You may have known couples like George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor). You may have received similar invitations. Come over—it’s no imposition. We’re happy to have guests. You met the couple only tonight. A couple from work. It’s natural, a few drinks. Talk is going well; why end it at the end of the party? You’re new in town. How welcome, to be welcomed in.
For a while you wish you hadn’t come. She is screaming at him as he opens the door. They insult each other and confide in you theatrically. They invited you, you suspect, to avoid addressing each other directly. Or—a shivering doubt—they address each other through you. You have been drafted as a puppet, a prop in the acrimony you witness. It takes a few drinks to quell that thought, a few mutually admired barbs. It’s easier to enjoy things you succeed in.
The second act of the evening. The halves of the couples pair off. Conversation moves outdoors. The near stranger who set you up for putdowns indoors reminisces mournfully, offering you sadness, and in return you offer painful, intimate stories, the doubts you bear through sober daylit hours behind genial public imperturbability, the energetic, good-looking young professor, the nice young faculty wife. You take care to appear so, daily, habitually. You aspire to be as you appear. But now it’s carefully nourished wounds that you want to let into the still night, the couple’s house stage lit, the surrounding town obscured behind old trees at the end of summer. You bare inadequacies you’ve never admitted to your spouse. Candor, the rarity of it, as much as what you say, knots you to this rumpled stranger whose failures you fear you’ll repeat in some fashion, or already have repeated before tonight’s hot current of bourbon and revelation.
And then George or Martha turns on you. Really, did you believe either one of them would align with you or your spouse over each other? You thought George and Martha loathed each other. They also understand each other. They don’t need either of you as soul mates. They need you to be vulnerable in a party game they were playing years before you arrived in town. They move from cruelty to solace from one line to the next, experts in pain, incapable of exit, managing, haltingly to cope. Would—will—you do as well?
Released three years after Cleopatra, and after Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s infamous on-set affair, the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was from the first—as director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman intended—difficult to consider separately from the fame and charisma of its stars. The casting ensured commercial success, but it also works for the script. Taylor and Burton’s physical awareness of each other is palpable, moment by moment. They calibrate their positions and postures to and against each other, playing off what each can anticipate the other will do in a room. Neither entirely exists absent the other. In the small interiors of George and Martha’s house, they own the screen.
Nichols frames much of the film as a close-up on them. The camera tracks faces, filling the screen with expressions of distress and triumph as accusation turns to flirtation that turns to condemnation, and line-by-line the initiative shifts from Taylor to Burton and back. His piercing eyes, their wide-set wariness, are tempered much of the time behind thick-rimmed glasses. On the bed, fully clothed, drinking before their guests arrive, Taylor handles him with violent liberty. Her voice is brittle, her full mouth rarely still. She sneers, smokes, cackles, yells, contorts, enraged. Virginia Woolf’s profanity may not shock as it once did or was predicted to, but the force of Taylor and Burton’s delivery, their bare aggression, compel attention, both their guests’ and each other’s.
Playing Martha, Taylor sought credibility as a serious actor that she didn’t feel she had from her previous roles. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress. It was the peak of her box office draw.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nominated in every eligible Academy Award category and won five awards, including, in addition to Taylor’s Best Actress, the final Oscar awarded for Black and White Cinematography. Until the final scene, the entire movie is by night, all light artificial. Anything illuminated, faces, walls, flatten into a factual glare, stripped of color, at times painfully bright against the dark. Taylor blinks irritably into her own house in one of Nichols’s close-ups. Outdoors, Burton is gray by porch lights, his skin pitted and creased. Both Burton and Taylor look exhausted, unhealthy. The town behind them is unpopulated or asleep. Nichols and cinematographer Haskell Wexler keep the focus shallow, the New England trees and houses transfigured by defocus into a fluid play of lights. It is nothing that can be reached. It exists only through the properties of the camera, in the lens and on film, while in the foreground George and Martha talk their way to daybreak.
George’s aggression is from the sidelines. He stokes Martha, his accommodation derisive, his admonitions taunts. He refuses to release his temper as she does. At a roadhouse the couples detour to, Martha finally goads him enough. The camera dizzyingly follows her leading him on and George strangling her until the young professor he’d mocked and led into imprudent confidences pries him off and hurls him to the floor.
“Violence!” The young professor’s wife drunkenly claps.
Is violence what Martha wanted, for George to impose his will by force? Daughter of the college president, she chides George incessantly for his failure to attain a leadership position. Is imposition of will all that she respects? Or has she, at last, provoked a reaction she didn’t expect and cannot accommodate?
Back at the house, George says that his and Martha’s son died in a car crash. The crash’s circumstances resemble those of a school acquaintance’s car crash, years ago, that George had described to the young professor earlier in the evening. Martha weeps that he—George—can’t do that. No, he agrees; he’s not a god; he doesn’t have the power of life and death. He is acquitting himself. The young professor, horrified, realizes that the son is a fantasy; Martha and George are unable to have children. Martha weeps, “I’ve wanted to [mention the son] so often.” How can she ever again, with the fiction, the possibility of it debunked? No more games. George has made them impossible. It’s time, he says; things will be better, he and Martha together, the two of them. He touches her shoulder, haltingly tender. She is at the point in grief where what preceded and what will follow are equally ungraspable. He almost whispers the film’s title, the refrain Martha had previously repeated, demanding everyone find it funny. Now she answers it seriously, in daylight.
Last call at the roadhouse is about an hour into the film, daybreak an hour later. But scene-to-scene, the dialogue, largely true to the play, is contiguous. Nichols compresses time, converting the limiting considerations of the stage—how quickly or frequently can sets be changed or set changes indicated without jarring audiences out of the action—into screen sleight of hand. Solar time passes faster than dramatic time. Slightly over two hours of film suffices for a night of dark souls.
Nichols was a rising star directing for the stage, and famous for improvisational comedy with Elaine May, but he’d never directed for the screen before Virginia Woolf. He must have reveled in his ability to point audiences’ gaze close in at the character speaking, to zoom in on George and Martha clasping hands and rack focus from their hands to the college buildings out the window behind them. He must have been as pleased to have the biggest stars in film in his leading roles as they must have been to get a million dollars each and the challenge and intellectual credibility of Edward Albee’s play. It was as fortuitous a fit as Martha and George were a poisonous one. George and Martha do fit. It’s in Burton and Taylor’s faces through the screaming night. George and Martha find pleasure, inflicting pain, knowing how to inflict it. By morning, they are bereft.