A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, October 23, 2015

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)

I don't know if Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a great play -- I've never seen it -- but it's not a great movie, perhaps because it sticks so closely to an uncinematic source. What it does have is one great performance, Richard Burton's, and one near-great one from Elizabeth Taylor. Unfortunately, George Segal and Sandy Dennis are miscast as Nick and Honey: He's too hip and she's too rabbity for their roles to take dramatic shape. Ideally, I think, Nick and Honey should be the conventional flies lured into George and Martha's sinister web. But as Mike Nichols directs them, they don't bring enough initial squareness to their parts, so their disintegration during the game-playing of their hosts happens too swiftly. What makes Burton's performance so memorable is his ability to shift moods, from sullen to mocking, from beleaguered to triumphant, in an instant. He also quite brilliantly suggests George's only barely latent homoerotic attraction to Nick, making it clear that he's titillated by the very idea of Martha's sleeping with the younger man. Taylor falters only in letting her Martha get too shrill for too long: A slower crescendo to her shrewishness would have been welcome in many scenes. Oscars went to Taylor and Dennis, but Burton lost to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966) and Segal to Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder, 1966). Oscars also went to Haskell Wexler for black-and-white cinematography, Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins for black-and-white art direction and set decoration, and Irene Sharaff for black-and-white costuming. This was the last year in which these categories were divided into color and black-and-white. It's sometimes observed that except for Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the only film to have received nominations in every category for which it was eligible. But it's likely that if the color/black-and-white division had been eliminated a year earlier, the film would have been shut out of some of these categories. Though he was a noted cinematographer, Wexler doesn't do his best work on Virginia Woolf, partly because Nichols, making his directing debut, called on him to do some close-up shots that not only don't hold focus but also distract from the essence of the drama, the interplay of its four characters. Nominations also went to Ernest Lehman as the film's producer and screenwriter, Nichols as director, George Groves for sound, Sam O'Steen for film editing, and Alex North for score. Oh, and if you're wondering why the title is sung to "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush" instead of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", essentially killing the joke, it's because the Disney studios, who owned the rights to the tune, wanted too much money.

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