Director Mike Nichols passed away November 19 leaving behind a legacy of fine work for the stage and the screen. I must confess that I came along too late to know of him as part of a legendary comedy duo (with Elaine May), but now that I’ve learned about them, I am intrigued to find some of their old recordings. And I was too young for several of his films when they first came out, although I caught up with some of them later in college, most memorably The Graduate (1967). Equally at home directing for the screen or the stage, it is fitting now to revisit Nichols’ first film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from 1966, as it is one of the finest stage to screen transformations in film history.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a first-time film director to try to direct such massive talents (and massive egos) as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But whatever the day-to-day challenges were of such an undertaking, it paid off. Aside from being married, divorced, and remarried in real life, Taylor and Burton appeared together in a total of 11 movies and one television episode. Based on what I’ve seen of the movies, only this one bears re-watching (although Cleopatra has a certain morbid fascination, not unlike going to NASCAR just to see the wrecks). Burton’s performance is an almost Shakespearian masterpiece of self-loathing and Elizabeth Taylor never before or since was given such powerful material to perform. Nor did Taylor’s past as a haughty beauty queen of the cinema stop her from trying to look every bit the floozy for this film. She was in her mid-30’s when she acted this film, but she looks and acts every bit the middle-aged housewife past her prime. Compare the Oscar-winning performance in this film to her other Oscar-winning performance in Butterfield 8 (1960) where she is totally unconvincing as a call girl. Taylor was never a Method actress, but somebody drew that out of her in this one film, and that somebody must have been Mike Nichols.
The story is about George and Martha, a failed professor and his boss’s bitter daughter, having a savage all night bicker in front of their house guests, a young professor with career aspirations and his young wife. The two couples turn out to be foils to each other as we discover, in the course of the play, each couple’s hidden secrets and play them off against each other. As a film adaptation of a stage work, Virginia Woolf? is a masterpiece. The decision to film it in black and white enhances the claustrophobia of George and Martha’s cluttered, unkempt little home, and makes the emotional drama of their all-night verbal sparring all the more stark. As most films do with stage plays, the drama is opened out to include other venues. In some films that works, and in others not so much. However, if you don’t open up a stage play that way on screen, it risks having a stage-bound movie, like in the early days of sound in the movies when they hadn’t figured out yet how to do outdoor scenes. In the original Edward Albee play, all the scenes take place inside the house, but in the movie the back yard and a road house up the street are used to good effect. Believe me when I say that this drama is physically uncomfortable to watch. Once the verbal fireworks start, it really make you cringe as the characters relentlessly savage each other. So when the characters left the house, I was literally hoping for a respite, only to find both couples at the road house going at it with fresh vigor. The film effectively makes you feel trapped, much like George and Martha’s house guests. The two closest things to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are Jean Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit,” and Luis Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel. The common theme here is “Hell is other people.” In Virginia Woolf? George and Martha have created their own hell, and we see an incipient version of the same sort of hell taking form in their young house guests.
With the passing of Mike Nichols, all of the principals involved in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are gone, except for George Segal (now 80 years old.) Richard Burton died at age 58 in 1984; Elizabeth Taylor at 79 in 2011; Sandy Dennis at 54 in 1992. Edward Lehman (the producer and screenwriter) passed in 2005, and Alex North (who wrote the score for this and many more films) passed in 1991. Edward Albee, the playwright, is still ticking away at age 86, his two best-remembered plays “The Zoo Story” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” now 5 decades in the past. Thankfully, 5 decades ago, an author could make money with a work like Virginia Woolf? and cutting-edge film-makers like Mike Nichols could make their fame with it. Is that true today? I like this quote from Albee: “All serious art is being destroyed by commerce. Most people don’t want art to be disturbing. They want it to be escapist. I don’t think art should be escapist. That’s a waste of time.”