Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (film)

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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Original movie poster for the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Mike Nichols
Produced by Ernest Lehman
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman
Based on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 
by Edward Albee
Starring Elizabeth Taylor
Richard Burton
George Segal
Sandy Dennis
Music by Alex North
Cinematography Haskell Wexler
Editing by Sam O'Steen
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • June 22, 1966 (1966-06-22)
Running time 132 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $7.5 million
Box office $40,000,000

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a 1966 American black comedy-drama film directed by Mike Nichols. The screenplay by Ernest Lehman is an adaptation of the play of the same title by Edward Albee. It stars Elizabeth Taylor as Martha and Richard Burton as George, with George Segal as Nick and Sandy Dennis as Honey.[2]

The film was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Mike Nichols, and is one of only two films to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards (the other being Cimarron). All the four main actors of the film were nominated in their respective acting categories.

The film won five awards, including a second Academy Award for Best Actress for Elizabeth Taylor and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis. However, the film lost to A Man for All Seasons for the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay awards, and both Richard Burton and George Segal failed to win in their categories.

In 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[3]

Plot[edit]

Set on the campus of a small New England college, the film focuses on the volatile relationship of associate history professor George and his hard-drinking wife Martha, the daughter of the college president.

It's 2:00 Sunday morning, and they have returned from one of her father's gatherings. Martha announces she has invited a young couple—Nick, a young, good-looking, newly appointed instructor, and his mousey wife, Honey—to join them for drinks. George is disturbed because she did so without consulting him first, prompting Martha to launch into the first of many loud and lengthy tirades during which she taunts and criticizes him. Knowing his wife is drunk and quite lewd, he asks her to behave herself when they arrive, and when the doorbell rings, he warns her to refrain from mentioning their child to their company.

Overhearing Martha's crude retort as the door opens (which seems to be by design, since George baited Martha immediately before opening the door), Nick and Honey immediately feel ill at ease and quickly find themselves caught in the middle of a verbal war zone when their efforts to engage in small talk set off a volley of insults between their hosts. Martha begins to flirt brashly with Nick while his meek wife tries to pretend she is unaware of what is happening.

While Martha is showing Honey where the bathroom is, George tests Nick's verbal sparring skills, but the young man is no match for his host. Realizing he and his wife are becoming embroiled in the middle of marital warfare, he suggests they depart, but George cajoles him into staying.

Upon returning to the living room alone, Honey innocently mentions to George she was unaware he and Martha had a son on the verge of celebrating his sixteenth birthday. Martha reappears in a new outfit—form-fitting slacks and a revealing blouse—and when her husband makes a snide remark about the ensemble, she begins to demean his abilities as a teacher, then escalates her seduction of Nick, complimenting him on the body he developed as both a quarterback and an intercollegiate state boxing champion while criticizing George's paunch. She informs their guests about a past incident when George refused to engage in a friendly outdoor boxing match with his father-in-law and Martha put on a pair of gloves and punched him in the jaw, knocking him into the bushes. As she relates the story, George aims a rifle at the back of her head, causing Honey to scream. He pulls the trigger, which releases an umbrella, while he tells his wife she's dead.

Honey again raises the subject of George and Martha's son, prompting the couple to engage in a conversation Martha quickly tries to end without success. To counterattack George's relentless comments about the boy, she tells their guests her husband is unsure the child is his own, although he most assuredly is. They argue about the color of the boy's eyes until George threatens to expose the truth about the boy. Furious, Martha accuses him of being a failure whose youthful, idealistic plans for the future slowly deteriorated as he came to realize he wasn't aggressive enough to follow in his father-in-law's footsteps, leaving her stuck with a flop. George cuts the diatribe short, first by smashing a bottle of gin against the fireplace mantle, and then by spinning Honey around and mockingly singing, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to the tune of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", a joke Martha had made herself during the party earlier that evening.

Inebriated and on the verge of throwing up from George's spinning, Honey rushes from the room. Martha goes to the kitchen to make coffee, and George and Nick go outside. The younger man confesses he was attracted to Honey more for her family's money than passion, and married her only because she mistakenly believed she was pregnant. George describes his own marriage as one of never-ending accommodation and adjustment, then admits he considers Nick a threat. George also tells a story about a boy he grew up with. This boy had accidentally killed his mother. Years later, George claims the boy was driving with his father. He swerved to "miss a porcupine" in the road, and the resulting accident killed his father. The boy ended up living out his days in a mental hospital.

