WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)

  • Director: Mike Nichols
  • Writers: Ernest Lehman, based on the stage play by Edward Albee
  • Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#67), 5 Oscars (Best Actress – Elizabeth Taylor, Best Supporting Actress – Sandy Dennis, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costumes), 8 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Mike Nichols, Best Actor – Richard Burton, Best Supporting Actor – George Segal, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV.

This is one of those movies saddled with a title that tells you absolutely nothing in terms of what it’s actually about. I think perhaps a more apt title would have been “Nothing Good Happens After 2AM.” It stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, one of the famous couples of movie history, in an adaptation of an Edward Albee play about university professors torturing each other at the tail end of a long night of drinking. When the play debuted on Broadway three years earlier, it was considered unfilmable by basically everyone because of its harsh language and sexual content. People in movies didn’t say “screw you!” in 1963. But as it turns out, three years later screenwriter Ernest Lehman and director Mike Nichols were able to get away with insisting that that they leave the play essentially intact, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became, for all intents and purposes, the first R-rated movie. Today, it would probably make PG-13, maybe.

But all of that didn’t make me actually really enjoy spending time with these characters. After a long night of drinking, a college professor (Burton) discovers to his chagrin that his wife (Taylor) has invited a younger colleague (George Segal) and his own wan, seemingly fragile wife (Sandy Dennis) back to their house for a nightcap. The rest of the night, into morning, unfolds in what seems like real time, and mostly involves Taylor and Burton using various methods to needle their guests and each other. This is an action movie, with vicious insults instead of punches. Taylor and Burton waffle back and forth on details about their kid. She flirts with Segal in front of Burton. Segal eventually drunkenly confesses that Dennis had a “hysterical pregnancy.” Taylor takes Segal to her bedroom, but he can’t get it up. Burton realizes that Dennis actually secretly had an abortion. Then he announces that his and Taylor’s kid has died, apparently as “punishment.” They never had a kid, they just pretended to.

Nichols basically invented the modern method of recording overlapping dialogue for this movie, so that the characters could talk over each other the way they did in the play. It all feels very much like it could be a recorded stage production from today, in terms of the acting and the style. The performances are uniformly great, especially Taylor, and the characters all come off as well-realized real people. The problem that I have is that they are pretty much all real people that I’m left, after spending a little bit of time with them, hating with a fiery passion. I’m not going to be watching this one again. 

A few decades ago, basically everybody knew the story of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but now that she’s not someone getting jokes made about her on the Oscars every year I don’t think as large a percentage of my generation will be familiar. While this play was on Broadway in 1963, Taylor and Burton were starring together in a sword-and-sandals epic called Cleopatra. She was considered maybe the “Most Beautiful Woman in the World” at the time. Both of them were married, but they started an affair during the filming. When paparazzi published a photo of them on a yacht, it became the first version of a sort of modern scandal we’ve since seen over and over (and over). There were calls in Congress for Taylor to be barred from re-entering in the US. Even the Vatican officially condemned the couple for “Erotic Vagrancy.”

In the end, both got divorced, then married each other ten days after the divorces were finalized. “Liz and Dick” starred together in a total of 11 movies, before getting divorced, remarried, and then divorced again. In total, Taylor had eight different husbands. Back in 1966, Taylor was still considered too “beautiful” for what seemed a prime role for an older actress, and the studio’s first choice for the role was Bette Davis. This is particularly weird given that almost the characters’ first lines are referencing Bette Davis. But Hollywood can never resist giving a part to a younger actress. Taylor gained thirty pounds for the role and delivers the heck out of it, and won the second of her two Best Actress Oscars.

I should also mention whatever Sandy Dennis is doing in this movie. Her character is meant to be a complete lightweight when it comes to alcohol, and she spends most of the movie falling over and doing a weird laugh. Probably my favorite moment is when Burton and Segal get into a fight, and she claps her hands and happily yells “Violence!” Her Oscar for this movie not withstanding, Dennis was never a superstar, but had a long career in movies and in plays, and spent her spare time rescuing stray cats from “the bowels of Grand Central Station” in New York.

But the “legacy” of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? probably comes from the role it played in finally breaking down the Hollywood Production Code. Since the 1930s, Hollywood had abided by a very strict set of rules for all movies by major studios. Not only was there no sex or swearing, there were a lot of other “moral” rules. Bad guys had to be punished. Even married couples couldn’t sleep in the same bed, even entirely innocently. You couldn’t show a toilet, period (Hitchcock famously broke this taboo in Psycho). In the 1960s, though, the availability of foreign films that did not follow these rules, combined with other general changes in society, caused this to start to break down. Ernest Lehman (fresh off writing The Sound of Music) insisted on leaving in all of the “prohibited” dialogue and content from the play. When the studio viewed the first cut of the movie, one executive was quoted in the press as saying “My God, we have a $7 million dirty movie on our hands.” But the movie got released without many cuts, under the deal that no one under 18 would be allowed to see it without a parent. Even the Catholic Legion of Decency, which originally condemned the film, reversed course and said it was fine for adults.

Both Woolf and the artsy British thriller Blow-Up (which I recall having a surprising amount of nudity) came out in American theaters in 1966 and were big successes, at which point the studios basically gave up on the production code. In 1968 they debuted the modern “ratings system,” and in 1969 Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture with an “X” rating. But Woolf was the first mainstream movie released with the modern caveat about “kids only allowed with a parent.”

So I found the history and general style and performances of this movie much more interesting than the movie itself. I can recognize that it’s high quality in basically every way, and thus it’s fairly likely it will work for you, depending on your taste. But boy am I glad I don’t have to watch this again. Who thought the Catholic Legion of Decency and I would have so much in common.

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