****/**** 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.
It's impossible to separate the real-life tumult of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton on-again, off-again romance from the verbal/cerebral gymnastics of their Martha and George--she the daughter of the dean, he the associate professor of history several years past the point where "associate" holds anything but the ring of missed opportunities--so why bother? Even the dichotomy of verbal/cerebral paints the popular picture of Taylor vs. Burton. It's arguable that the reason Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? succeeds is due entirely to one part Wexler's intuitive cinematography and one part the playing out of Tayton's perceivable public persona as an ugly psychodrama. In one fell swoop, the film pushes the vocabulary of visual interpretation into the remarkable run of late-'60s counterculture pictures; forces the MPAA into establishing a ratings code to finally deal with popular films that disregard the Hayes censorship; and stands as the last, most eloquent statement on the Taylor/Burton relationship. I see in George and Martha's long night of torturing one another and initiating a younger couple into their cycle of alcohol and abuse for sport the thought that all this public scrutiny--no matter how auto-initiated and nursed--has the ultimate effect of digesting their personae in the popular perception. Compare the kind of fame Tayton invited at their height to a suckling parasite and find modern analogs in anything from Tom Cruise's 2006 meltdown sans publicist interference to Lindsay Lohan's very public fall from grace. In this scenario, the audience assumes the role of leech and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (tabbed once by a critic as a piece that could only be interesting to dirty-minded women) maintains its effectiveness because it's not just front-row to a trainwreck, but also a mirror held up to the dirty-minded assholes buying tickets for the exhibition.
The first real good look we get at the happy couple after a long and, it will become redundant to say, brilliant series of Wexler compositions is in a harsh, high-contrast black & white close-up that cast America's most-recognizable couple in an unforgiving light. They look like zombies or, closer to the theme, like blood puppies for a vampire: drained as community property by shunts that run parallel to American culture's thirst for human failing and weakness. The anticipation of their "first" appearance as it were has been imprinted on us as a culture. Wexler follows George and Martha through their modest home at 2 am, (we presume) after and (we hope) preceding long bouts of drinking and jousting--discovering endless reflective surfaces and lenses through which our complicity in this ugliness is flayed open. Better, Wexler demonstrates a real understanding of Albee's play as it bleeds into the whys of our fascination with Tayton. The reason Burton is perfect as the ravaged, war-torn intellectual tied to his own squandered potential by a harridan spawned from the ruling elite is because whatever the truth, Burton to us is something less than what he could be because he's with a creature of pop mythology and less than what we think he deserves. The initial bickering exchange involves Martha's needling George about some lost Bette Davis performance (Beyond the Forest (1949)); her impersonation of Davis establishes Martha as one thing (a product of inheritance), George as another (the barbarian at the gate). Through the creation of a child together--one by function that is non-viable and afflicted with the psychic diseases fabricated in the bile between them--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? offers the fascinating suggestion that Tayton are substantively parents of our desire to pry into the lives of total strangers and, more damning, not for the purposes of edification, but for the purposes of feeling superior to folks who make us feel inferior. George and Martha's kid, a fiction in the picture, is the manifestation of our insupportable smallness.
What's often read as an audience surrogate, then (the young couple played wonderfully by professional lapdog George Segal (as a fledgling teacher dipping a toe in the academic shark tank) and Sandy Dennis as his befuddled, prone-to-hysteria wife), is better read as a cookie-cutter version of our torturers, infected by George and Martha's illness in the same way a tarantula is infected by a wasp's egg. Ambition and desire are handled in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the same way they are in "Othello", another matrimonial drama, though the Iago of Nichols's film is our own insupportable curiosity. Ernest Lehman's script preserves Albee's contemptuous fluency and Tayton, sensing the right avatars, deliver the goods with something very much like pain. Although Dennis will fly into eternity on her interpretive dance in a closed-down honkytonk, much of the doom of the piece hangs on the revelation that her Honey can't carry a child and is doomed, like Martha, to birth a string of barbed-wire spleen fathered by betrayal, disappointment, perhaps astonishment that all the civilization of the modern world could be mustered to deliver velvet, elegant savagery. Transforming the film into a thing of resonance instead of merely wrath is the bedrock truth, unshakeable, that Tayton love each other, understand each other, and that nothing will save them despite everything, so long as they're addicted to a public that would suck them dry if it could. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? sloshes alcohol around in scary draughts, but its junkies looking for an angry fix are jonesing for a dirty shunt and a crusty bucket (so it's convenient that the shunt and bucket are restless and ravenous). It's celebrity as horror film, as an act of embalming, as a relationship between two parties (us and them) cooperating in the implosion of any respect for boundaries and basic moral propriety. What a rush.
