Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (film)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a 1966 American drama film directed by Mike Nichols in his directorial debut. The screenplay by Ernest Lehman is an adaptation of Edward Albee's 1962 play of the same name. It stars Elizabeth Taylor as Martha, Richard Burton as George, George Segal as Nick, and Sandy Dennis as Honey.
|Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?|
|Directed by||Mike Nichols|
|Screenplay by||Ernest Lehman|
|Based on||Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?|
by Edward Albee
|Produced by||Ernest Lehman|
|Edited by||Sam O'Steen|
|Music by||Alex North|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$33.7 million|
The film showcases a late night gathering at the home of George, a college history professor, and his wife Martha, the daughter of the university's president. The guests are Nick, a new biology professor at the school, and his wife, Honey.
The film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Mike Nichols, and it is one of only two films to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards (the other being Cimarron). All four main actors were nominated in their respective acting categories, the first time a film's entire credited cast was nominated.
The film won five Oscars, including a second Academy Award for Best Actress for Taylor and Best Supporting Actress for Dennis. It lost to A Man for All Seasons in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (April 2021)
The film centers on the volatile marriage of a middle-aged couple: George, an associate professor of history at a small New England college, and Martha, the daughter of the university president. After they return home drunk from a party, Martha reveals she has invited a young married couple, whom she had met at the party, for a drink. The guests arrive—Nick, a biology professor (whom Martha mistakenly believes to be a math professor), and his wife, Honey—at 2:30 am. As the four drink, Martha and George engage in scathing verbal abuse in front of Nick and Honey. The younger couple is first embarrassed and later entangled.
The wives briefly separate from the husbands, and upon their return, Honey reveals that Martha has told her about her and George's son, adding that she understands that the following day (Sunday) will mark his 16th birthday. George is visibly angry that Martha has divulged this information.
Martha taunts George aggressively and he retaliates with his usual passive aggression. Martha tells an embarrassing story about how she humiliated him in front of her father. George retreats to a back room and brings back a rifle, points it at Martha's head and fires—an umbrella. Martha's taunts continue, and George reacts violently by breaking a bottle. Nick and Honey become increasingly unsettled, and Honey, who has had too much brandy, and has just been whirled violently around the room by George while chanting "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (to the tune of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"), runs to the bathroom to vomit.
Martha goes to the kitchen to make coffee, and George and Nick go outside. The younger man confesses he was attracted to Honey more for her family's money than passion, and married her only because he mistakenly believed she was pregnant. George describes his own marriage as one of never-ending accommodation and adjustment, then admits he considers Nick a threat. George also tells a story about a boy he grew up with who had accidentally killed his mother and years later, his father, and ended up living out his days in a mental hospital. Nick admits he aims to charm and sleep his way to the top, and jokes that Martha would be a good place to start.
When their guests propose leaving, George insists on driving them home, despite his inebriated state. They approach a roadhouse, and Honey suggests they stop to dance. While Honey and George watch, Nick suggestively dances with Martha, who continues to mock and criticize George. George unplugs the jukebox and announces the game is over. In response, Martha alludes to the fact he may have murdered his parents like the protagonist in his unpublished, non-fiction novel, prompting George to attack Martha until Nick pulls him away from her. George tells the group about a second novel he allegedly has written about a young couple from the Midwest, a good-looking teacher and his timid wife, who marry because of her hysterical pregnancy and money, then settle in a small college town. An embarrassed Honey realizes Nick indiscreetly told George about their past and runs from the room. Nick promises revenge on George, and then runs after Honey.
In the parking lot, George tells his wife he cannot stand the way she constantly humiliates him, and she tauntingly accuses him of having married her for just that reason. Their rage erupts into a declaration of "total war". Martha drives off, retrieving Nick and Honey, leaving George to make his way back home on foot. When he arrives home, he discovers the car crashed during the drive, with Honey left half conscious (though unhurt) in the back seat, and then sees the shadows of Martha and Nick in the bedroom. At this, he barges through the locked front door, and, at seeing Martha's robes on the stairs, begins to laugh. He goes outside, laughter turning to a cry, and Honey stumbles out of the car toward him. Through Honey's drunken babbling, George begins to suspect that her pregnancy was in fact real, and that she secretly had an abortion. He then devises a plan to get back at Martha.