When their guests propose leaving, George insists on driving them home. In the car, the talk returns to George and Martha's son. They approach a roadhouse, and Honey suggests they stop to dance. While Honey and George watch, Nick suggestively dances with Martha, who continues to mock George and criticize his inadequacies. George unplugs the jukebox and announces the game is over. In response, Martha alludes to the fact he may have murdered his parents like the protagonist in his unpublished, non-fiction novel, prompting George to strangle Martha until Nick manages to pull him away from her.

George persuades the owner to serve them one more round before closing and suggests that, having played a game of Humiliate the Host, the quartet should now engage in Hump the Hostess or Get the Guests. He then tells the group about a second novel he allegedly has written about a young couple from the Midwest, a good-looking teacher and his timid wife, who marry because of her hysterical pregnancy and then settle in a small college town. An embarrassed Honey realizes Nick indiscreetly told George about their past and runs from the room. Nick promises revenge on George, and then runs after Honey.

In the parking lot, George tells his wife he cannot stand the way she constantly humiliates him, and she tauntingly accuses him of having married her for just that reason. Their rage erupts into a declaration of "total war". Martha drives off, retrieving Nick and Honey, leaving George to make his way back home on foot. When he arrives home, he discovers Honey nearly delirious and realizes that his wife and Nick are presently engaged in a sexual encounter. Through Honey's drunken babbling, George begins to suspect that her pregnancy was in fact real, and that she secretly had an abortion. He then devises a plan to get back at Martha.

When Martha accuses Nick of being sexually inadequate, he blames his impotence on all the liquor he has consumed. George then appears and requests that everyone gather once more for one last game. He mentions his and Martha's son, prompting her to reminisce about his birth and childhood and how he was nearly destroyed by his father. George accuses Martha of engaging in destructive and abusive behavior with the boy, who frequently ran away to escape her sexual advances. George then announces he has received a telegram with bad news—the boy was killed the previous afternoon on a country road when he swerved to avoid hitting a porcupine and crashed into a tree.

As Martha argues with George that he "can't do this" and begs him not to "kill" their son, Nick suddenly realizes the truth—Martha and George had never been able to have a baby, for reasons that are unexplained. Instead, their game together is to imagine they have a son and invent situations and stories of him. By declaring their son dead, accordingly, George has "killed" him. (There are hints of this throughout the script that become clear in retrospect—for example, when George and Nick were sitting by the swing waiting for Honey to finish throwing up, George comments quietly that Martha never had any pregnancies.)

The young couple departs quietly, and George and Martha are left alone as the day begins to break outside. They speak quietly, and in the last lines Martha answers the title question with "I am, George, I am."

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Development[edit]

Edward Albee's 1962 play was replete with dialogue that included multiple instances of "goddamn" and "son-of-a-bitch", along with "screw you", "up yours", "great nipples", and "hump the hostess".[4] Opening on Broadway during the Cuban Missile Crisis, audiences who had gone to the theater to forget the threat of nuclear war were instead assaulted by language and situations they had not seen before outside of experimental theater.[5]

The immediate reaction of the theater audiences, eventually voiced by critics, was that Albee had created a play that would be a great success on Broadway, but could never be filmed in anything like its current form. Neither the audience nor the critics understood how much the Hollywood landscape was changing in the 1960s, and that it could no longer live with any meaningful Production Code.[6] In bringing the play to the screen, Ernest Lehman decided he would not change the dialogue that had shocked veteran theatergoers in New York only four years earlier. Despite serious opposition to this decision, Lehman prevailed.[7]

Casting[edit]

The choice of Elizabeth Taylor—at the time regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world—to play the frumpy, fifty-ish Martha surprised many, but the actress gained 30 pounds (13.5 kg) for the role and her performance (along with those of Burton, Segal, and Dennis) was ultimately praised. When Warner Bros. head Jack Warner approached Albee about buying the film rights for the play, he told Albee that he wanted to cast Bette Davis and James Mason in the roles of Martha and George.[8] In the script, Martha references Davis and quotes her famous "What a dump!" line from the film Beyond the Forest (1949). Albee was delighted by this cast, believing that "James Mason seemed absolutely right...and to watch Bette Davis do that Bette Davis imitation in that first scene—that would have been so wonderful."[8] However, fearing that the talky, character-driven story would land with a resounding thud—and that audiences would grow weary of watching two hours of screaming between a harridan and a wimp—Nichols and Lehman cast stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.[7] Edward Albee was surprised by the casting decision, but later stated that Taylor was quite good, and Burton was incredible. In the end though, he still felt that "with Mason and Davis you would have had a less flashy and ultimately deeper film."[8]

Filming[edit]

As filming began, the Catholic Legion of Motion Pictures (formerly the Catholic Legion of Decency), issued a preliminary report that, if what they heard was true, they might have to slap Virginia Woolf with the once-dreaded "condemned" rating, although they promised to wait to see the film. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) followed with an even stronger statement, warning the studio—without promising to wait for a screening—that if they were really thinking of leaving the Broadway play's language intact, they could forget about getting a Seal of Approval.[4]

The film was shot on location at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.[9] Nichols insisted on this for verisimilitude, but later stated that he had been misguided, that it added nothing artistically, and that the film could as well have been shot on any sound stage.

