A Movie A Day: WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
Martha is 108… years old. She weighs somewhat more than that.
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Holy crap what a draining movie. Not a bad draining… not at all. Actually, I’d go so far as to say it is one of the most powerful actor’s showcases in the nearly 200 films we’ve covered in this column. The performances in this film are unreal.
On the surface this film is about one thing: cruelty. And I’m not talking about subtle cruelty, but real in your face venomous, crass, harsh, ugly cruelty.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a very bitter old married couple, each with a matching appreciation for the most vile humor, throwing daggers at each other from the first moment they appear together.
Burton is a college professor, Taylor the daughter of the top dog in this school’s adminstration. When we first meet them they’re just getting in from a party, both a little tipsy. Burton just wants to go to sleep, but Taylor tells him to expect company, that her daddy has arranged an informal get-together with a new math professor and his wife.
These two poor bastards show up (played by George Segal –who we follow over from yesterday’s THE HOT ROCK- and Sandy Dennis) and become unwitting spectators in this dysfunctional family. Actually, they only start out as spectators, but both get pulled in over the course of the movie.
It’s a dizzying juggling act as Taylor and Burton take turns abusing each other, sometimes physically, mostly emotionally. Neither one is content to keep it playful, but always twist the knife after it has been stuck in.
As the acts pass we soon realize that this is a sort of game for them, but game or not, the pain is real. That’s the point. That’s the game.
It’s no surprise to me that this film was directed by Mike Nichols, but it is shocking to me that this is his first film. I love his work to death. THE GRADUATE, SILKWOOD and CLOSER stand out to me (and I’m sure I’ll be adding CARNAL KNOWLEDGE to that favorites list soon) as films that somehow pull the absolute best performances out of the actors involved. They’re simple films technically, but never dull.
This is the most perfect example of his talent at doing that, I think. It’s very play-like, talking heads from beginning to end, but it’s never anything less than engaging. You’re either going to be engrossed by the shocking, but undeniably funny (at times) cruelty on display or you’ll be so damn curious as to where this is all going that you can’t help but stay glued to the screen for the 130 minutes of runtime.
Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for her work in this film and she deserves it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance from her as natural and effortless as it is here. I’m sure that’s aided by the real life baggage, both positive and negative… I mean, you don’t divorce twice without getting into spats, right?
The real tragedy is that Taylor was awarded the Oscar, but Burton was not. He lost out to Paul Scofield from A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, which also took away the Best Picture Oscar from WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
And as great as Taylor is in the movie, the real revelation is Burton’s performance. Just watch the scene which starts off with him laughing until his hysterical laughter transforms into racking sobs of true grief. Taylor has a similar scene at the very end of the movie, but it didn’t hit me as dead center as Burton’s did. Maybe I could relate to it more, I don’t know. But for whatever reason Taylor’s scene is great, but just not the emotional gut-punch for me that Burton’s scene was.
Once again, we have a movie that has it all. It’s been a great week for black and white photography… PANIC IN THE STREETS, TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, ON THE BEACH, MYSTERY STREET, THE TIN STAR… been a great, great run for awesome black and white cinematography, but the clear winner is Haskell Wexler’s unbelievably beautiful work here, which in and of itself is enough to elevate the story out of its play origins.
But on top of Wexler’s cinematography, Nichols keeps the camera moving, uses depth of field extremely well and cuts in close at the perfect moments to give the cinema audience the kind of intimacy that is impossible for a theater performance. We can look deep into the eyes of these characters who are not at all theatrical (maybe a little bit when Sandy Dennis is playing drunk, but even then it’s not distracting), making for a wholly cinematic feel.
Final Thoughts: This is one of the maybe 20 films in the top 250 (as rated on IMDB) finally checked off of my “haven’t seen” list and it does not disappoint. They don’t make movies like this anymore and maybe they can’t. CLOSER is very much WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?’s tonal brother, but I’d say there’s even more hope in CLOSER, which is undoubtedly a very dark movie, than in VIRGINIA WOOLF. It’s more to do with the type of actor, I think. This seemed to be the perfect material for the perfect pair of actors at the perfect stage of their careers and life. I don’t know if that kind of lightning can ever be captured again, but that’s kind of the joy of film, right? Hoping that each time we sit in a theater we’ll see that magic up on the screen.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Tuesday, December 2nd: THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN (1973)
Wednesday, December 3rd: CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971)
Thursday, December 4th: THE CINCINNATI KID (1965)
Friday, December 5th: POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961)
Saturday, December 6th: MIKEY & NICKY (1976)
Sunday, December 7th: TWO MINUTE WARNING (1976)
Monday, December 8th: THE SENTINEL (1976)
See you folks tomorrow for the 2nd of three Mike Nichols flicks, the bizarre-sounding George C. Scott dolphin flick DAY OF THE DOLPHIN!