When Martha accuses Nick of being sexually inadequate, he blames his lack of performance on all the liquor he has consumed. George then appears holding snapdragons, which he throws at Martha and Nick in another game. He mentions his and Martha's son, prompting her to reminisce about his birth and childhood and how he was nearly destroyed by his father. George accuses Martha of engaging in destructive and abusive behavior with the boy, who frequently ran away to escape her attention. George then announces he has received a telegram with bad news—their son has been killed in a car accident.
As Martha begs George not to "kill" their son, Nick suddenly realizes the truth: Martha and George had never been able to have children, and filled the void with an imaginary son. By declaring their son dead, accordingly, George has "killed" him. George explains that their one mutually-agreed-upon rule was to never mention the "existence" of their son to anyone else, and that he "killed" him because Martha broke that rule by mentioning him to Honey.
The young couple departs quietly, and George and Martha are left alone as the day begins to break outside. George starts singing the song "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", and Martha responds, "I am, George, I am," while the two hold hands.
Edward Albee's 1962 play was replete with dialogue that violated the standard moral guidelines for movies at the time, including multiple instances of "goddamn" and "son of a bitch", along with "screw you", "up yours", "monkey nipples" and "hump the hostess". It opened on Broadway during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and audiences who had gone to the theater to forget the threat of nuclear war were shocked by the provocative language and situations they had not seen before outside of experimental theater.
The immediate reaction of the theater audiences, eventually voiced by critics, was that Albee had created a play that would be a great success on Broadway, but could never be filmed in its current form. Neither the audience nor the critics understood how much the Hollywood landscape was changing in the 1960s, and that it could no longer live with any meaningful Production Code. In bringing the play to the screen, Ernest Lehman decided he would not change the dialogue that had shocked veteran theatergoers in New York only four years earlier. Despite serious opposition to this decision, Lehman prevailed.
The choice of Elizabeth Taylor—at the time regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world—to play the frumpy, fifty-ish Martha surprised many, but the actress gained 30 pounds (13.5 kg) for the role, and her performance (along with those of Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis) was ultimately praised. When Warner Bros. head Jack L. Warner approached Albee about buying the film rights for the play, he told Albee that he wanted to cast Bette Davis and James Mason in the roles of Martha and George. In the script, Martha references Davis and quotes her famous "What a dump!" line from the film Beyond the Forest (1949). Albee was delighted by this cast, believing that "James Mason seemed absolutely right...and to watch Bette Davis do that Bette Davis imitation in that first scene—that would have been so wonderful". However, fearing that the talky, character-driven story would land with a resounding thud—and that audiences would grow weary of watching two hours of screaming between a harridan and a wimp—Nichols and Lehman cast stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Edward Albee was surprised by the casting decision, but later stated that Taylor was quite good and Burton was incredible. In the end, though, he still felt that "with Mason and Davis you would have had a less flashy and ultimately deeper film".
As filming began, the Catholic Legion of Motion Pictures (formerly the Catholic Legion of Decency), issued a preliminary report that, if what they heard was true, they might have to issue Virginia Woolf with the once-dreaded "condemned" rating, although they promised to wait to see the film. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) followed with an even stronger statement, warning the studio—without promising to wait for a screening—that if they were really thinking of leaving the Broadway play's language intact, they could forget about getting a seal of approval.
Most of the film's exteriors were shot on location at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. Nichols insisted on this for verisimilitude, but later stated that he had been misguided, that it added nothing artistically, and that these scenes could as well have been shot on any sound stage.
The film's original motion picture score was composed by Alex North. At the time of the film's release, a gatefold two-LP record soundtrack album set that included the entire film's dialogue was released by Warner Bros. Records as the "Deluxe Edition Two-Record Set".
The music from the film was issued as a single-LP release that featured 11 tracks of film composer North's score from the film.