Music[edit]

The film's original motion picture score was composed by Alex North. At the time of the film's release, a gatefold two-LP record soundtrack album set that included the entire film's dialogue was released by Warner Bros. Records as the "Deluxe Edition Two-Record Set". This was one of the only cases in which a film studio released an album of a film's vocals in its entirety, as the film (at that time) could never be shown in reruns on network television. The only piece of music heard throughout the entire album is a song titled "Virginia Woolf Rock" that plays while Martha and Nick are dancing (but plays a little differently than it does in the film).

In at least two instances alternate takes were used: Taylor's memorable "Goddamn you!" line is altered to "Screw you!", and some of the dialogue from the dancing sequence was lifted from another take. As Martha tells her story about punching George in the jaw in front of her father to Nick and Honey, it is heard very clearly while in the film it became distant and muffled as the camera followed George into another room to get a gun. The album also ran a half-hour shorter than the movie as most pauses and long silent moments were removed. However, virtually every line remains intact.

The album's cover has the four main actors on the cover and the back cover has some background information about the four actors, information about the five month shooting schedule, some information about Albee and a brief synopsis of the film. This album is out of print, was never re-released in any other formats, and is extremely rare and hard to find and is highly prized among collectors in almost any condition.

The music from the film was issued as a single-LP release that featured 11 tracks of film composer North's score from the film.[10] The album also included snippets of dialog on a couple tracks, such as Taylor shouting "SNAP!". This album was bootlegged unofficially onto an undated German CD and issued on CD by DRG in 2006.

Differences from the play[edit]

The film adaptation differs slightly from the play, which has only four characters. The minor characters of the roadhouse owner, who has only a few lines of dialogue, and his wife, who serves a tray of drinks and leaves silently, were played by the film's gaffer, Frank Flanagan, and his wife, Agnes.

The play is set entirely in Martha and George's house. In the film, one scene takes place at the roadhouse, one in George and Martha's yard, and one in their car. Despite these minor deviations, however, the film is extremely faithful to the play. The filmmakers used the original play as the screenplay and, aside from toning down some of the profanity slightly — Martha's "Screw you!" (which, in the 2005 Broadway revival, is "Fuck you!") becomes "God damn you!" — virtually all of the original dialogue remains intact. (In the version released in the UK, "Screw you" is kept intact. In an interview at the time of the release, Taylor referred to this phrase as pushing boundaries.)

Nick is never referred to or addressed by name during the film or the play.

Distribution[edit]

Warner Bros. studio executives sat down to look at a rough cut, without music, and a Life magazine reporter was present. He printed the following quote from one of the studio chiefs: "My God! We've got a seven million dollar dirty movie on our hands!"[4]

The film was considered groundbreaking for having a level of profanity and sexual implication unheard of at that time. Jack Valenti, who had just become president of the MPAA in 1966, had abolished the old Production Code. In order for the film to be released with MPAA approval, Warner Bros. agreed to minor deletions of certain profanities and to have a special warning placed on all advertisements for the film, indicating adult content. In addition, all contracts with theatres exhibiting the film included a clause to prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from admittance without adult supervision.[11] Even the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures (NCOMP) refused to "condemn" the film,[4] with the office ruling it as "morally unobjectionable for adults, with reservations."[12] It was this film and another groundbreaking film, Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), that led Jack Valenti to begin work on the MPAA film rating system that went into effect on November 1, 1968. It is also said that Jack Warner chose to pay a fine of $5,000 in order to remain as faithful to the play (with its profanity) as possible.[citation needed]

Theatrical release[edit]

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered on June 22, 1966, at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, California.[13] The film went on to become a financial success, earning a North American rental gross of $10.3 million in 1966.[14]

Home media[edit]

The film was first released on to DVD in North America on October 1, 1997. It has since been re-released in a 2-disc special edition that was concurrently released across North America and much of Europe.