Warner showcases one of the brightest moments of the Swinging Sixties in an excellent 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer so fine in its shadow detail that every pock on Burton's face is like a cave in a lunar landscape. That's a good thing, believe me, and Wexler's idea of throwing these matinee idols into bas, almost photonegative, relief here resurrects a lot of what I imagine to be its initial shock. George Romero didn't improve on our first look at George and Martha with any single moment of his seminal Night of the Living Dead--the effect of the reveal is as startling, as memorable, as the first appearance of Stanley in Kazan's Streetcar Named Desire. I mention Wexler a lot more often than Nichols with regards to this film because Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is more Wexler's than Nichols's. The Graduate is Nichols's film, as is Closer--and neither demonstrate this same level of visual penetration. Nichols's is insular; Wexler is insidious. Accordingly, while Nichols is joined by a knowledgeable, respectful Steven Soderbergh on an anecdote-filled commentary track recorded for this release (it's nigh indispensable, truth be told, especially for Nichols's reflections on out-of-touch producer/screenwriter Lehman), Wexler gets a second, instantly-classic yakker all to himself. Wexler likewise takes centre stage in the second disc's "A Daring Work of Excellence" (20 mins.), reminiscing, along with a relieved and grateful Albee, about a few repeated production stories. (Best tidbit: the reminder that John Frankenheimer was originally slated to direct; the film he made instead, Seconds, with Rock Hudson delivering the same variety of "never be able to pull it off" performance as Liz in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and groundbreaking cinematography by James Wong Howe that apes Wexler's, is a startling instruction on zeitgeist as it relates to movements in film.) Incidentally, Richard Schickel continues his decline into one of those old movie critics who can't think of a thing to say that doesn't sound tired. The film's original exit music offered independent of its crisp DD 1.0 monaural soundtrack finishes off the first disc.
The second platter continues with the infuriating docu "Too Shocking for its Time" (10 mins.), a Jack Valenti-prominent piece that has one of this world's most evil people talking with pride about his ratings system, which supplanted the Hayes Code after enough films decided they didn't give much of a shit about their tiny Catholic audience. Good or bad, you decide, but this fluff piece, masquerading as a chat about the raciness of Virginia Woolf, is actually a banner for the MPAA's arbitrary assemblage of old hens and preening roosters in a top-secret coop. Letting soccer moms edit David Cronenberg films is one thing for Utah--another thing for the rest of the free world. The vintage "Elizabeth Taylor: An Intimate Portrait" (67 mins.) is a Jack Haley-produced piece that has Rat Packer Peter Lawford interviewing Taylor intimates Rock Hudson (!) and others over clips of La Liz's long career to that point (1975). A seven-minute screen test for Dennis, cast opposite Roddy McDowall (just as Taylor is in the Lassie Come Home clip featured in the Haley retrospective), is something like a revelation of why Dennis has remained a queer icon, not to mention the power and fascination of her Honey. It joins a vintage interview with Nichols (8 mins.) that comes off as a bit of a junket fluff piece plus trailers for all of the films collected in Warners' Tayton box set in rounding out the package. Incidentally, this is the only DVD in the Taylor-Burton collection available for--and, let's be honest, worthy of--individual purchase. Originally published: January 23, 2007.