June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
August 28th: The Devil & Daniel Webster
August 29th: Cat People
August 30th: The Curse of the Cat People
August 31st: The 7th Victim
September 1st: The Ghost Ship
September 2nd: Isle of the Dead
September 3rd: Bedlam
September 4th: Black Sabbath
September 5th: Black Sunday
September 6th: Twitch of the Death Nerve
September 7th: Tragic Ceremony
September 8th: Lisa & The Devil
September 9th: Baron Blood
September 10th: A Shot In The Dark
September 11th: The Pink Panther
September 12th: The Return of the Pink Panther
September 13th: The Pink Panther Strikes Again
September 14th: Revenge of the Pink Panther
September 15th: Trail of the Pink Panther
September 16th: The Real Glory
September 17th: The Winning of Barbara Worth
September 18th: The Cowboy and the Lady
September 19th: Dakota
September 20th: Red River
September 21st: Terminal Station
September 22nd: The Search
September 23rd: Act of Violence
September 24th: Houdini
September 25th: Money From Home
September 26th: Papa’s Delicate Condition
September 27th: Dillinger
September 28th: Battle of the Bulge
September 29th: Daisy Kenyon
September 30th: Laura
October 1st: The Dunwich Horror
October 2nd: Experiment In Terror
October 3rd: The Devil’s Rain
October 4th: Race With The Devil
October 5th: Salo, Or The 120 Days of Sodom
October 6th: Bad Dreams
October 7th: The House Where Evil Dwells
October 8th: Memories of Murder
October 9th: The Hunger
October 10th: I Saw What You Did
October 11th: I Spit On Your Grave
October 12th: Naked You Die
October 13th: The Wraith
October 14th: Silent Night, Bloody Night
October 15th: I Bury The Living
October 16th: The Beast Must Die
October 17th: Hellgate
October 18th: He Knows You’re Alone
October 19th: The Thing From Another World
October 20th: The Fall of the House of Usher
October 21st: Audrey Rose
October 22nd: Who Slew Auntie Roo?
October 23rd: Wait Until Dark
October 24th: Dead & Buried
October 25th: A Bucket of Blood
October 26th: The Bloodstained Shadow
October 27th: I, Madman
October 28th: Return to Horror High
October 29th: Die, Monster, Die
October 30th: Epidemic
October 31st: Student Bodies
November 1st: Black Widow
November 2nd: The Ghost & Mrs. Muir
November 3rd: Flying Tigers
November 4th: Executive Action
November 5th: The Busy Body
November 6th: It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
November 7th: Libeled Lady
November 8th: Up The River
November 9th: Doctor Bull
November 10th: Judge Priest
November 11th: Ten Little Indians
November 12th: Murder On The Orient Express
November 13th: Daniel
November 14th: El Dorado
November 15th: The Gambler
November 16th: Once Upon A Time In America
November 17th: Salvador
November 18th: Best Seller
November 19th: The Holcroft Covenant
November 20th: Birdman of Alcatraz
November 21st: The Train
November 22nd: Gunfight At The O.K. Corral
November 23rd: Mystery Street
November 24th: Border Incident
November 25th: The Tin Star
November 26th: On The Beach
November 27th: Twelve O’Clock High
November 28th: Gentleman’s Agreement
November 29th: Panic In The Streets
November 30th: The Hot Rock
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Dec. 2, 2008, 5:50 a.m. CST
I saw the play a couple of years back with Kathleen Turner. It was good and apparently closer to the playwrites vision but Quint's right. The Burton / Taylor dynamic is real lightning in a bottle stuff. Nasty and funny.
Dec. 2, 2008, 5:54 a.m. CST
for a book report. The movie is an incredibly well-made adaptation. Honestly one of Elizabeth Taylor's finest films.
Dec. 2, 2008, 5:57 a.m. CST
Absolutely. I agree with you about Richard Burton not getting the attention he deserved for his performance.
Dec. 2, 2008, 6 a.m. CST
You've made it 6 months! Halfway there. This column has definitely become one of the highlights of AICN. Nice job.
Dec. 2, 2008, 6:12 a.m. CST
thanks, but technically that's tomorrow's movie... and by tomorrow I mean when I wake up. heh. Half a year... that's crazy talk. The 200th title is rapidly approaching and will be one of the bigger "you haven't seen that?!?" titles. Thanks for the kind words and thanks for following along. I really do appreciate you guys reading along and discussing these flicks.
Dec. 2, 2008, 6:17 a.m. CST
I said it before and I'll say it again: Burton gives the greatest screen performance that I've ever seen. Only David Thewlis in "Naked" has the same assurance.
