|Left to right: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor|
On paper, the concept of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shouldn't have lead to its huge success with 13 Oscar nominations (5 wins) that also marked it as one of the few films to be nominated in every eligible category. Considering that casting real life couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the tensest party MC's in film history could make it seem at times autobiographical, it's a miracle that director Mike Nichols' debut works as well as it does. While credit largely should go to the playwright Edward Albee (adapted to film by Ernest Lehman) for making such a captivating story, it's a rich story full of brilliant subtext not only about how relationships and lies can corrupt the psyche, but of the conflicting tides of the post-John F. Kennedy era of America where uncertainty and desperation seemed to run rampant. It's not a masterpiece solely because of its powerhouse dynamic. It's a masterpiece because of its ability to capture something personal about the era that has frankly never gone away after 50 years.
Following World War I, cinema turned to film noir for their dour stories. As the decades raged on, Hollywood slowly caught up by making darker stories such as Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. and later on with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. It was a response to the soldiers not diagnosed for their shell shock as well as the reality that the glitz and glamour that once fueled Hollywood was turning to a younger model simply because of inevitable factor of aging. True, there were those who continued to make upbeat films, but the biggest talents couldn't make it to 1970 without a few "dark" movies where internal conflicts seemed to ravage their very existence. It makes sense considering that their careers were in constant jeopardy. However, it didn't help that society was in a transition around the mid-60's that rattled everyone. Kennedy was shot without a foreseeable culprit. Wars were constantly putting citizens on edge. It only seemed right then that the entertainment would somehow boil over with this tension.
By 1965, Nichols was best known for his comedy and stage work. It only made sense then that he would jump to film by adapting Albee's hit play that showed an elderly couple arguing in front of a younger and more susceptible couple. It was far from the only film that Burton and Taylor starred in together, though it likely helped to enrich the smaller nuances that would turn into their best performances. George Segal and Sandy Dennis played the younger couple, whose actions at various points reflect the way that the elderly's cynicism forced them to reconsider their own happiness. To say the least, nobody is happy for long in this story and the tension to be polite makes things further unnerving. Next to Sidney Lumet's excellent work in 12 Angry Men, there's likely few intimate dramas as deceptively simple and magnetizing as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It didn't set out solely to tear apart an old couple, but better understand why they were together in the first place.
Like all great playwrights, Albee filled the story with symbolism and tics that each character irrationally reacted to. Burton's ego as a mediocre professor made him initially the brunt of Taylor's insults before Burton calls Taylor out on her selfishness. They go on about an unseen child - of whom is later revealed to be imaginary and mostly an excuse for them to appear "normal." From there, the film jumps from location to location, sometimes breaking up the small cast so that each perspective could be more greatly explored. It is in doing so that the moments where arguments are at fever pitches can sustain their energy without seeming solely like melodrama. There's tragedy in their falling out. They likely had something that brought them together, but drinks and the unfortunate mirrors of a young and happy couple only seek to bring out the worst in them. Even when the action is going terribly between Burton and Taylor, Segal and Dennis' quest to not make things worse is itself a fascinating background subplot. This is a movie reliant on great acting, and nobody wastes a moment.
Dennis is possibly the most underrated of the four performers. Her nervousness around anger forces her to uncomfortably be giddy, playing into Taylor's cynicism and doing so in a jarringly comic fashion. It's the type of desperation that feels familiar, especially in a society wanting to embrace free love and not let hate separate the brotherhoods. Of course, the film's main standout is Taylor, who may or may not have been as complicated in real life as she is here. With a raspy voice and the constant sarcasm that undermines Burton, she plays a role that Bette Davis likely would've played perfectly 20 years before. She is confident, manipulative, and dangerous when given power. She is the independent woman that just so happens to also be greatly flawed. Thankfully, Taylor earned the sole acting Oscar win for this film because of her ability to shift from uncomfortably cantankerous to sympathetically vulnerable in the amazing third act where the evening is over and the deepest revelations come pouring out.
It's a film so simple in concept that it's hard to imagine why it would age well. The truth is that Nichols' direction is often understated thanks to his ability to focus on the acting. Still, his subliminal look at differing generations would continued to be explored in his next film The Graduate. More than any era in American history, the 1960's are a fascinating shift between a happy perspective where darkness is concealed and the allowance of sheer honesty. Even if Nichols' debut is about a couple, it does feel like it's about a time as well. It's a point that marked change in culture that would lead to the masculine and gritty 70's as well as the dawning relevance of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It's weird to see the two merge so idiosyncratically, but it's part of the fascination that comes with classics like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - especially in its exploration of potential divorce; which would be the greatest affront to the soapy clean depiction of the American family.
There have been several films since that have attempted to paint divorcing couples with as much honesty. Some have succeeded such as Kramer vs. Kramer and The Squid and the Whale, but few feature the raw honesty and symbolism that makes the film so iconic of its era. Taylor and Burton have never been better despite playing that dynamic again in flops like Cleopatra. Nichols only got more acclaim with time, eventually becoming an EGOT. Still, what makes the film so impressive and sustainable is that it was a powerhouse of so many things. It was a great showcase for four noteworthy actors who could make even reacting poignant. It was about the shifting ideals of American culture. It wasn't the first film to tackle divorce, but it was one of the first to do so with assurance and raw candidness. There have been many films like it since, but none with as much sincere power.