Saturday 21 September 2013

1,001 Films: "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? now stands as one of the 1960s' creakier culture clashes. Mike Nichols' big-screen version of Edward Albee's vaunted play has two couples convene in a booky nook on a leafy campus for an ill-advised after-hours tipple. The younger pair - boxer-turned-biologist George Segal and his goofy beloved Sandy Dennis - are in the first flushes of youth; the other - Richard Burton's jaded history-department pedant George and Liz Taylor's booze-sodden Martha - have had all hope and expectation knocked out of them, and so joust and bicker, repeatedly and reliably honing in on one another's worst insecurities, as a way of killing the time remaining to them before the grave. They were in the middle of some set-to or other when their guests showed up; it will continue - with polite yet increasingly tipsy interventions from their visitors - until the sun comes up the following morn.

Ernest Lehman's script proves almost mathematical in its seeking out of contrasts and unexpected parallels between the assembled personalities - while also clearly establishing a line of social inquiry (most couples aren't as happy as they outwardly appear) since taken up by dramatists like Raymond Carver, Neil LaBute and Patrick Marber, whose play Closer (same formula, modern dress) Nichols would eventually be drawn towards. As a film, however, Who's Afraid...? is somewhere in the realms of Polanski's insufferable, logic-bludgeoning Yasmina Reza adaptation Carnage: basically four variably unsympathetic people prodding and hammering away at one another with differing degrees of passive-aggression, well past the point at which any sane person in the real world would have made their excuses and left, or drawn the curtains and gone up to bed.

Doing their best to save the project from its own desiccated, talky misanthropy (no wonder these folk turn to drink: it's all just so dry): the then-rookie Nichols, who - working alongside emergent director of photography Haskell Wexler - takes whatever opportunity he can to lubricate the joints between scenes, and the performers gathered together to gripe and grouch under the same roof. As with A Streetcar Named Desire, another "movie classic" that now looks more than ever a filmed play, Who's Afraid...? retains some mitigating value as a historical document, capturing for all eternity an overnight seachange in acting styles: how exciting it must have been for the young Nichols to get the legendary Dick 'n' Liz on the same soundstage as bright young things Segal and Dennis, all impulses and personality with which to counter their older co-stars' compulsive underlining of the script.

Which is not to do the leads a disservice: even if we disregard what, if anything, this choice of project might tell us about their off-screen relations, it stands as the most sustained and convincing celluloid testimony to Burton's gift and genius, the material stuffed full of weighty pronouncements and spry wordflips that play to the actor's verbal strengths; in dispatches, it also reveals Taylor as a more interesting (and less decorous) actress than her later career ever really gave her credit for. Otherwise, for all its star power, for all its Oscar victories, for all that it's been positioned as the dawn of a new and adult age in Hollywood thinking, the film remains something of a slog: all it ultimately has to tell us about the human condition is that people who stay up late drinking can become very tiresome very quickly.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

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