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This article is about the 1966 film. For the play on which it's based, see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Original film poster
Directed by Mike Nichols
Produced by Ernest Lehman
Written by Ernest Lehman
Based on the play by Edward Albee
Starring Elizabeth Taylor
Richard Burton
George Segal
Sandy Dennis
Music by Alex North
Cinematography Haskell Wexler
Editing by Sam O'Steen
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) June 22, 1966
Running time 131 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget US$7.5 million
Gross revenue US$40 million

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a 1966 American drama film directed by Mike Nichols. The screenplay by Ernest Lehman is an adaptation of the play of the same title by Edward Albee. It stars Elizabeth Taylor as Martha and Richard Burton as George, with George Segal as Nick and Sandy Dennis as Honey.

Contents

Plot summary

Set on the campus of a small New England college, the film focuses on the violent and volatile relationship of associate history professor George and his hard-drinking and crudely boisterous wife Martha, the daughter of the college president.

It's 2:00am Sunday morning, and they have returned from one of her father's gatherings. Martha announces she has invited a young couple - Nick, a young, good-looking, newly-appointed instructor, and his mousey wife Honey - to join them for drinks. George is disturbed because she did so without consulting him first, prompting Martha to launch into the first of many loud and lengthy tirades during which she taunts and criticizes him. Knowing his wife is an ugly drunk, he asks her to behave herself when they arrive, and when the doorbell rings, he warns her to refrain from mentioning their child to their company.

Overhearing Martha's crude retort as the door opens, Nick and Honey - too polite and naïve to have declined the late-night invitation in the first place - immediately feel ill at ease and quickly find themselves caught in the middle of a verbal warzone when their efforts to engage in small talk set off a volley of insults between their hosts. Martha begins to flirt lewdly with Nick while his meek wife tries to pretend she is unaware of what is happening.

While Martha is showing Honey where the bathroom is, George tests Nick's verbal sparring skills, but the young man is no match for his host. Realizing he and his wife are becoming embroiled in the middle of marital warfare, he suggests they depart, but George cajoles him into staying.

Upon returning to the living room alone, Honey innocently mentions to George she was unaware he and Martha had a son on the verge of celebrating his sixteenth birthday. Martha reappears in a new outfit - form-fitting slacks and a revealing blouse - and when her husband makes a snide remark about the ensemble, she begins to demean his abilities as a teacher, then escalates her seduction of Nick, complimenting him on the body he developed as both a quarterback and an intercollegiate state boxing champion while criticizing George's paunch. She informs their guests about a past incident when George refused to engage in a friendly outdoor boxing match with his father-in-law and Martha put on a pair of gloves and punched him in the jaw, knocking him into the bushes. As she relates the story, George aims a shotgun at the back of her head, causing Honey to scream. He pulls the trigger, which releases an umbrella, while he tells his wife she's dead.

Honey again raises the subject of George and Martha's son, prompting the couple to engage in a conversation Martha quickly tries to end without success. To counterattack George's relentless comments about the boy, she tells their guests her husband is unsure the child is his own, although he most assuredly is. They argue about the color of the boy's eyes until George threatens to expose the truth about the boy. Furious, Martha accuses him of being a failure whose youthful idealistic plans for the future slowly deteriorated as he came to realize he wasn't aggressive enough to follow in his father-in-law's footsteps, leaving her stuck with a flop.

Inebriated and upset by Martha's behavior, Honey rushes from the room. Martha goes to the kitchen to make coffee, and George and Nick go outside. The younger man confesses he was attracted to Honey more for her family's money than passion, and married her only because she mistakenly believed she was pregnant. George describes his own marriage as one of never-ending accommodation and adjustment, then admits he considers Nick a threat.

When their guests propose leaving, George insists on driving them home. In the car, the talk returns to George and Martha's son, and George accuses Martha of engaging in destructive and abusive behavior with the boy, who frequently ran away to escape her sexual advances. They approach a roadhouse, and Honey suggests they stop to dance. While Honey and George watch, Nick suggestively dances with Martha, who continues to mock George and criticize his inadequacies. George unplugs the jukebox and announces the game is over. In response, Martha alludes to the fact he may have murdered his parents like the protagonist in his unpublished, non-fiction novel, prompting George to strangle Martha until Nick manages to pull him away from her.