Dec. 2, 2008, 6:52 a.m. CST
was one of my favorites when I was a kid. My mom got it out of the library (this is when VCR's were a novelty) and I kept making her get it back out. Haven't seen it as an adult, looking forward to your review. And yeah, 'Who's Afraid' is awesome! Has some of the meanest laugh out loud moments I've ever seen in a film. Mean, mean, mean. I watched it with my girlfriend a year or two ago, and she was shocked that they made movies like that back then. She thought it was all 'Fiddler on the Roof' and 'Seven Brides'. We have since become devotees of TCM.
Dec. 2, 2008, 6:59 a.m. CST
by Spandau Belly
It's helped me plan most of my dinner parties.
Dec. 2, 2008, 7:07 a.m. CST
by Boba Fat
Caught it on TV late a night and within a few seconds was hooked. Isn't great when a film you know nothing about can do that? Anyway, the strange thing is I remember it in colour. Odd, but this review makes me want to add it to my DVD collection. And Quint, you may feel like you need a shower after the grubbiness of The Sentinel. Not even good grubby, but icky, grubby film making with Winner's sweaty paws all over it.
Dec. 2, 2008, 7:13 a.m. CST
by The Amazing G
are allot like the couple in this movie....seriously
Dec. 2, 2008, 7:20 a.m. CST
Is the amazing run of films Liz Taylor had back then. watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof again some time if you want to see the luminous beauty and then a couple of years later see the transformation she was willing to acheive for Virginia. She just does so much subtle stuff in them too.
Dec. 2, 2008, 7:38 a.m. CST
One of only a few movies that can blow me away every time I watch it.
Dec. 2, 2008, 7:53 a.m. CST
by Cletus Van Damme
...chick in the 60's had full-on Yeti bush!
Dec. 2, 2008, 7:54 a.m. CST
by Cletus Van Damme
...one strip of hair that went from their belly buttons to the small of their backs!
Dec. 2, 2008, 8:07 a.m. CST
She did a good job in this movie but it may have started the trend of glamorous (or former glamorous) mediocre actresses winning Oscars for uglying it up. Liz Taylor was wonderfully repulsive in this movie. She definitely did better than the untalented Julia Roberts, Hale Berry, Nicole Kidman, and Charlize Theron.
Let’s be clear here Q: A man for all seasons didn’t "take away" the best picture and lead actor Oscar in any kind of "tragedy", it won them by being an almost unarguably flawless fucking masterpiece.
Dec. 2, 2008, 10:39 a.m. CST
Hmm. I like A Man for All Seasons, but I still think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a far better film. Bolt's screenplay is too plain boring - only Shaw livens things up with his Henry VIII.
Dec. 2, 2008, 10:51 a.m. CST
'...Martha being a Cyclops'. Best. Line. Ever.
Dec. 2, 2008, 11:05 a.m. CST
wonderful pre-MPAA ratings <i>walpurgisnacht schadenfreude</i> (you can quote me...OR CAN YOU?) taken almost whole cloth the good mr. albee's blistering three-act. nichols got up to speed with mirculous swiftness from being a director of stage farces to the best- directed hollywood film of that year, aided in no small way by haskell and other genuiuses before (and in front of) the camera. it's unquestionably taylor's greatest performance, probably because it wasn't that much of a "performance", per se -- just another rage-and-whiskey-fueled night at the burtons!<p>looking forward to mr. nichols' former sketch comedy partner, elaine may, directing mikey and nicky coming up in quint's viewings. informed sources suggest the mikey-nicky refers to mr. mike nichols himself...you make the call (no, not YOU...quint).
Dec. 2, 2008, 11:57 a.m. CST
that Married with Children, at least the pilot, was based on, inspired by, or just ripped off this movie. You have the long-married couple who seem to take great pleasure in hurting one another, and the young newlyweds whose perfect relationship is, by the end of the episode, revealed to be not as strong as first believed. The ugliness of the afternoon is cathartic for the older married couple who we see really do love each other, animosity and all.
Dec. 2, 2008, 12:14 p.m. CST
holy crap....its one thing to bash the current crop of actresses...
Dec. 2, 2008, 12:26 p.m. CST
Not to defend someone else's worlds, but I don't think Bob Parr meant Taylor was mediocre. I think he was saying that she set a path that less talented, mediocre actresses have followed to great success. Just like I would say Steven Spielberg and Lucas are very talented (well, Lucas WAS) but a lot less talented filmmakers have followed the path of big blockbusters to huge success.
Dec. 2, 2008, 12:28 p.m. CST
in an otherwise forgettable John Huston and Marlon Brando movie, Reflections in a Golden Eye. The ending of that movie is a doozy though.