Accolades[edit]

The film is one of only two films (the other being Cimarron) to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards. Each of the four actors was nominated for an Oscar but only Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis won, for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. The film also won the Black and White Cinematography award for Haskell Wexler's stark, black-and-white camera work (it was the last film to win before the category was eliminated) and for Best Art Direction (Richard Sylbert, George James Hopkins).[15] It was the first film to have its entire credited cast be nominated for acting Oscars, a feat only accomplished twice more with Sleuth in 1972 and Give 'em Hell, Harry! in 1975.

The film received the BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source.

In AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ranked #67.

Parodies[edit]

  • Mad Magazine published a spoof of the film, entitled Who in Heck is Virginia Woolf?! At one point, it is remarked "This is an art film, so the censors have to let us talk dirty!" Most of the swearing is replaced with grawlixes: when Martha asks George "%$?" and he replies "What kind of profanity is that, Liz?!", she says "I was just asking what percentage of the gross we're getting!" Their son turns out to be real, and to George and Martha's dismay, a clean-cut non-dysfunctional bore, in keeping with Mad's tradition of altering the endings of the films that they parody.
  • The film was spoofed on The Benny Hill Show (Season 7, Episode 4), "Sale of the Half Century", with Hill playing both Burton's and Taylor's parts. This was made by a parody how widescreen-films were transferred to videotapes by pan and scan-cropping.
  • In the American Dad episode "Camp Refoogee", Roger and Francine's role-playing as a married couple is essentially taken from Albee's original play. It should also be noted that all four characters are wearing clothes that match the film, and the other couple resembles Segal and Dennis.
  • The 1989 dance club hit remake of "Tainted Love" by the studio group Impedance was remixed by J.R. Clements for the Art of Compilation white label D.J. series. Clements' remix is entitled "The Raging George & Martha Mix," and incorporates some of the argumentative dialogue from the film into the remix.
  • "Never Mix, Never Worry" is a 2009 pop/rock song by The Sour Notes that is themed and titled after the film.
  • In the 3rd Rock from the Sun episode "Dick in Law", Mary's squabbling parents are named George and Martha, which is most likely a subtle reference to the play. Actors Elaine Stritch and George Grizzard who played her parents were in the original Broadway production, Stritch as understudy to Uta Hagen's Martha, and Grizzard as the original Nick.
  • A sketch on the comedy show SCTV featured a "Fast-Talking Playhouse" version of the film, starring motor-mouthed TV pitchman Harvey K-tel as George, Barbra Streisand as Martha, Broderick Crawford as Nick, and Sandy Duncan as Honey. Interestingly, the title is sung to the tune of Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf instead of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush as is done in the film and stage productions to avoid paying music rights.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ This film won the last Academy Awards for the "black-and-white" categories of Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design. The following year, the Academy combined "black-and-white" and "color" into single categories for these awards. Source: Clooney, p. 79

References[edit]

  1. ^ "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (X)". Warner Bros. British Board of Film Classification. June 27, 1966. Retrieved September 21, 2013. 
  2. ^ Variety film review; June 22, 1966, page 6.
  3. ^ "Library of Congress announces 2013 National Film Registry selections" (Press release). Washington Post. December 18, 2013. Retrieved December 18, 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c d Clooney, p. 89
  5. ^ Clooney, p. 81
  6. ^ Clooney, p. 81-82
  7. ^ a b Clooney, Nick (November 2002). The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen. New York: Atria Books, a trademark of Simon & Schuster. p. 85. ISBN 0-7434-1043-2. .
  8. ^ a b c Sikov, Edward (2007). Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis. New York: Holt Paperbacks, a trademark of Henry Holt and Company. pp. 380–1. ISBN 0-8050-8863-6. .
  9. ^ Leavenworth, Jessica (April 12, 2006). "`Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Some Smith alumnae were". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved February 25, 2013. 
  10. ^ Leonard, James. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [Original Music from the Motion Picture] : Allmusic". Allmusic. Retrieved February 25, 2013. 
  11. ^ "'Virginia Woolf' Not For Kids". St. Petersburg Times. May 27, 1966. Retrieved February 20, 2013. 
  12. ^ Pennington, Jody (July 30, 2007). The History of Sex in American Film. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. p. 40. 
  13. ^ "Teacher Guide: Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". Alley Theatre. 2003. Retrieved February 20, 2013. 
  14. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1966", Variety, 4 January 1967 p 8
  15. ^ "NY Times: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-26. 
  16. ^ "The 39th Academy Awards (1967) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-08-24. 

External links[edit]

Awards
Preceded by
The Miracle Worker
Academy Award winner for
Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress
Succeeded by
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