Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Many Years Ago?--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman

© A.M.P.A.S., via

Welcome to the inaugural installment of a new series under which Paul and I hope to log many more entries in as the months roll forward. "How Many Years Ago?", as the name suggests, ties our blog to the Golden Age of cinema many decades in the past. Each entry will look not only at the technical aspects of a particular film, but, most importantly, at the historical context under which the film was released and how that has shaped our understanding of the piece. Consider this series your film education for the day.

If you have been following our blog lately, you may recall how Paul and I hold that elusive fifth star when assigning ratings to films as the pedestal on which we place only the most tightly composed works. Very few films are ever awarded this highest honor, so, naturally, for the premiere entry in this series, I have selected one of my favorite movies of all time that most certainly deserves the prestigious five-star rating.

Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, adapted from the controversial stage play by Edward Albee, premiered in 1966 to rapturous critical and public applause. The uberfamous and scandalous celebrity couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton star as Martha and George, a couple which draws many parallels from their own personal lives. George, an aging history professor at an unnamed New England university, often spars with his wife Martha, the daughter of the president of the school, over cocktails. Near the point of complete inebriation late one night, Martha upsets George once again by inviting a new teacher to the school, Nick (George Segal), and his mousy wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis), over to their house for even more drinks. As beverages are consumed and the night wears on, verbal and physical abuse between George and Martha rises to the surface, with Nick and Honey helplessly caught in the maelstrom of torment.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is notable for being the film that reshaped the industry and ultimately undid the archaic Production Code that had been in effect for 30+ years in Hollywood. Under the Code, movies were severely restricted as to what they could portray in terms of vulgarity, language, and sexuality. For roughly fifteen years before this particular film was released, other films such as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly, Last Summer, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, and Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, began to push the boundaries of the Code and its main tenants to such an extent that its impact could not be ignored any longer. When Virginia Woolf? was finally released in 1966, with such shockingly coarse language and sexual elements for the time, the then head of the Code, former presidential aide Jack Valenti, took notice of the evolving tastes of society. Valenti did away with the Code and instituted the lettered rating system we are familiar with today (G, PG, etc.). This change allowed for films to be reviewed on individual bases rather than lumping films with common negative traits together, regardless of the variation in severity of those traits.

The marital strife between the characters of George and Martha also greatly mirrored the very public lives of stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. For many years, Taylor and Burton constantly made headlines around the world as stories of their extravagance and lavish lifestyle made them the most famous celebrity couple of the day. Scandal erupted when the two stars, at the time both married to other people, began an affair that eventually turned into a fully blossomed romance. The relationship quickly turned sour, however, as both dealt with severe insecurities and became dependent on alcohol as a result. The fights became tempestuous and legendary; yet, the two could not stay apart from each other for long. In 1966, when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rolled around, both of their respective careers had been dampened by alcoholism and stories of reckless behavior on set. The characters of Martha and George provided a realistic outlet for Taylor and Burton to explore the deepest reaches of their own abusiveness towards each other. This exploration allowed for very humanistic and, at times, vulnerable portrayals from two actors who had never before turned in such searing performances.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? completely revitalized the careers of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, with Taylor even snagging one of the most well deserved Academy Award wins for Best Actress of all time. The film was so well received, in fact, that it managed a nomination for every single category in which it was eligible that year (13 overall with 5 wins), a feat never before or since matched. PLEASE do yourself a favor, and in any capacity: be it reading/seeing an adaptation of the original play, or watching the cathartic journey of the movie, acquaint yourself with Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as you will not be disappointed. Pay attention, however, to the fact that this work is a highly draining whirlpool of emotion and is not to be invested in lightly. This is not to say that all is lost, however, without giving the ending away, as the faint rays of sunshine that slowly start to creep through the windows at the end of the story represent the beginning of the catharsis the viewer endures. Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s stunning play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the basis by which all other movies hoping to earn a five-star rating are judged.


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