Based on Edward Albee's award-winning play, Mike Nichols' highly acclaimed adaptation presents a harsh treatment of two married couples. Set in a New England college town, this intense drama depicts the emotional unraveling of a middle-aged college professor and his wife, George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) during one long night of attacks and counter-attacks on each other's deficiencies.
Childless, their marriage is based on, perhaps even thrives and survives on love-hate, sadomasochistic relationship. The unsuccessful history professor George married Martha, the daughter of the college's president. Their desperate two-decade union, manifest in emotionally empty lives, makes them invent a child and play-act a dangerous fantasy life.
Martha and George are contrasted with another childless couple, a young belligerent and opportunistic biologist named Nick (George Segal) and his child-like spouse Honey (Sandy Dennis), who caught him with fake pregnancy and ever since then has been afraid of sex and children.
In a smart move, producer-scripter Ernest Lehman left most of Albee's corrosive and satirical play intact, including the wit, sarcasm, and the sexual innuendos. “Who's Afraid” is credited with bringing down the old Production Code, which regulated morality in American film from 1934 to 1967.
“Who's Afraid” features the auspicious screen debut of Mike Nichols, then a hot Broadway director, whose arrival signaled a new era in Hollywood cinema. Much publicity at the time was accorded to the fact that Nichols was lured to Hollywood with an offer of $1 million directing fee. Influenced by the French New Wave, Nichols encouraged his lenser Haskell Wexler to innovate and experiment with lighting.
Albee's first choice was Bette Davis, and in fact, the first words in the play (and movie)”What a dump”–are taken from a Davis 1949 melodrama, “Beyond the Forest.” However, Liz Taylor, then at the height of her fame, got the part. Only 33 when the film was made, Taylor was praised for her willingness to appear deglamorized; her character Martha is in her early 50s.
Oscar Nominations: 13
Picture, produced by Ernest Lehman
Director: Mike Nichols
Screenplay (Adapted): Ernest Lehman
Actor: Richard Burton
Actress: Elizabeth Taylor
Supporting Actor: George Segal
Supporting Actress: Sandy Dennis
Cinematography (b/w): Haskell Wexler
Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Richard Sylbert; George James Hopkins
Costume design (b/w): Irene Sharaff
Film editing: Sam o'Steen
Sound: George R. Groves
Original Music Score: Alex North
Oscar Awards: 4
In 1966, “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf” competed for the top award with the British comedy “Alfie,” the screen version of the hit play “Man for All Season,” the American comedy, “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” and the War drama “The Sand Pebbles.”
Reportedly, it was Henry Fonda's greatest career frustration not to play George on stage and then on screen. Arthur Hiller and Uta Hagen originated the parts on stage to great acclaim