#223) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)


#223) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

OR “Some Goddamn Warner Bros. Epic”

Directed by Mike Nichols

Written by Ernest Lehman. Based on the play by Edward Albee.

Class of 2013

The Plot: New England history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife/boss’ daughter Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) are middle-aged and in a deteriorating marriage. They constantly argue and play mind games that psychologically cut each other down. When returning home from a late night faculty party, Martha informs George she’s invited a couple from the party over for a nightcap. Biology professor Nick (George Segal) and his chirpy wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) are young and happy, and therefore ripe targets for the jaded older couple. There’s fun and games, drinks, plenty of obscenities, and Albee’s trademark stripping down of humanity to its unpleasant, bitter, funny core. Just make sure not to mention George and Martha’s child.

Why It Matters: The NFR salutes the play for making “a successful transfer to the screen”, and mentions the film’s controversial “frank, code-busting language”. The write-up goes on to praise Burton & Taylor, Nichols, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler.

But Does It Really?: What a delightfully dark movie this is. Plays rarely make the transition to film – theater is a verbal medium, film is visual – but “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is the best of both worlds. The story is translated visually thanks to some inventive direction and cinematography, but never loses the dialogue and themes thanks to some powerhouse performances from a pitch-perfect quartet. The psychological warfare between George and Martha is riveting, and casting real-life couple Burton & Taylor is an irresistible ploy, aided by the pair’s talent and charisma. This endless entertainment value, paired with its historical status as the film that helped break the Production Code, makes “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” an obvious choice for the Registry.

Shout Outs: George makes quick references to “Bringing Up Baby” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” during the evening. But more importantly, the title is a pun on “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from “The Three Little Pigs” (even though, for legal reasons, they don’t sing the Disney melody).

Everybody Gets One: Richard Burton was initially reluctant to play George, but was persuaded by Taylor, already cast as Martha. This was their fourth film together. Also featured here are George Segal and Sandy Dennis in their breakout roles.

Wow, That’s Dated: It’s all fine until they go to the roadhouse, where Taylor and Segal do a very ‘60s dance to some very ‘60s go-go music.

Seriously, Oscars?: A big controversy but an even bigger hit, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” led the Oscars with 13 nominations, one in each category it was eligible for. The big winner of 1966 was another prestigious play-turned-movie, the more-agreeable epic “A Man for All Seasons”. “Virginia” did, however, manage five wins: Actress for Taylor, Supporting Actress for Dennis, and the prizes for Art Direction, Cinematography and Costume Design.

Other notes

  • This is Mike Nichols’ first film as a director! He was an acclaimed stage director, and half of a popular comedy duo with “& May”. Giving him the film version of this highly sought-after property was quite the leap of faith. But between the cast, Ernest Lehman, Jack Warner, and Haskell Wexler, I’m sure Nichols got quite the film education.
  • Even when playing a middle-aged frump, Liz Taylor has her own costumer, make-up and hairstylist.
  • It’s “Beyond the Forest”. Moving on.
  • Like Tracy & Hepburn before them, Taylor & Burton’s real-life relationship helps give you a sense of eavesdropping on Martha & George, rather than watching a performance.
  • Ernest Lehman does a great job of “opening-up” the play. The majority of the film still takes place in George & Martha’s living room, but there are occasional moves to other well-chosen spots in the house.
  • Sandy Dennis is a series of tics disguised as a person. It works, but as her film career proved, a little bit goes a long way.
  • Don’t think I didn’t notice the occasional cuts made mid-shot to speed up pauses. I’m looking at you, Nichols and editor Sam O’Steen.
  • Oh my god: Other People! That’s Frank Flanagan, this film’s gaffer, as the innkeeper and his wife/Liz’s hairdresser Agnes as the waitress.
  • It’s a damn shame Richard Burton didn’t win the Oscar for this performance. Paul Scofield made a splash reprising his stage role in “A Man for All Seasons” and had the benefit of being a first-time nominee, compared to nod #5 for Burton. Burton suffered from what I call the “Too Good Factor”: Sure, he’s always great, so we’ll vote for him next time.
  • Speaking of George, I don’t think I agree with the assumption that he is completely emasculated by Martha. Burton seems to play him as an equal match to Martha who’s just given up on fighting back. And tonight is the night he finally decides to come back swinging.
  • My main question with this viewing: Have George & Martha done this before? Have there been other late nights with faculty members coming over and becoming part of their games? Albee loves creating strong, cryptic characters that keep you guessing.


  • After some fights with the newly founded Motion Picture Association of America, “Virginia Woolf” finally got a seal of approval without having to censor too much of its language (albeit with a “Mature Audiences Only” disclaimer). This, along with similarly risqué films of the era, led to the MPAA creating the film rating system that is still in use today.
  • Mike Nichols followed this movie up with a little piece of the ‘60s called “The Graduate”. And then things sort of leveled off for him from there.
  • Everyone’s career got a boost thanks to “Virginia Woolf”. Taylor and Burton continued making movies/publically squabbling together for the next decade, Segal spent most of the ‘70s as a Hollywood leading man, and Dennis made a string of movies before returning to the stage.
  • In the early ‘00s, Yale used the film to study the perception of people with Autism. The film’s small ensemble and intimate setting is ideal to study if the participants looked into the eyes of the performers or not. What they made of the subject matter was not documented.
  • There’s never been an American remake of this film, but the original play is still performed with regularity, including several successful Broadway revivals.
  • Many spoofs of the film over the years, primarily lampooning Burton & Taylor’s on-and-off-screen feuds. And here’s Benny Hill to show you more!

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