Michael Cox reviews a classic which is being screened as part of this year's Glasgow Film Festival.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may have started life as an acclaimed Broadway play, but cinema goers in the conservative cultural climate of 1960s America weren't accustomed to blunt sex talk or word play used for marital combat. And had the film simply had shock value at its core, it would be nothing more than an interesting footnote from its time.
But the film is far richer than that. In today’s world, such talk can be easily found on television at practically any time, but performances and filmmaking of this calibre is indeed seldom, and such words rarely have such electricity behind them.
Director Mike Nichols makes an extraordinarily strong debut as a filmmaker here. His trust in Edward Albee’s play means he doesn't spend the film trying to impress with flashy shots or high concepts. The camera sometimes lingers over the characters’ heads, only to give extreme close ups of a character at a key moment. We the audience are allowed to witness the events as they unspool rather than being force-fed a barrage of images. Nichols would go on to direct other classics (The Graduate and Catch-22, to name just a few), and watching this film is like seeing a master come into his own.
But this is really an actors film, and it is in this department that the film stands out. Elizabeth Taylor was arguably never better than she is here as Martha: loud, opinionated and in demand of attention. Sometimes sympathetic, other times loathsome, she is constantly compelling. Equalling her is Richard Burton, who plays husband George. Is George under Martha’s heel, or is he her intellectual equal? The film plays with this question, and watching a night of game-playing and arguments between the two makes for an engrossing film.
Much is made about Taylor and Burton, but equally good are George Segal and Sandy Dennis as young married couple Nick and Honey. Segal gets some of the best scenes, playing opposite Taylor and Burton throughout the film, while Dennis actually works as a vulnerable comic relief, getting both some of the film's funniest lines and heartbreaking moments.
It might be hard going to watch, but Virginia Woolf really does stand the test of time, showing some of cinema’s best talents at the high point of their abilities.