George convinces the owner to serve them one more round before closing and suggests that, having played a game of Humiliate the Host, the quartet should now engage in Hump the Hostess or Get the Guests. He then tells the group about a second novel he allegedly has written about a young couple from the Midwest, a good-looking teacher and his timid wife, who marry because of her hysterical pregnancy and then settle in a small college town. An embarrassed Honey realizes Nick indiscreetly told George about their past and runs from the room with Nick in pursuit.

In the parking lot, George tells his wife he cannot stand the way she constantly humiliates him, and she tauntingly accuses him of having married her for just that reason. Their rage erupts into a declaration of "total war." Martha drives off with Nick and Honey, leaving her husband to follow on foot. When he arrives home, he discovers Honey nearly delirious and realizes his wife has taken Nick upstairs. When Martha accuses Nick of being sexually inadequate, he blames his impotency on all the liquor he has consumed. George mentions his and Martha's son, prompting her to reminisce about his birth and childhood and how he nearly was destroyed by his father. George then announces he has received a telegram with bad news - the boy was killed the previous afternoon on a country road when he swerved to avoid hitting a porcupine and crashed into a tree.

As Martha argues with George that he "can't do this" and begs him not to "kill" their son, Nick suddenly realizes the truth - Martha and George had never been able to have a baby, for reasons that are unexplained. Instead their "game" together is to imagine they have a son and invent situations and stories of him. By declaring their son dead, accordingly, George has "killed" him. (There are hints of this throughout the script that become clear in retrospect - for example, when George and Nick were sitting by the swing waiting for Honey to finish throwing up, George comments quietly that Martha never had any pregnancies. Once the viewer has the knowledge that the child is a fantasy, the couple's accusations of one another's failures as parents take on whole new meaning.)

The young couple departs quietly, and George and Martha are left alone as the day begins to break outside. They speak quietly, and in the last lines Martha refutes the title question with "I am, George, I am."

Cast

Production

The film adaptation differs slightly from the play, which has only four characters. The minor characters of the roadhouse owner, who has only a few lines of dialogue, and his wife, who serves a tray of drinks and leaves silently, were played by the film's gaffer, Frank Flanagan, and his wife Agnes.

The play is set entirely in Martha and George's house. In the film, one scene takes place at the roadhouse, one in George and Martha's yard, and one in their car. Despite these minor variations, however, the film is extremely faithful to the play. The filmmakers used the original play as the screenplay and, aside from toning down some of the profanity slightly — Martha's "Screw you!" (which, in the 2005 Broadway revival, is "Fuck you!") becomes "God damn you!" — virtually all of the original dialogue remains intact. (In the version released in the UK, "Screw you" is kept intact. In an interview at the time of the release, Taylor referred to this phrase as pushing boundaries.)

Deluxe edition two-LP recording

At the time of the release of the film, Warner Brothers Records released a deluxe, gatefold two-LP record set which included the entire film's dialogue. The album was made before some of the film's profanity was toned down, so Martha's original "Screw you!" line that welcomes Nick and Honey is heard on the LP but not in the final version of the film. This is one of the only cases in which Warner Brothers released an album of this kind. This album is out of print, extremely rare and hard to find. It has not been released on CD. A single-LP release featured dialogue excerpts and Alex North's score; this album was issued on CD by DRG in 2006.

Casting

The choice of Elizabeth Taylor — at the time regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world — to play the frumpy, fifty-ish Martha surprised many, but the actress gained thirty pounds for the role and her performance (along with those of Burton, Segal and Dennis) was ultimately praised. When Jack Warner approached Albee about buying the film rights for the play, he told Albee that he wanted to cast Bette Davis and James Mason in the roles of Martha and George. [1] In the script, Martha references Davis and quotes her famous "What a dump!" line from the film Beyond the Forest (1949). Playwright Edward Albee was delighted by this cast, believing that "James Mason seemed absolutely right...and to watch Bette Davis do that Bette Davis imitation in that first scene - that would have been so wonderful."[1] However, fearing that the talky, character-driven story would land with a resounding thud — and that audiences would grow weary of watching two hours of screaming between a harridan and a wimp — Nichols and Lehman cast stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.[2] Edward Albee was surprised by the casting decision, but later stated that Taylor was quite good, and Burton was incredible. In the end though, he still felt that "with Mason and Davis you would have had a less flashy and ultimately deeper film."[1]

