There’s a moment early in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf where Nick tries to place the mysterious quality of a painting hanging above George’s desk.
“It’s got a…”
“Quiet intensity?” George suggests. But for Nick that doesn’t quite fit the bill. “A noisy relaxed quality maybe?” Still no. “How about a quietly noisy relaxed intensity?”
It is equally difficult to place what exactly makes the film itself such a relentlessly haunting experience. It’s definitely noisy, as loud as any drama consisting entirely of marital dispute could possibly be, and its intensity might be unmatched 49 years on. But there are also quiet moments, sombre exchanges which slice through the volcanic vitriol which dominates so much of the piece like a blade through butter. There’s a lot happening here, and it adds up to one of the most gut-wrenching and visceral experiences recallable.
Mike Nichols doesn’t just make his presence known with his directorial debut, but rather he violently kicks down the Hollywood door and bellows his arrival with his adaptation of Edward Albee’s same named play. The story is that of a single drunken night in the lives of Martha and George, played by real life husband and wife Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as their turbulent marriage, at moments flippant and comical but which largely lingers on the malevolent, builds to its malicious crescendo.
Nick (George Segal) is a young colleague of George and he and his wife Honey (Oscar winning Sandy Dennis) accompany the unstable couple through the drunken night, their inquiring and mere presence providing all the minor incentive needed to spur George and Martha on in their “total war”. The dichotomy of the two marital relationships anchors the film as the idyllic Nick and Honey accentuate the spite in George and Martha. George, the cynical, sardonic, life weary intellect who has had the most vile dirt in a filthy world kicked in his face one too many times, triggering him into a constant passive aggressive callousness, and Martha, the emotionally explosive, volatile, vengeful vixen whose every insult can be reduced to an output of a scar in her psyche, making for the perfect foes. But perhaps it isn’t such a dichotomy between the two marriages. Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman slowly dredge up the creaky histories of both relationships, and also shroud them both in a mystery and ambiguity leading us to question how much exactly do the couples know about each other. Fantasy and a repressing of the past become apparent in both marriages as the film dissects the haunting nature of unresolved and buried traumas and delves into the conflict of illusion and reality as all four central performers, particularly Burton and Taylor, perfectly wear the weight of their hardships and embody the cataclysmic blend spite and sadness.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is an exhibition in sustained intensity, and in the most complimentary way possible the film wraps its firm, fiery hands around your throat and violently jerks you side to side for its entire running time without ever a hint of easing its grip. It’s a sort of domestic dispute equivalent of Mad Max: Fury Road
With photographer Haskell Wexler, Nichols drops you squarely in the battle zone with his incredibly intimate style, the extreme close-ups and deep focus allowing the intent behind every gesture and facial expression to linger and every presence in the room to be felt. Nichols gets in incredibly tight to the action, with every expression and every word given such an intense weight and purpose, every moment so emotionally charged that as a viewer you feel as though you are being forced to sprint through a minefield, each explosion another vitriolic barb designed to emasculate or place blame. There’s a moment When Nick goes to light Martha’s cigarette that armed with Nichols intimate style grows from a simple act to a potent and seductively charged motion as we track the movement in close-up, from Nick’s hand to Martha’s lips. And again, when George and Nick sit outside, George probing into Nick’s back-story, he hands his young counterpart a glass of bourbon which could easily be mistaken as George slipping a key into the lock of Nick’s mind, twisting and accessing a life’s worth of complex history. Nichols has such an acute dramatic flair that not a single second of his run time goes unnoticed and each fierce exchange is cut with a befitting ferocity by editor Sam O’Steen. Outside of the dialogue the soundscpae is surprisingly minimalist; instead we are at the mercy of the characters and their brutal, and often times witty, exchanges which each performer relishes, but the film also knows when to relent. If only for a brief few seconds at a time the road is cleared for a sombre poignancy, ensuring that whilst this film is loud, it isn’t loud for loud’s sake, there’s an intelligence and thoughtfulness to it all which elevates its drama to the next tier.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was nominated for an Oscar in every area for which it was eligible in 1967 and it’s no wonder why. From the explosive performances to the telling costumes, every cinematic tool is in play here, equating to a story that never so much as acknowledges the art of understatement, but by the same measure is never anything less than completely absorbing.