Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? Mike Nichols Flawed Directing Debut, Elevated by Elizabeth Taylor’s Splashy Performance and Richard Burton’s Subtle Acting

In 1966, stage director Mike Nichols made an ostentatious but ultimately flawed directing debut with the high-profile adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? Edward Albee’s 1962 award-winning play.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?_3_taylorBack then, the Oscar-winning movie was praised for its visual style and high-caliber acting of the cast’s four members: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis.




But seen from today’s perspective, this movie may be more significant culturally and historically than cinematically.  It is one of the key works that helped bring down the old Production Code due to its racy subject matter and foul text, which is replete with four-letter words, seldom heard before on the big screen, such as “Hump the Hostess” or “Screw You.” (see below).

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?_2_burton_taylorInsecure in his screen debut, Nichols goes for stylized theatricality, relying too much on visual pyrotechnics–fast cuts, mega close-up, rapid transitions–that are at first impressive, but ultimately distract our attention (rather than serve) from the powerful text an from the acting.

Set in a New England college town, this intense, dialogue driven drama, presents a harsh treatment of two married couples.   Sporadically interspersed with wit, sarcasm, irony (and a touch of misogyny), the 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 heavy drinking, defined by attacks and counter-attacks on each other’s deficiencies.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?_1_burton_taylorChildless, 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.



Who's_Afraid_of_Virginia_Woolf_Sandy_Dennis_4Martha and George (obviously and symbolically named after the famous American resident and his wife) 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.

As noted, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf features the auspicious, but finally disappointing, 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.  He would win his first (and only) directing Oscar for his next picture, the iconic comedy, The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.

Influenced by the French New Wave, Nichols insisted on shooting in black-and-white, encouraging his estimable cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, to experiment with innovative lighting.  Haskell received the first of his tow Oscars for this picture (See below).

Albee’s first choice was Bette Davis, and in fact, the first words in the play (and the movie)”What a dump”–are taken from a Davis 1949 melodrama, “Beyond the Forest.”

However, Liz Taylor, then at the height of her fame, on screen and off (due to flamboyant marriage to Richard Burton) got the part. Only 33 when the film was made, Taylor was praised for her willingness to appear deglamorized, laying a woman who is in her early 50s and older than her husband.

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: 5

Supporting Actress
Art Direction
Costume Design

Oscar Context:

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.”

End Note

Reportedly, it was Henry Fonda’s greatest career frustration not to play George on stage and then on the big screen.  Arthur Hiller and Uta Hagen originated the parts in the first Broadway production, in 1962, to great acclaim.  The play, Albee’s best known work, continues to be revived on Broadway and in regional theaters.