Language and content controversy

Edward Albee's 1962 play was replete with dialogue that included multiple "goddamns", "sons-of-bitches", "up yours", "great nipples", and a memorable "hump the hostess".[3] Opening on Broadway during the Cuban Missile Crisis, audiences who had gone to the theater to forget the threat of nuclear war were instead assaulted by language and situations they had not seen before outside of experimental theater.[4]

The immediate reaction of the theater audiences, eventually voiced by critics, was that Albee had created a play that would be a great success on Broadway, but could never be filmed in anything like its current form. Neither the audience nor the critics understood how much the Hollywood landscape was changing in the 1960s, and that it could no longer live with any meaningful Production Code.[5] In bringing the play to the screen, Ernest Lehman decided he would not change the dialogue that had shocked veteran theatergoers in New York only four years earlier. Despite serious opposition to this decision, Lehman prevailed.[2]

As filming began, the Catholic Legion of Motion Pictures (formerly the Catholic Legion of Decency), issued a preliminary report that, if what they heard was true, they might have to slap Virginia Woolf with the once-dreaded "condemned" rating, although they promised to wait to see the film. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) followed with an even stronger statement, warning the studio — without promising to wait for a screening — that if they were really thinking of leaving the Broadway play's language intact, they could forget about getting a Seal of Approval.[3]

Warner Brothers studio executives sat down to look at a rough cut, without music, and a Life magazine reporter was present. He printed the following quote from one of the studio chiefs: "My God! We've got a seven million dollar dirty movie on our hands!"[3]

The film was considered groundbreaking for having a level of profanity and sexual implication unheard of at that time. Jack Valenti, who had just become president of the MPAA in 1966, had abolished the old Production Code. In order for the film to be released with MPAA approval, Warner Bros. agreed to minor deletions of certain profanities and to have a special warning placed on all advertisements for the film, indicating adult content. Even the Catholic Office refused to "condemn" the film.[3] It was this film and another groundbreaking film, Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), that led Jack Valenti to begin work on the MPAA film rating system that went into effect on November 1, 1968. It is also said that Jack Warner chose to pay a fine of $5,000 in order to remain as faithful to the play (with its profanity) as possible.

Awards and acclaim

The film was the only one to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards. Each of the four main actors was nominated for an Oscar but only Taylor and Sandy Dennis (Honey) won, for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. The film also won the Black and White Cinematography award for Haskell Wexler's stark, black-and-white camera work (it was the last film to win before the category was eliminated) and for Best Art Direction (Richard Sylbert, George James Hopkins).[6]. It was the first film to have its entire credited cast be nominated for acting Oscars, a feat only accomplished twice more with Sleuth in 1972 and Give 'em Hell, Harry! in 1975.

The film received the BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source.

In AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ranked #67.

Academy Awards

Award Won Nomination Winner
Best Picture Yes check.svgY Warner Bros. (Ernest Lehman, producer)
Winner was A Man for All Seasons – (Columbia (Fred Zinnemann, producer))
Best Director Yes check.svgY Mike Nichols
Winner was Fred ZinnemannA Man for All Seasons
Best Actor Yes check.svgY Richard Burton
Winner was Paul ScofieldA Man for All Seasons
Best Actress Yes check.svgY Elizabeth Taylor
Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Yes check.svgY Ernest Lehman
Winner was Robert BoltA Man for All Seasons
Best Supporting Actor Yes check.svgY George Segal
Winner was Walter MatthauThe Fortune Cookie
Best Supporting Actress Yes check.svgY Sandy Dennis
Best Art Direction (Black-and-White)[7] Yes check.svgY Richard Sylbert and George Hopkins
Best Cinematography (Black-and-White)[7] Yes check.svgY Haskell Wexler
Best Costume Design (Black-and-White)[7] Yes check.svgY Irene Sharaff
Best Film Editing Yes check.svgY Sam O'Steen
Winner was Frederic Steinkamp, Henry Berman, Stewart Linder, Frank Santillo – Grand Prix
Best Original Music Score Yes check.svgY Alex North
Winner was John BarryBorn Free
Best Sound Yes check.svgY George Groves
Winner was Franklin Milton – Grand Prix

