Based on the Edward Albee stageplay of the same name and marking Mike Nichols’ directorial debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? follows older couple, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and George (Richard Burton) as the cracks in their relationship between to crack and crumble with the arrival of newlywed couple Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis). Very much like the stage production, the film itself is minimalistic and relies on the strength of the actors’ performances which is provided in spades. Elizabeth Taylor who gives her best performance since her Tennesee Williams duo with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).
The screenplay is nothing short of amazing. Adapted by Ernest Lehman and there are only minor differences to the film, largely due to location. The Albee play is set only in Martha and George’s house whereas the film gives us a short break in a local roadhouse. It’s not a change that creates any detriment to the film and makes for an opportunity to see how these characters act outside of the comfort of the homely setting. Martha and George’s son is given a name in the film, Nick, in the film adaptation but does not have a name in the play. Again, this is an understandable change as it creates a more emotional charge for the audience as it feels more “real” and relatable when giving him a name. This is similar to the narrator in Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s who is given the name, Paul Varjak, which probably makes it easier to confirm especially when protagonist Holly Golightly refers to him as “Fred” after her brother. Changes as small as these don’t compromise the vision of the film and in Lehman’s case, it brings a different dimension to Albee’s play and enhances it in some ways.
Taylor had had her fair share of turbulance with the press and public as her lifestyle and general sexuality was judged and she was seen as a poor role model but this film allows us to see that she isn’t afraid to “deglamourise” and get gritty when needed. She has always been a brilliant actress as previously proven but portraying Martha gives us a chance to see the darker side as Martha manipulates and instigates. She is such an unlikeable character but Taylor has such a presence that it is impossible to feel Martha’s power as she dominates with her physicality. She manipulates the audience into feeling how she wants them to feel, gaining sympathy when needed and repulsion when required. Her performance is nuanced and showed that her career was far from over.
Richard Burton on the other hand plays the oppressed husband waiting to explode as Martha provokes again and again. One of the best actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Burton was seriously undervalued during his lifetime and found himself without an Oscar despite seven nominations under his belt. This was indeed one of those performances and despite his brilliance, this really is Taylor’s film. That isn’t to say that his performance isn’t excellent because it is among his best of the best and shows the potential that he was capable of being succombing to alcoholism.
The supporting actors, Segal and Dennis shine as the young couple seemingly in love. The longer they spend time with the miserable elders, they start to see parallels in their own relationship. Sandy Dennis is particularly eyecatching as Honey, the initially subdued housewife who then begins to disagree with her husband. It captured the Academy’s attention as well who award her with the Best Supporting Actress gong. The arrival of the young couple gradually means that the film becomes a game of Chinese whispers as secrets are thrown around to the wrong people and conflicts happen every five minutes. It’s a spiderweb of the complexity of relationship and ultimately seeks to find the foundation of their relationship and destroy it. The ending then leaves the question of what happens next as their years of marriage and lies lay bare in front of them.
The film is a great example that plays can be adapted successfully to the big screen without making big compromises. The film allows the actors to bounce off each other rather than blending into a spectacle. Seeing Taylor and Burton onscreen is always a treat as well and to see such volatile performances makes the film raw and honest. It’s a film that feels enormously progressive for its time as the couple grieve over the death of their son, deal with their bad habits and open up about their tumultuous marriage. The characters are not trying to be likeable because they react as their character would react rather than catering to a Hollywood audience as the big studios would play it.
What do you think of the film? Let me know in the comments below!