Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Mike Nichols

Half a Century of Famous Films: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Besides winning many other awards, the debut film by the director Mike Nichols Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won five Oscars - Elizabeth Taylor for best leading actress, Sandy Dennis for best supporting actress, Haskell Wexler for best black and white cinematography, Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins for set design and Irene Sharaff for costumes. Also, it was nominated for Oscars in these categories: Best Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actor (Richard Burton), Best Supporting Actor (George Segal), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Lehman), Best Sound (George Groves), best Editing (Sam O'Steen) and Best Original Music (Alex North). Such an unbelievable success of a debut film is the consequence of inventing a brilliant way to transfer the theater play by Edward Albee (1928), which was at the center of interest of American media at the time, into the film medium, as well as the fact that this film adaptation of this provocative play implied that Hollywood is changing and turning to more serious socially-critical topics. At the time when the number of viewers was receding, the goal was to attract another type of audience by rejecting the imposed (as well as self-imposed) limits according to which Albee’s dialogue and language, as well the exposure of the false morality of the American middle class did not have access to the big screen.

Moreover, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the most intriguing and sometimes most scandalous among the Hollywood celebrity couples, portray a married couple for the first time on the big screen. In the film they are experiencing problems and heated arguments, which corresponded with their private lives. Undoubtedly that fact helped their exquisite performances but it also had a lot to do with Mike Nichols’ talent for working with actors. He showed his brilliant capability when he enabled the young talented actors Sandy Dennis and George Segal to create their great. In fact, it was often the case that many actors had their best performances in Nichols’ films.  

In this film Elizabeth Taylor plays Martha, daughter of the college president, and Richard Burton plays her husband George, professor at the same college. One evening, they invite his younger colleague (George Segal) and his wife (Sandy Dennis) to a nightcap. As the evening progresses and more alcohol gets consumed, the older couple begins to humiliate each other and soon drag the younger couple into their circle of vicious fighting and degrading. In the end, the younger couple gets hurt by the verbal abuse much more. With the help of the cinematographer Wexler and the entire crew, Nichols managed to create an effective and uneasy atmosphere even in the scenes that take place in only one room and in which dialogue is the only originator of tension. Thus the result is not merely filmed theatre but rather a true and complex film drama. (Tomislav Kurelec)