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USA 1966
Directed by
Mike Nichols
129 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The combination of Edward Albee’s brilliantly intense dialogue, preserved largely intact by scriptwriter and producer Ernest Lehman and the pitch-perfect performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor make Mike Nichols’ film a compelling if exhausting experience. The fact that Burton and Taylor were a celebrity couple as famous for their turbulent private lives as their acting talents made for savvy casting (which cost Warner’s $1million for each) but aside from their notoriety both actors do full justice to Albee’s classic play.

The setting is an American university campus. Martha (Taylor), the daughter of the University president is married to George (Burton) an associate history professor whose academic career has puttered to a halt. In order to pep up their comfortably cloistered existence both overdo the booze. One evening after a cocktail party at Martha’s father’s house they invite a newly-arrived couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) over to their place for a night-cap. Already in their cups and at each other throats, the bland polite couple only further exacerbate their ill-feelings and a full-scale assault on each other begins.

Albee’s play captures the love-hate co-dependency of this educated and caustic couple with the kind of devastating accuracy that could only have derived from real-like models. Today perhaps the alcohol-fueled relationship might seem odd but the ethos is more the Sirkian 50s than the times-are-a-changin’ 60s (despite a Bob Dylan album cover appearing on the wall of the bar they all visit)  and the university campus provides the perfect hermetically-sealed setting for their disconnected and diseased emotional life. Indeed Nichols’ perhaps too-busy direction is questionable when he takes us off-campus to a crummy late night bar (the only time when more than the four main actors are on-screen), and it evens stumbles when it takes Burton and Segal outdoors, neither setting being in Albee's play which took place in a single room.  .

Unquestionably it is the Burton-Taylor pyrotechnics which hold our attention with Taylor, only 34 at the time, a powerhouse as the loud-mouthed, domineering lush and Burton, as her devoted but frustrated husband, playing off her as they trading blows  Segal and Dennis having the thankless task of playing their punching bags

The film won five Academy Awards out of thirteen nominations, including Best Actress (Taylor), Best Supporting Actress (Sandy Dennis), Best Cinematography (Haskell Wexler), Best Art Direction (Richard Sylbert) and Best Costume Design (Irene Sharaff). Whilst nominated, Burton lost Best Actor to Paul Scofield for A Man For All Seasons.




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