Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Six

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#6 — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
Let’s start by challenging a myth. Life magazine never actually reported a panicked revolt by Warner Bros. executives against the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, standing up at a studio screening to lament that they’d spent a tidy sum on a “dirty movie.” Instead, that was an imagined scenario offered by the publication’s writer in a feature story on the adaption of Edward Albee’s play, a way to contextualize the film’s boundary-shoving content. There’s no actual evidence of studio discontent in the article, and not necessarily a lot of reason to think there might have been all that much. After all, this was a prestige project: a play that had been a major hit (major enough that a four LP recording of it was released) on its way to winning a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize, and it had two major stars in the leading roles, one of them already with an Oscar on her shelf and the other surely destined to win one someday, as evidenced by four prior nominations. As a bonus, those two performers were recently married and dominated the celebrity rags like few who’d came before. Or after, for that matter. There was every reason to believe the film would be a major hit, and indeed it was. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was one of the highest-grossing releases of the year.

For all the fuss over the film’s willingness to deploy somewhat profane language–the roughest words completely tame when held up against what would be commonplace in American films just a few years later–the real challenging part of the work is the raw depiction of incendiary emotions. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman did his level best to preserve what Albee originally wrote, depicting the highly fraught marriage of George and Martha with a commitment to the combative anger at the core of their relationship. In one boozy night, the two welcome a younger couple into their home, a colleague of George’s at the college where he’s a professor, along with the younger educator’s wife. The battle is waged with tongues sharper than daggers, as George and Martha demonstrate a capacity for tearing at old wounds that can only come from years upon years of practice. Albee’s words transferred by Lehman and delivered by pros at the top of their respective games have a staggering fury, showing the brilliant cruelty that can be perpetrated by people in an desperate attempt to salve their own pain, to counter their own resounding dissatisfaction.

If executives had any further cause to worry than that bruising emotional content, it came from putting this delicate material in the hands of an entirely unproven film director. Mike Nichols had already won two of his astounding nine Tonys by this point, but he hadn’t yet wielded a camera, accentuating the impressiveness of his artful command on this first outing. His directing is stylish and yet unobtrusive, weaving the camera through the scenes with a keen eye for the best way to frame a moment, finding Taylor and Burton (along with George Segal and Sandy Dennis as the other couple) as they offer added shading to their characters in quiet, agonized reactions. Nichols certainly had his affectations, but at his regularly-seen best he knew how to make his distinctive choices serve the story rather than knock it aside. That’s certainly the case with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which the director’s studied coolness actually adds to the heat of the piece. In terms of actual experience on a movie set, Nichols may have been a novice, but the talent that made him a master was already in evidence. Surely, that was what the Warner Bros. brass noticed rather than a few salty words.

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