Friday, November 13, 2009

Rewind: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

I really enjoy showing my undergrads films they haven’t previously seen and ones that challenge them in unexpected ways. Last night I screened for them Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and I was pleased by the scattered laughter at all the darkest of comedic moments. But when the lights came on as Alex North’s Exit music played (as it says right there on the screen), I was surprised by just how struck they were by this 1966 intense drama.

Class discussion was excellent, with my early-twenty-somethings (and one a bit older) seeing and appreciating and being moved by more than I thought they might. We don’t get to see films like this much these days: very talky, drawn out, intimate psychological stories about very human frailties and emotions. And having not seen the film in many years, I was struck anew by the quality of everyone’s performance. Elizabeth Taylor was so courageous to give herself over to veteran make-up artist Gordon Bau (as Vivien Leigh had done a decade before for A Streetcar Named Desire) and hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff. She was outstanding, aging herself 20 years—at the height of her glamour—and allowing herself to give herself wholly over to Martha’s vile, pained, tragic, romantic journey. A well deserved Oscar, and one, too, for Sandy Dennis in her break-out role as the fragile young foil and accomplice to Sir Richard Burton’s bullied and bullying George.

And George Segal, in his break-out role as well, played the young, ambitious biology professor pitch perfect, never over-reaching in a role mostly of parries rather than thrusts.

But what struck me as much as the performances was the all-star crew producer Ernest Lehman gave first-time film director Mike Nichols. Haskell Wexler’s Oscar-winning black and white cinematography was so striking. The shadows and contrast between white and deep blacks; his lighting on Taylor and Burton when we first see them enter their house is stark and stunning. And Wexler’s penchant for moving his camera on his shoulder, in those days, added to the mounting anxiety and verbal brutality. He knew just when to tilt and cant the frame. He must have been an incredible help to Nichols, who was so rooted to the stage.

Veteran production designer Richard Sylbert won an Oscar as well for the disheveled world that reflected the emotional and psychological state of George and Martha’s minds and marriage (brilliantly articulated by set decorator George James Hopkins).

And composer Alex North’s Oscar-nominated score situated the mood and madness with just the right undercurrents of strings: properly emotive without being hummable.

This film is worth a re-watch, or a first time watch. For a really good dose of human drama, watch it together with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, another fine performance by Ms. Taylor.








  1. Thanks for your recommendation, Steve. I haven't seen this film for many years and was never able to watch it in its entirity. Couldn't handle George and Martha's cruelty toward each other and to the young couple. It will be a learning experience for me to watch this film analytically based on the points you raised in your commentary.

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