Hellfire on heels, Martha's the shrill, spoiled, middle-aged daughter of a university president who won't recognize a boundary in sight of carnal or argumentative indulgence. As quick to deliver a trenchant barb or penetrating inquiry as to quaff a shot, George is an embittered history professor. Fueled by liquor and loathing, theirs is a spent, long-rotted marriage fraught with resentment for each other's numerous failures. Returning from another of many faculty parties, he's surprised to learn that she's invited a couple for drinks - a young, handsome biology instructor and his sweet, gawky wife. Already gnawing at one another, they needn't much time or booze before they turn on their visitants with exchanges teetering to the verge of absurdity. When a secret rooted in years of mad, pathetic delusion is unearthed, George and Martha's gloves come off for a nightlong domestic war from which no one present emerges unscathed.
Mike Nichols' directorial debut (released but a year prior to his classic generational mega-hit, The Graduate) coaxes every drop of fluent vitriol from Edward Albee's powerhouse stage play by dint of violent lead performances and engrossing composition. His stage direction of Barefoot in the Park, Luv and The Odd Couple elevated Nichols to Broadway stardom, but this first foray into feature filmmaking evinces not only an assured collaboration with his dream cast, but also a canny grasp of cinematic stylism. Nichols' static wide shots only emphasize the action occurring therein, none of his many close-ups feel claustrophobic and his few reaction zooms, while dated, are still startlingly effective.
Notwithstanding their famously vituperative marriage and mutual, incessant alcoholism, neither Elizabeth Taylor nor Richard Burton were considered ideal actors to play the overripe harridan and her beaten, recreant spouse as so vividly embodied onstage by Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill. Sensible opinion appraised her too beauteous, he too forceful. Among those considered as Martha were Bette Davis, Patricia Neal, Ingrid Bergman and Rosalind Russell. Candidates who would likely have served as able incarnations of George included James Mason, Henry Fonda, Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon. For whatever reason, delightful ham Peter O'Toole was also assessed as a possible choice! Perhaps more devoted to her profession than to any of her spouses (including Burton), Taylor gained thirty-odd pounds to reinforce the dumpy verisimilitude of her performance. So essential was her coarse appearance that DP legend Harry Stradling Sr. was relieved of his position for attempting to restore her usual glamor. Playing the dissolute lush as trashily as could be expected, she's unnerving and convincingly (if not actually) inebriate, and yet her essential vulnerability - first implied, then explored in emotive instances of misleading exposition - is tremendously endearing. However, Burton is the true wonder of this picture. His portrayal of bespectacled George is not a faithful enactment of Albee's character, but rather an inspired reinterpretation whereby an academic beta male rising to his boiling point is transformed into a sly, sneering, scholarly alpha eager to meet his wife's cruelty with his own denigrations while baiting the latest object of her desire with mocking wit. Albee's vulpine, whip-crack dialogue is at least as striking by way of Burton's brisk, idiosyncratic delivery as Taylor's thick, derisive slurring. Neither of the guests are dramatic slouches, either. As charismatic Nick, an almost unrecognizably handsome George Segal shifts from conspicuous flirtation to plastered stupor to aggressive umbrage to defensive enervation with total plausibility. Sandy Dennis is better still as deceptively guileless Honey, whose nervous laughter, abrupt sicknesses and boozy abandon all suggest a creeping apprehension. While Martha and George pick each others' worst scabs open for the world to see with retributive fervor, Nick and Honey are forced to consider their own buried indignations, which they can never broach in response to one another. Dennis's curious, wide-eyed understatement is a marvel - she has the least to say, but conveys nearly so much pique as her castmates with a slender, sardonic shift of tone.
Producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman wisely expanded the action of WAoVW beyond the onstage stricture of George and Martha's home to a roadhouse and exterior settings to advance the film's cinematic quality. However, both Nichols and his star leads loathed Lehman's rewritten dialogue and newly contrived ending. Ultimately, the discourse and close of Albee's play was utilized with but a few additions and tweaks to satisfy Jack Valenti's newly-revised MPAA production code.
Viewers are best advised to avoid the colorized version of this picture, for Haskell Wexler's celebrated, luminous grayscale photography is rich with shadowy contrast. Alex North's elegantly melancholy score imparts a pensive aural facet to the film's opening, interludes and conclusion.
Although neither its verbal obscenity nor sexual entanglements are anywhere near so outrageous as they seemed in the mid-'60s, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has lost not a jot of its potency. Hopelessly in love and hate, its aggrieved pair sadistically torment one another not merely to satisfy their dudgeon or avenge the breach of a lunatic pact, but because it's all that remains of a relationship in which devotion is expressed so cruelly. Their catharsis is voiced by a scream, yet confirmed in whispers. Alternately horrific and hilarious, this is an especially fine stage-to-screen production from a decade when such fare was abundant and consistently excellent. Representing the very best efforts of its distinguished contributors, this classic encapsulates the postwar decline of marital life while exhibiting the talents of its estimable stars.
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Robert Buchanan (rbuchanan)
I'm a bibliophile, ailurophile, inveterate aggregator, dedicated middlebrow and anastrophizing syntax addict. My personality type is that of superlative INTJ.
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