Famous for allowing Elizabeth Taylor to let down her hair and overact with the force of a hurricane, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is probably not high on anyone’s list of great films today. Which is not to say that it is bad, just that the reasons for its initial success have faded with time, leaving the movie to stand on its own. Its success or failure in that regard points to larger issues.
Based on Edward Albee’s play, Woolf spends an evening in hell with history professor George (Richard Burton), his wife Martha (Taylor) and their guests, biology professor Nick (George Segal) and his wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis). For two and a quarter hours, the characters shred each other in a drunken bout of fierce one-upsmanship. Mike Nichols’s first film, adapted by Ernest Lehman, it is carefully mounted and acted with professionally ugly shrillness. Edited with snap, shot by the great Haskell Wexler, it is a handsome, intelligent bit of film making. And I don’t believe a word of it.
Start with those “characters.” Every gibe, soliloquy and revealed secret is carefully placed and etched. Emotional shifts are signaled with a mixture of choreographic precision and semaphoric obviousness. George and Martha wallow in realistic seediness, but the mess does not convince as their cesspool. This is theatrical soul baring adapted to film in ways that give the actors the chance to demonstrate their skills with every detail worked out in advance.
Lehman’s “opening out” of the action to broaden the canvas does not compensate, not least because it results in more than a few implausibilities. Why don’t the neighbors complain about the characters’ loud outdoor carousing, for example? Why is the diner visited by the characters still open after 2:30 AM? Most fundamentally, all the action is in the dialog, which is just too perfectly pointed for the garish hostility to register as anything more than well articulated meanness. For all the alcohol sloshing around, not a drop of discovery spills over.
Nichols and Wexler embellish things with the occasional, self-consciously “visual” touch, such as the flashy lighting in the diner parking lot, but it merely distracts. And for all the clutter and emotional dirt, we feel less that we’ve intruded on these people’s lives, than we have stumbled on to a performance. The conventions of Realistic fourth-wall theater support the histrionics, but underline the calculation.
Film breathes the air of life. Theater pulses with precise contrivance in which the greatest reality is the body and the voice. Actors may be surrounded with a realistic environment that reinforces the performances, but in film, details have a power of their own that can overshadow the actors. The expectations of the two media are not hostile, but they are competitive and work best together when their demands meld. It may sound paradoxical given the content, but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is just too tasteful to produce that synthesis.