Edward Albee’s 1962 play made it to the screen starring the then married-in-real-life couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton under the skillful hand of Mike Nichols. Shot in black and white, it was the last film to win an Oscar for Black and White Cinematography as the category was eliminated thereafter. The movie won give Oscars in all, including Best Actress for Taylor and Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis and the cinematography award for Haskell Wexler. The movie is a beautiful study in black and white lighting and framing and currently can be rented on Amazon Video.
Ernest Lehman produced and wrote the screenplay adaptation. The Albee play takes place in the home of an older couples, George and Martha, but the movie takes a brief outing to a roadhouse. Originally, the older couples was meant to be played by James Mason and Bette Davis, but Taylor, who gained weight for the role, was widely praised.
The movie is set in a small New England college town. Martha (Taylor) is the daughter of the college’s president. She has been married to George, an associate history professor, for a number of years. Despite his marriage, George hasn’t risen to the top of the academic world. His books have been failures. On this particular Saturday night, Martha informs George that a young couple is coming over for drinks.
The couple are a similarly ill-matched couple. The husband, Nick, is never called by name (George Segal) and isn’t even in the same department as George. Nick is a science professor. Martha and George met them at a welcoming party held by Martha’s father, but George doesn’t remember them at all and he can’t quite recall the man’s name.
George is a petulant host, engaging in word games meant to confuse rather than amuse. He’s steps out on the edge of antagonism and then retreats. Martha has a coarse tone of voice, but is more overtly welcoming. Nick’s wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis), is timid. through the course of the evening, it is revealed that they got married only because she said she was pregnant. When Honey goes upstairs with Martha, we don’t hear what they say, but Honey reveals to George that Martha mentioned there son. The game is on, but it is a game that Nick and Honey don’t quite understand until the very end. After all of the vicious noise, the fraternal and matrimonial friction of flops fighting to maintain some semblance of respectability, the movie ends quietly.
Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is always crisp and the focus well contemplated. There isn’t a moment when the focus goes soft in what seems like benign neglect that one often encounters in modern movies that have so much more technology to help them. While some black and white features streamline the background, while Wexler utilizes it to suggest lighting, to establish character or tone and to frame the characters. The movie, without its dialogue, is a long intense lesson in characterization and portraiture. Light caresses the characters or obscures them, allowing to hide in the darkness. Look for the highlights in the eyes of the actors. Elizabeth Taylor can’t benefit from her famous violet eyes in black and white, but Wexler gives them depth and clarity when needed. The shadows on her face are classic examples of portraiture lighting, even with her infamous 30-pound weight gain, she is lovely but not always lovable.
Without eyeliner or dark mascara, Dennis’ Honey looks pallid and washout. Honey is mousy but not without her own ambition. Yet she is often sick throughout the movie, as if she is too meek to navigate the dangerous politics of a small town and its academic culture.
Burton as George seems guarded and his George has a intensity that simmers in a bitter stew of regrets. All four actors were nominated for Oscars. Only Taylor and Dennis won.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is currently available on Amazon Video for $2.99.