Differences from the playEdit
The film adaptation differs slightly from the play, which has only four characters. The minor characters of the roadhouse owner, who has only a few lines of dialogue, and his wife, who serves a tray of drinks and leaves silently, were played by the film's gaffer, Frank Flanagan, and his wife, Agnes.
The play is set entirely in Martha and George's house. In the film, one scene takes place at the roadhouse, one in George and Martha's yard, and one in their car. Despite these minor deviations, however, the film is extremely faithful to the play. The filmmakers used the original play as the screenplay and, aside from toning down some of the profanity slightly—Martha's "Screw you!" (which, in the 2005 Broadway revival, is "Fuck you!") becomes "God damn you!"—virtually all of the original dialogue remains intact. (In the version released in the UK, "Screw you" is kept intact. In an interview at the time of the release, Taylor referred to this phrase as pushing boundaries.)
Nick is never referred to or addressed by name during the film or the play.
Warner Bros. studio executives sat down to look at a rough cut, without music, and a Life magazine reporter was present. He printed the following quote from one of the studio chiefs: "My God! We've got a seven million dollar dirty movie on our hands!"
The film was considered groundbreaking for having a level of profanity and sexual implication unheard of at that time. Jack Valenti, who had just become president of the MPAA in 1966, had abolished the old Production Code. In order for the film to be released with MPAA approval, Warner Bros. agreed to minor deletions of certain profanities and to have a special warning placed on all advertisements for the film, indicating adult content. In addition, all contracts with theatres exhibiting the film included a clause to prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from admittance without adult supervision. Even the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures (NCOMP) refused to "condemn" the film, with the office ruling it as "morally unobjectionable for adults, with reservations". It was this film and another groundbreaking film, Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), that led Jack Valenti to begin work on the MPAA film rating system that went into effect on November 1, 1968. It is also said that Jack L. Warner chose to pay a fine of $5,000 in order to remain as faithful to the play (with its profanity) as possible.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered on June 21, 1966, at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The film went on to become a financial success, earning a North American rental gross of $14.5 million, which made it the third-highest-grossing film of 1966.
The film was first released on DVD in North America on October 1, 1997. It has since been re-released in a 2-disc special edition that was concurrently released across North America and much of Europe. To coincide the film's 50th anniversary, Warner Archive Collection released a manufacture-on-demand Blu-ray on May 3, 2016, that was sold exclusively to online retailers.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a "Certified Fresh" rating of 95% based on 43 reviews, with an average rating of 8.50/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Led by a volcanic performance from Elizabeth Taylor, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a scathing adaptation of the Edward Albee play that serves as a brilliant calling card for debuting director Mike Nichols." At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating to reviews, the film has a score of 75 based on 11 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
In a positive review, Variety wrote that "Keen adaptation and handsome production by Ernest Lehman, outstanding direction by Mike Nichols in his feature debut, and four topflight performances score an artistic bullseye" and, praising Taylor's performance, that her "characterization is at once sensual, spiteful, cynical, pitiable, loathsome, lustful and tender".
The film is one of only two films (the other being Cimarron) to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards. Each of the four actors was nominated for an Oscar but only Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis won, respectively for Best Actress and Supporting Actress. The film also won the Black and White Cinematography award for Haskell Wexler's stark, black-and-white camera work (it was the last film to win before the two cinematography categories were combined into one), Best Costume Design and for Best Art Direction (Richard Sylbert, George James Hopkins). It was the first film to have its entire credited cast be nominated for acting Oscars, a feat only accomplished two other times, with Sleuth in 1972 and Give 'em Hell, Harry! in 1975.
In AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ranked No. 67.
Paul Mavis, reviewing for DVD Talk Warner Bros.'s 2006 Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: The Film Collection disc release of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, wrote, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? exists now as one of the seminal dramas of the modern screen. And its existence counterbalances every gauche public display the Burtons perpetrated, every ream of wasted newsprint devoted to their sometimes silly, outsized lives, and every mediocre film they made before and after its production. It is the peak of their collective and individual careers. And they would never recover from it."
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