Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opens with this gentle, lovely music from Alex North. It’s night, it’s a university campus, a couple is walking silently as the credits roll; the music’s beautiful. Then the couple–Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton–get home. And pretty soon they start yelling at each other. And they don’t stop until the end of the movie, some two hours away–unless they aren’t in a scene together.
Burton is a history professor and Taylor’s suffering husband. Taylor is the university president’s daughter and Burton’s suffering wife. The film starts with them getting home from a faculty party at two in the morning. They’re both drunk and so they start drinking some more. But Taylor has invited over a new professor and his wife so they’re going to have a middle-of-the-night party, much to Burton’s chagrin.
The guests are George Segal and Sandy Dennis. Dennis is a little tipsy when they arrive, but Segal’s basically sober. Burton–correctly–guesses Taylor agreed to host the welcoming party (at her never seen father’s request) because Segal is something of a young blond stud and up-and-comer, not a middle-aged fuddy-duddy career burnout like Burton.
As the film progresses, the group–there are only the four characters in the film (with two uncredited actors at a roadside bar later on)–breaks up and reforms. Taylor gives Dennis a tour of the house, offscreen, while Segal and Burton bond. More Segal realizes his hosts are majorly dysfunctional and wants to get out of there, but ends up sticking around, getting drunker, with Taylor getting bolder and bolder about hitting on him. Dennis is oblivious, Burton is quietly raging.
Eventually–once they’re drunker–Segal and Burton have another bonding moment, while–again–Dennis and Taylor are offscreen. Segal and Taylor get scenes together, Dennis and Burton get scenes together. And little by little, it becomes clear there’s a lot more going on than Taylor’s a drunk unfaithful wife to Burton’s sad sack, drunken academic failure.
Woolf is exceptional on every level. The way Nichols directs the actors. Ernest Lehman’s script–adapting Edward Albee’s play. The performances. That Alex North music. The Haskell Wexler black and white photography, which gives the viewer insight into these uncomfortable moments–like when Taylor starts flirting with Segal and Dennis is in the background and the scene’s not about Taylor’s flirtatious rambling but whether or not Dennis is catching up with what’s going on. And then what her awareness or lack thereof means given Burton’s in the room too.
Dennis has a bunch of surprises in store, narratively and performance-wise, for later in the film. Virginia Woolf gets disquieting before Segal and Dennis even show up at the house, because Taylor’s obviously unstable. Possibly dangerously unstable. The film’s revelations about Taylor and Burton to their guests (and the viewer) drives their character development. This revelation or that revelation calls back to a previous one and where there’s an–intentional or drunken–disconnect fuels the development. Dennis and Segal are different. There’s definitely some development through revelation, but they’re not the film’s subjects. They’re both messed up a little with secrets of their own, but it’s nothing compared to Taylor and Burton.
Taylor gets top-billing and the best monologue. Burton’s second-billed but the protagonist. His monologues are different. He’s not self-reflective drunk or sober. Taylor’s self-reflective sober. Well, sober for her. Burton’s always trying to stay one step ahead of Taylor while she’s just naturally devious and manipulative. They’re both exhausted–the story itself is a marathon, with the two couples getting drunker and drunker as the night goes on. Movie starts at two in the morning, ends four or so hours later. So not real-time, but fairly continuous action. All of the characters (and actors) exhibit the exhaustion in different ways. While Dennis and Segal are the guests and their exhaustion is tied to them being in someone else’s home, Taylor and Burton are sort of in their normal. Their terrifying normal. Exhaustion included.
The script has the dialogue level, with Burton trying to torment his guests with wordplay and maybe embarrass Taylor a little with it, and then the narrative. This development, that revelation, all perfectly plotted out. Nichols hits every one just right. He gets the intensity of the scenes, the dialogue, the performances, all beautifully shot by Wexler, then Sam O’Steen’s editing packages them all together into these astounding, draining scenes. There’s a lot of dread in Virginia Woolf, even if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be dreading. From the first moment after the peaceful opening titles, the film’s primed for an explosion.
Singular acting. Segal’s the least great and he’s still great. Taylor and Burton kind of duke it out for best performance. They’re very different parts with very different requirements. It’s incredible how well Nichols directs the film, given his two leads are operating at different speeds and different narrative distances. And then you throw in Segal and, especially, Dennis. She’s phenomenal in the film’s toughest part. Because she’s got to be quiet. Burton, Taylor, and even Segal all get to be loud but Dennis does this startling, quiet performance.
And even when it seems like you finally get Virginia Woolf as the film goes into the third act, it turns out there are still some big twists. The film’s biggest twist isn’t even its loudest. And the loudest one is head-blowing big.
Richard Sylbert’s production design–the house and its yard where the action mostly takes place (though the roadside bar is also great)–is stellar.
As I said before, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exceptional. On every level. It’s “run out of positive adjectives” exceptional.
Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Edward Albee; director of photography, Haskell Wexler; edited by Sam O’Steen; production designer, Richard Sylbert; music by Alex North; produced by Lehman; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), and Sandy Dennis (Honey).