses the bone back on the plate in the fridge. She is absolutely exceptional, and was worthy of the Academy Award she received. I was also reminded of the power in some of Jennifer Lawrence's recent performances as I watched her, but Taylor takes it to another level. Burton is also fantastic, trying to remain intellectual and appear above it all, but displaying a frustrated rage within and constantly needling all the three of the other characters. When he goes out for the rifle in the garage as Taylor is telling an embarrassing story about him and returns with it, we feel serious tension, and I thought first-time director Mike Nichols did a great job here and throughout the movie.
It loses a teeny bit of momentum towards the middle, and I have to say, the story behind their child, whose apparent death seems to be an explanation for why they've gone a bit kooky, but who has been an imaginary child all along, does not ring true, at least in the emotions it evokes out of each of them. While it's a symbol of an unrealized dream they share, just as Burton's failure to advance in the hierarchy at the college is, to me this is a weakness in the original play. The ending, which as them tenderly resigned to one another despite all that bickering and fighting (and bottle breaking, and choking!), is powerful nonetheless. It's not exactly a feel-good movie, but it's one that will stir you.