It was 50 years ago in 1966 when one of the most controversial films ever made shocked critics and audiences alike and forever changed American cinema. That film was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 play of the same name. Most who saw the play thought it could never be made into a film because of its vitriolic subject matter and caustic language. Nothing like it had ever been seen.
Edward Albee (1928-2016), along with fellow playwrights Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett, is associated with theater of the absurd, a movement of the late 50’s/early 60’s that focused on the absurdity of the human condition as exemplified by existentialism. These playwrights’s characters often find themselves in situations that make no sense because life itself is meaningless and random. The truth is often hard to discern; the happy portrait of the post-WWII world replete with its nuclear family and two car garage is a lie. And with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee ripped that portrait to shreds on the Broadway stage in front of stunned audiences.
The play takes place in the wee hours at the home of the middle-aged George and Martha, an associate professor of history and his wife, who also happens to be the daughter of the president of the university. They have been to a faculty party, and Martha, unbeknownst to George, has invited a younger couple over for more drinks. The couple then walk into the buzz saw of George and Martha’s “vile, crushing marriage,” as Martha describes it at one point. George and Martha are locked into a twenty year battle filled with acrimony, love, betrayal, and, ultimately, disappointment. The young couple are Nick and Honey, a young, ambitious biology professor and his mousy wife. George and Martha put on a show for the couple with their biting and sometimes amusing banter that quickly descends into blood-letting. Nick and Honey, like the audience, are embarrassed at first to witness the ugly side of the couple’s marriage but then find themselves trapped in the cross hairs and drawn into the war as George and Martha use them to destroy each other. Nick and Honey do not escape unscathed, and neither do we.
George and Martha, as some sort of survival mechanism, have created an elaborate fantasy world that neither the young couple, nor the audience understand until near the very end of the play. Incidentally, Honey, herself, has created one of the biggest and most objectionable lies. Truth or illusion, a constant motif of absurdist theater, is questioned throughout the night:
Martha: That is not true; that is such a lie.
George: You must not call everything a lie, must she? (to Nick)
Nick: Hell, I don’t know when you people are lying or what.
Martha: You’re damned right.
George: You’re not supposed to.
And later this exchange:
Martha: Truth and illusion, George. You don’t know the difference?
George: No, but we must carry on as if we do.
The play was a smash hit and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by the drama jury, but the Pulitzer committee refused to give Albee the award because of the play’s subject matter and profanity. However, it won a Tony for Best Play in 1963, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. The actors playing George and Martha, Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen, won Tony awards as well.
No one who saw the play thought it could ever be translated to film due to its vulgarity and “adult content.” No one but Jack Warner, that is. He paid Albee $500,000, an unheard of sum, for the rights to the play. Consequently, he needed bankable stars to play the leads to insure the film would be profitable. And in 1966, no stars were more bankable than Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Both had to be convinced to do the film. Taylor, known more for her beauty than her stellar acting, was, at 32, far too young to play the blowsy, 50-something Martha. Burton was too young as well and wasn’t too keen to play a wimp on screen. Ultimately, they agreed. Taylor gained 30 lbs. for the role, and with a messy grey wig and smudgy eye make up, looked the part. George Segal and Sandy Dennis were cast as Nick and Honey.
Even with the Burtons on board, the film almost was not made because of the Motion Picture Production Code, a censorship board that had ruled Hollywood with an iron fist since the 30’s. The “immoral” subject matters and profanity would be a problem. For example, never on screen had audiences heard an actor say “goddamnit.” Quaint by today’s standard, that word was hugely shocking in 1966. One Warner Brothers’s executives upon seeing it declared that they had a $7 million dollar dirty movie on their hands. But Jack Warner held firm and was able to negotiate a “for mature audiences only–no one under 18 admitted without an adult” rating, the first film ever with that designation. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? effectively ended the old Code, and it was replaced in 1968 with the G, M(ature), R, and X ratings. This is but one of many notable things about the film.
The Burtons had negotiated to have their choice for director, Mike Nichols. It was an unconventional choice as he was an actor and Broadway director known for his comedies. This was the first movie he ever directed in his long and illustrious career. While black and white films were on their way out, Nichols fought to make the movie in b/w, and it was the last film to win an Oscar for the Best Black and White Cinematogrophy category before that award category was ended. It is also one of two films to have been nominated for an Academy Award in every category it was eligible for. It was the first film to have every credited actor nominated for an award.
The film was a huge hit; controversy is always good publicity. In fact, the sheriff in Chattanooga, Tennessee, confiscated the film and arrested the local theater owner because of the immorality of the film. Another reason for its success was the public’s fascination with the Burtons, who like George and Martha, were heavy drinkers, passionate, and up for big rows. Trying to decide whether they were acting or not was a favorite game of moviegoers. Taylor won the Oscar for best actress, and Dennis won for best supporting actress. It also won a BAFTA for Best Film; Taylor and Burton both won BAFTAs as well. The American Film Institute has ranked it at #67 out of 100 of the best American films of all time.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? stands the test of time. While the profanity is no longer shocking, the film still is. Many find it difficult to watch; it is emotionally draining, but once ensnared, it’s hard to escape its web. Of its rating, Stanley Kauffmann of The New York Times wrote, “This may safeguard the children; the parents must take their chances.” The tagline for the film on movie posters was, “You are cordially invited to George and Martha’s for an evening of fun and games.” If you have never accepted the invitation, you should.
Below are the original trailer for the film as well as a couple of scenes.