In the entire history of the Academy Awards, Mike Nichols’ searing, scathing cinematic adaptation of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is arguably one of the finest examples of effortless adaptations in cinema. For the record, it holds the record for being the only film in the annals of Hollywood cinema, or anywhere else in the world, to be nominated in every major category at Oscars. James Cameron had to sink an entire ship for Titanic, Peter Jackson had to cast thousands dwarves and elves for The Return of the King, and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur had to go all Biblical epic – yet none of them succeeded in nailing all eligible category. All Mike Nichols had to do was to cast four actors, set in mostly one room, and had them all screaming hoarse at each other’s throats.
Like most great one-room movie settings – Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and even notoriously exploited on the small screen by Mike Leigh’s in Abigail’s Party – the film isn’t so much about the setting as the relationship between characters and Nichols, in this magnificent debut feature, sticks to his guns and settles all the action in the warring couple’s marital domain, except for one roadhouse sequence. The confinement of this setting is made all the more powerful and metaphorical to the suffocating domestic wretchedness at play here.
It’s a theatrical showdown between two opposing forces – Richard Burton’s frustrated, repressed college professor George versus Elizabeth Taylor’s plumpy, mad-haired, all-boozin’ and smokin’ spitfire Martha – man and wife in a verbal and psychological domestic battle that holds no guilty punches. As a film concept, it shouldn’t work – but it does, and effectively so. It’s a loud, boisterous film, yet it never treads shallow waters. In between George and Martha’s love-hate relationship, there’s a profound sense of disjointedness in this postwar suburban life, not so much peeling as tearing away the idealist portrait of Americana. It’s all the more remarkable that Woolf is crafted the same decade as Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde – works of art that dismantled the American dream.
Nichols’ assured direction gives this film a distinctive marriage between Hollywood cinema and arthouse aesthetic, opting to shoot in black-and-white, and employing the merciless technique of close-ups. Taylor, who threw vanity out of the window, gained weight and plumbed astonishing emotional depths for the character of Martha. This sexually deviant, disillusioned wife comes so close to becoming a monster, but Taylor gives it real weight, empathy and humanity. The final shot, with Taylor and Burton nursing their wounds, is not only the quietest moment in the film but also the most significant and most humbling, illustrating the empty pretensions and tribulations of marriage life.
Nichols holds no guilty punches in this astonishing cinematic debut, a film of no-holds-barred emotional and psychological honesty that draws a scathing dissection on marriage life. It’s a powerhouse performance-film, and Taylor is tremendous. Expect fireworks.