Dir. Mike Nichols
(1966, Not Rated, 131 min)
Director Mike Nichols’s first film, marital psychodrama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is emotionally taxing, but after all we’ve spent how much do we get in return? An evening with battling marrieds George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) amounts to two hours of drunk people yelling at each other. They’re angry, unhappy, spiteful, and cruel. But the film, adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee‘s play, is psychologically vague, and a late-stage revelation seems mishandled. Is that the secret of their unhappy marriage? Then why does it feel like almost an afterthought? And why is all the rest such a tedious slog through very loudly aired grievances?
George is a New England history professor and Martha is the daughter of the university president. After a party one evening they invite a young biology professor and his wife to their house for tea and sympathy (read: booze and misery) at two o’clock in the morning; Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) are bright-eyed and friendly, but an evening with George and Martha will fix that. It’s immediately clear to the younger couple that they’ve intruded upon a meltdown in progress. In a film more than two hours in length, we might expect the breakdown of civility to be gradual, but the passive-aggression turns to open hostility in short order, making it difficult to understand why the young couple doesn’t run for the hills at the earliest opportunity. Of course, if they left there would be no play, and if there were no play there would be no movie. They absorb the verbal abuse out of consideration for the screenplay.
The acting is strenuous, which is not always the same as good. I admire the cast for their intensity; there are moments of genuine emotional power in each performance, and under different direction maybe they would have been remarkable (Taylor and Dennis nevertheless won Oscars), but the film places emphasis on volume over meaning, so what we get is a lot of extravagant emoting and extravagant drunkenness without much sense of who these characters really are. Perhaps it’s a failing of the play that there’s so little to convey besides shouting, or perhaps Nichols wasn’t quite able to get to the heart of it. In the last ten years he has fared not only better but magnificently well with other films adapted from the stage: Wit, Closer, and Angels in America, the last of which I named the best film of the decade. Compared to those recent efforts his first big-screen venture is rather flat; George and Martha hate each other – that much we understand from the beginning. But we don’t come to understand much more than that by the end.