Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Directed by Mike Nichols
If the film ended in a cathartic gunshot, or a doorslam pregnant with finality, the pill would be much easier to swallow. We could comfort ourselves, “Ah, this was a culmination of events – the ending of a terrible farce of a marriage.” And if the film were made with a monochromatic hand, that would have been the case. Thankfully, Director Mike Nichols and his actors have more tact, more complexity than that. There is no finality; rather the film ends where it began – a husband and wife alone, seemingly content with each other. The realization is that this couple lives in a Beckettesque circle, playing out their fights like circadian rhythms. Elizabeth Taylor won a well-deserved Oscar (back when Oscars were a bit more well-deserved) for her turn as Martha. Richard Burton matches her tit for tat as husband George. As a duet, they straddle the delicate line between comedy and tragedy. George and Martha’s vitriolic banter is both lacerating and amusing - equal parts hatred, respect, and love. That is what makes the story so familiar: the love is impossible to ignore. Absolutes are easy to dismiss; pure hatred comes off as exaggerated venomous drivel, pure love is idealistic. Mixed together in equal parts, the solution is unflinchingly believable. George and Martha hate each other, but they also love each other. Most relationships (long-term, anyway) have semblances of both love and hate. Ergo, George and Martha’s tumultuous marriage is not easily dismissed as an exaggeration; any relationship could look like that. Even yours. Even mine.
Off the thematic path: Nichols’ admirable job owes a great debt to the equally admirable source material. That is, Edward Albee’s play. Unlike Schlondorff’s Death of a Salesman or Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is decidedly augmented as a film. Through insert shots, Nichols introduces an important 5th character – alcohol. The film reeks of booze, which acts as a sort of truth serum. As the characters drink hearty, they reveal more and more of themselves. Lumet’s unerring dedication to the source material prevented this in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but you can almost hear Edmund Tyrone bellowing, “Here’s how” in Virginia Woolf. Equally impressive is Haskell Wexler’s black & white cinematography – claustrophobic when necessary, isolating when imperative. But it’s really Albee’s play that is the heart and soul of the thing. Burton’s despondently erudite ‘games’ and sophisms juxtaposed against Taylor’s siren retorts and the entrapment of the guests creates a Mexican stand-off, guaranteed to have all the players on their knees before it is over. Likewise, the viewer.