Dec. 2, 2008, 12:29 p.m. CST
by Dollar Bird
I just rediscovered I had bought a copy of a few months back, but hadn't watched it yet. (I'd seen it first time years ago.) Everyone's pretty great in it and the whole time I kept thinking "How is this George Segal the same guy as from 'Just Shoot Me'?" Vicious and beautiful.
Dec. 2, 2008, 12:42 p.m. CST
on (very) late night tv on a weekend after being dumped by my girlfriend of three years. Everything about the movie clicked with me
Dec. 2, 2008, 12:54 p.m. CST
is that people expect a performance like that from Burton, he was an ACTOR, Taylor was a STAR though (not to say that she wasn't a good actor), and you don't normally expect a performance like that from a star, thus it was rewarded
Dec. 2, 2008, 1:05 p.m. CST
by My Mom Is A Whore
I know this because the f*(8ing "Hancock" advert kept trying to stop me clicking on this article. Every time I moved my cursor towards it, Hancock would fly down out of his banner and I'd end up at his home site. If this hasn't happened to you, it probably sounds like I'm drunk. But, if it has,... isn't it f7*^ing annoying?!
Dec. 2, 2008, 1:28 p.m. CST
Yes, really. I love it very much. Caught parts of it on TV at various points in the past number of years, and I recently bought it.
Dec. 2, 2008, 1:53 p.m. CST
for my own personal flick-fest. Within 24 hours (re)watched, A Simple Plan, The Parallax View, and Scanners. Quint you're an inspiration.
Dec. 2, 2008, 1:53 p.m. CST
And bought the movie blindly when I was on page 40. I was loving the play so much I had to buy the damn thing. I finished the play and watched the movie that same day and now it's one of my favourites EVER. And is it me or "fat and old" Liz Taylor is hot as fuck? Her "sunday chapel dress"? Grrrreowl.
Dec. 2, 2008, 1:58 p.m. CST
Dick Smith even stated how he felt bad working on that movie. He hated gore effects just for the sake of gore.
Dec. 2, 2008, 5:42 p.m. CST
Dec. 2, 2008, 6:36 p.m. CST
It will make you laugh it will make you cry it will make you wonder how in the hell this movie got made by a major studio!! ( nobody would take a chance like this these days). it's a very strange film , that is developing nicely then goes all 70's batshit crazy on you!!! I have to admit, I like it ! ( picked it up when a video store was going out of bidness... lost the vhs in the hurricane tho. Might pick it up on dvd as it is just so bizarre!)
Dec. 2, 2008, 6:51 p.m. CST
Keep a barf bag nearby when you see it. If you ever need to induce vomiting for any reason, then sit down to this piece of garbage. Tone and content are both gag-inducing, and nothing redeemable can be found here. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Dec. 2, 2008, 6:54 p.m. CST
by Lenny Nero
It's funnier and wilder yet darker. Bill Irwin's onstage version of George a few years ago was just devastatingly brilliant. <p>And I hope you know that the film is actually pretty censored. I'd suggest picking up the play for the full force of the dialogue.
Dec. 2, 2008, 6:59 p.m. CST
Both he and Burton were great.
Dec. 2, 2008, 8:18 p.m. CST
One of the best films ever made and Burton gives one of the best screen performances ever in this picture. It's like getting drop-kicked by a bulldozer.
Dec. 2, 2008, 10:02 p.m. CST
This movie is a great big chess game of serious mindfucking. The fact that they draw the two young couple into their web of hatred and co-dependency is just awesome.<p> The fact that Martha couldn't let go of the game forced George to go to nukes just chilled my bones.
Dec. 3, 2008, 4:51 a.m. CST
by Spifftacular Squirrel Girl
That's all it took for the film to be burned into my memory. I don't know if I've ever seen a film with just brilliant acting across the board and not just from Burton and Taylor. Dennis and Segal both gave very understated performances.
Dec. 3, 2008, 5:54 a.m. CST
by Lost Jarv
The only criticism I'd make of the film is that they shouldn't have left the house- it relieves the claustrophobia a touch. Aside from that (and it's only a quibble, really), this is a fucking masterpiece.
Dec. 3, 2008, 12:10 p.m. CST
May kick your ass...
Dec. 8, 2008, 9:01 a.m. CST
...the stealth bomber of the play. You expect Martha to be what she is because she enters the play in full blast bitch mode. George's menace creeps up on you, because he's so quiet and resigned at the beginning. All of this to say Burton rules in this movie and I can only imagine Bill Irwin being as coiled. Arthur Hill, the original stage George, is the only person I wish I could've seen, because I have a really hard time imagining "Owen Marshall" being this hardcore nasty.
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