****/**** Image A+ Sound A- Extras B
starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis
screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Edward Albee
directed by Mike Nichols
by Walter Chaw The similarities between Mike Nichols's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Joseph Mankiewicz's Sleuth are more than cosmetic. Both are based on well-regarded plays designed for small casts eating one another in claustrophobic environments, both point to the fallacy that a good stage play needs to be expanded when transformed into feature film--if the writing is caustic and vital enough, it can by itself open up limitless interiors. It doesn't hurt, of course, that Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is given screen life under the sure hand of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the genius lenser fresh from lovely work with Tony Richardson, Elia Kazan, and Franklin Schaffner and just two years away from making his own generational statement with the reality-skewing Medium Cool. The picture loosened the old form of film censorship's hold on the motion picture industry (to pave the way for new censorship, natch), but its most enduring legacy could be the popularization of the cinematographer-as-voyeur. Of Albee's direct lineage, Patrick Marber's (Closer, Notes on a Scandal) scripts come closest to recreating the tableau morte of Virginia Woolf?, but looking at the way that both of Marber's pictures flag in the third act while most crucially failing to un-flesh the sympathetic humanity in his icy necropsies highlights the brilliance of Nichols's (an acclaimed theatre vet making his debut here, with his next stop The Graduate), merciless dissection of the intellectual's disease of ennui and gamesmanship.