Based on a 1962 play by Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is far less controversial now than it was when it first hit theater screens back in 1966. Even so, the uninhibited dialogue spewed forth by stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton still packs a punch. Made four years after they began an affair on the set of Cleopatra, Taylor and Burton were in a happy, if volatile, marriage. Here, they play a pair of constantly quarreling alcoholics, foreshadowing their own lives. Nonetheless, the chemistry between the two is undeniable, enriching the story with hints that despite it all, an unbreakable bond remains.
She plays Martha; he is George. Stumbling across the campus, the couple in their mid-fifties, have just made it home from a university faculty party. The opening scenes provide a look into the heart of their volatile, complex marriage. George is an Associate Professor of History (only an Associate Professor, as his wife repeatedly reminds him), and Martha is the daughter of the university president. Life has clearly not turned out as either of them expected, and they drowned their sorrows in drink and hurl their disappointment at each other with insults. Though George wants nothing more than to go to bed, Martha informs him they have guests coming.
Arriving at the scene of this domestic war, are young couple Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis). He is a new to the faculty, a member of the Biology Department, though when Martha mistakenly thinks he’s part of the math department, George quickly believes she only has an interest in Nick for his good looks. Honey, his quiet and compliant wife, seems a mismatch for this chiseled former quarterback and science standout. Though it’s after midnight, Martha has invited the couple to join her and George for drinks. After all, she is the president’s daughter.
Fueled by drink, and Nick and Honey as an audience, Martha becomes louder, bolder. “What a dump,” Martha says, trying to remember what film it was from, something starring Bette Davis. “What a dump,” Martha repeats as she prods George, asking him what film it’s from. She repeats it over and over again, even as she crams her mouth with food. This scene sums up Martha well. A grating character, she is constantly pushing, prodding, picking at George. He initially appears beaten down by it all, but it gradually becomes clear that George has plenty of pent of pent up aggression, and is more than capable of keeping up with his wife’s caustic barbs. She eventually pushes him too hard, as the topic turns to the forbidden subject their absent son. As George takes the bait, the evening turns violent. There’s minimal physical violence, it’s a highly emotional bombardment waged by two articulate people whose biggest source of pain has been exposed. They know each other’s weak spots and verbally attack each other where it hurts. Once shocked at what they had unwittingly become a part of, Nick and Honey have become pawns in their hosts domestic war. Collateral damage really, as Martha and George have expertly pointed out, and hammered on, a serious issue in the young couple’s own marriage.
Though the screenplay is credited to Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell of Success), director Mike Nichols rejected his script, instead opting to use Edward Albee’s original text, trimming the runtime a bit, and changing a few words to satisfy the MPAA. For Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a stunning directorial debut. He was smart enough to largely back off and let the four principle actors do their thing. Elizabeth Taylor is brilliant here. Just thirty-two at the time, she moves from provocative, to slovenly, to broken alcoholic with believable ease, while looking at least twenty years older. Burton too, is in fine form. Beaten down by his wife, it seems he’s in a constant struggle to prove his intellectual abilities. Martha and George are both scared of what they’ve allowed themselves to become. Underneath all this, and despite it all, the couple love each other tremendously.
All four actors in the film were nominated for an Oscar. Elizabeth Taylor, and Sandy Dennis won for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. It’s also worth noting that in 2013, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”
Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this Warner Archive 1080p release looks superb. The image looks superb throughout. The lighting by cinematographer Haskell Wexler creates the sense of limited physical space between the characters. Watching the film, it comes as no surprise that Wexler won an Oscar for the film’s expressive black-and-white photography.
The Blu-ray gives Wexler’s work a sense of depth that is important given the characters’ distinct lack of physical space. Blacks are impressive, and the various shades of gray are well delineated. Film grain has been finely rendered to reveal excellent detail. It is Martha and George’s furniture looks old and frayed. Faces are remarkably clear, revealing the slightest emotions and reactions.
The lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack delivers clean, and clear dialogue throughout. There are numerus small sound effects—the clanking of glasses, ice cubes, pouring drinks, etc.—that register on the low end of the spectrum, with just the occasional one requiring some pop. This mix has been expertly layered to best serve the needs of the film.
English SDH, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Czech, Korean, Polish, Romanian, Thai, and Turkish subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
Warner Archive has ported over all of the extras from the 2006 two-disc edition.
- With Cinematographer Haskell Wexler: Wexler discusses the technical details of shooting the film, including lights, lenses and exposures and pointing out shots that involved special challenges. He also describes his hiring, discusses his working relationship with Nichols and shares anecdotes about Taylor, Burton and the crew. Near the end of his commentary, which concludes half an hour before the film, Wexler discusses the making of Medium Cool, which he directed.
- With Director Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh: Soderbergh and Nichols discuss both Virginia Woolf and the craft of directing. Nichols discusses his naiveté about certain aspects of filmmaking, shares production stories and points out aspects of the film he doesn’t like. Soderbergh focuses on technical points of filmmaking.
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Too Shocking for Its Time (SD, 10:37) Former MPAA head Jack Valenti discusses the controversy over the film’s language and subject matter. Other participants include film critic Richard Schickel, film professor Dr. Drew Casper and Bobbie O’Steen, widow of the film’s editor.
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: A Daring Work of Raw Excellence (SD, 20:14) A critical overview of Albee’s play and a history of its journey to the screen. The participants from the previous featurette reappear, along with Haskell Wexler and playwright Edward Albee.
- 1966 Mike Nichols Interview (SD, 9:00) Interviewed by NBC shortly after the film’s release, Nichols discusses his directing style, the making of Virginia Woolf and his life and career up to that point.
- Sandy Dennis Screen Test (HD, 7:13) A portion of this screen test appears in “A Daring Work of Raw Excellence”. Roddy McDowall plays Nick.
- Elizabeth Taylor: Intimate Portrait (SD, 1:06:31) This original documentary aired on ABC in 1975. Hosted by Peter Lawford, it’s love letter to the actress including interviews with Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, director Richard Brooks and Taylor’s mother, Sara.
- The Comedians (SD, 1:24)
- The Sandpiper (SD, 3:24)
- The V.I.P.s (SD, 4:06)
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (HD, 2:13)