Reference in popular culture

  • Mad Magazine published a spoof of the movie, entitled Who in Heck is Virginia Woolf?! At one point, it is remarked "This is an art film, so the censors have to let us talk dirty!" Most of the swearing is replaced with dingbats: when Martha asks George "%$?" and he replies "What kind of profanity is that, Liz?!", she says "I was just asking what percentage of the gross we're getting!" Their son turns out to be real, and to George and Martha's dismay, a clean-cut non-dysfunctional bore, in keeping with Mad's tradition of altering the endings of the movies that they parody.
  • The film was spoofed on The Benny Hill Show, with Hill playing both Burton's and Taylor's parts.
  • In an episode of The Simpsons, Marge and Homer go on a marriage counseling session with other couples, one such couple acts and sounds similar to George and Martha. However, just by looking into each other's eyes, the two fall in love again and walk off into the sunset within seconds.
  • In an episode of American Dad!, Roger the Alien and Francine adopt a role playing game to escape the boredom of their daily lives. Roger adapts the persona of Professor Jordan Edilstein, while Francine chooses the character of Amanda Lane. The two meet a new couple in town, Rick and Candy, and invite them for a dinner party in which Jordan and Amanda get drunk and verbally and physically fight, while Rick and Candy sit there. It ultimately ends with Rick and Candy leaving, and Roger and Francine reassuring each other that everything will be all right.
  • In an episode of Will & Grace, Jack refers to Will and Grace when he mentions not wanting to stay at the dinner party with George and Martha.
  • In "Dinner Party" from The Office, Michael and Jan invite Jim, Pam, Andy, and Angela to their home. As the night progresses, Jan and Michael begin bickering to a greater extent. Once Dwight arrives uninvited, their arguing gets worse until Jan destroys Michael's TV.
  • In "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" off the LP Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? by Of Montreal, Kevin Barnes sings "The mousy girl screams, 'Violence, violence!'," ostensibly a reference to Honey who screams those words as George and Martha fight at the inn. Honey is frequently referred to as "mousy" throughout the film.
  • In the novel The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland, the protagonist of Roger writes a novella within the novel bearing many similarities to the plays, as well as carrying the same basic premise. He also mentions the Burton/Taylor pairing.
  • In the television series, Gilmore Girls, in the episode Presenting Lorelai Gilmore, main characters Rory and Lorelai arrive at their grandparents to find them engaged in a large argument, screaming at each other. Lorelai remarks, "I think George and Martha are joining us for dinner."
  • The episode "The Day the Earth Froze" of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is preceded by a short showcasing circus acts. A comedic, choreographed clown boxing match is described as "a full-contact Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," to which Joel replies, "Don't talk about our clown, Martha."
  • In a January 2010 episode of Ugly Betty, Betty Suarez imagined that she and her boyfriend Matt were George and Martha.

DVD release

The film is available in 2-disc special edition in North America (Region 1). This edition was concurrently released across much of Europe. The UK DVD release is planned for the 5th October 2009.

References

  1. ^ a b c Sikov, Edward (2007). Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis. New York: Holt Paperbacks, a trademark of Henry Holt and Company. p. 380-1. ISBN 0805088636.  .
  2. ^ a b Clooney, Nick (November 2002). The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen. New York: Atria Books, a trademark of Simon & Schuster. p. 85. ISBN 0-7434-1043-2.  .
  3. ^ a b c d Clooney, p. 89
  4. ^ Clooney, p. 81
  5. ^ Clooney, p. 81-82
  6. ^ "NY Times: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". NY Times. http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/54412/Who-s-Afraid-Of-Virginia-Woolf-/awards. Retrieved 2008-12-26.  
  7. ^ a b c This film won the last Academy Awards for the "black-and-white" categories of Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design. The following year, the Academy combined these into single categories for these awards. Source: Clooney, p. 79

External links

Awards
Preceded by
My Fair Lady
BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source
1966
Succeeded by
A Man for All Seasons







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