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The politics of ugliness: Revisiting 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' 55 years later

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

One of the seminal films that kicked off the glorious New Hollywood movement, Mike Nichols’ debut feature, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, challenged the enforced morality of the Production Code with its cynicism and transgressive language.

A competent adaptation of Edward Albee’s popular play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? impressed the critics as well as the audiences who were startled by the film’s brutal perforation of adult illusions. It ended up receiving Oscar nominations for every category in which it was eligible, winning five and making Nichols’ first attempt an incredibly successful one in the process.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? stars Elizabeth Taylor as Martha, the daughter of the university’s president, where her husband George (played by Richard Burton) is an associate professor of history. Although Albee wanted James Mason and Bette Davis for the lead roles, the casting of Taylor turned out to be a brilliant choice.

For her Academy Award-winning performance, she conducted a complete deconstruction of her status as one of the most beautiful women in the world and put on about 30 pounds to fit into the shoes of Martha — a bitter middle-aged woman whose contempt for her husband and the world consumes her.

Purely conversational in nature, Nichols uses the cinematic medium to examine the fundamental nature of the pretensions that are often omnipresent in sophisticated circles. At 2 AM, Martha invites Nick (George Segal) – a young professor of Biology and his wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis), over for a house party. It is an effective subversion of the painfully fake rituals that most adults have to endure, contextualised within the framework of a clearly volatile house. Violently oscillating between exaggerated laughter and awkward silence, Martha and George play petty games with the young couple in order to outdo each other.

Haskell Wexler’s sublime cinematography (which also received an Oscar) amplifies the atmospheric frenzy and the inherent neuroticism of the sudden monologues and the incendiary repartee. Through the use of uncomfortable close-ups and camera angles that scream for attention, the grotesque ugliness of the faces contorted in anger and hatred become strikingly limpid. Over the course of a single night, we follow these four characters as they navigate the convoluted labyrinths of marriage, lust, politics and more.

It’s almost dizzying to keep up with them as they spiral towards an inevitable abyss, urged on by a destructive force that has no patience for the illusions of propriety.

While reflecting on the entire experience, Nichols recalled: “I realised on the first day that I would have to be the one who decides what the shot is and how the camera moves because, in the end, I was the only one who knew what was happening. You know, the camera expresses the event. But by and large I now follow my instinct.

“I know what I want to see,” he continued. “And I can decide on the lens when we’re there and how far I want to track and when I want to pan and when I want to let them go and all of that, but it’s so intricately connected with the feelings of the characters and with the things you don’t speak about—the insides of the feelings of the characters.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains an essential film to this day because of its ability to unsettle the social values we are often indoctrinated with. It stabs the mythology of masculinity and marriage with a scalpel, aiming to get to the bone marrow of everything in order to reveal nothing. Viciously acidic in its methodology, it captures an entire spectrum of contradictory emotions that constitute the very meaning of this highly misunderstood word called “love”.