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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on May 28, 2012

Truth and illusion, illusion and truth.  Albee (and by extension, Lehmann and Nichols) tears down the facades of marriage and erects new ones and tears those down too.  This is the kind of brutal interaction that gets right me in the gut, where the fights and games are so vicious that they make the vulnerable moments that much more poignant.  Films about couples in turmoil (Scenes from a Marriage, A Woman Under the Influence, et cetera) have a special appeal to me, maybe you need to have been in a turbulent relationship or two yourself to fully appreciate the complex emotions behind them.  Love and hate and disappointment and power struggles, using your partner’s weaknesses against them, seeing how far you can go.  It’s heady stuff, but it all has the ring of sad, sad truth to it.

I got into a discussion recently about “theatrical” performances in film and why some bother me and some don’t.  Certainly the language in Woolf is theatrical, the (gorgeously composed) quick-witted barbs wouldn’t fly so fast and furious in real conversation, much less between four such inebriated individuals.  But the performances here don’t have that staginess that bothers me.  I don’t feel like I’m being played to as an audience, especially not when the characters are so busy playing for each other.  Taylor and Burton are both so unbelievably riveting and spot-on, there isn’t a moment in the movie that isn’t compelling to me, and when they’re facing off in marital battle it’s electrifying.  I’ve even warmed up to Dennis… her character is irritating, but that’s as it should be.  In some ways, she’s the most tragic character in the story; one wonders what the conversation between her and Segal will be the next day, the next week, the next 20 years.  This evening could be the beginning of their own “George and Martha” dynamic.

It’s a film that grows on me more and more with each viewing, to the point where it’s now surpassed The Graduate as my favorite by Mike Nichols.  The explosive intensity of it is overwhelming, building to a wild and deeply upsetting crescendo.  The final ten minutes are some of the most affecting cinema I’ve ever witnessed.  Outstanding performances, brilliant dialogue, engaging subject matter, and done with rich cinematography by Haskell Wexler.  Rating: Masterpiece


7 Responses to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (rewatch)”

  1. It certainly is a fantastic piece of work. I imagine as I move into the later phases of my life, this film will probably ring more relevant and true for me than The Graduate does at this point in my life.

    I agree that the brutality makes the film more poignant. There needs to be the constant beating of harsh words to make the ending resonate as well as it does. I usually don’t like films that are so cynically biting, but Nichols finds a way to make it work for me, especially because he doesn’t end up making it quite as bleak and hopeless as you expect it to be.

  2. david said

    Best play-to-movie adaption ever,everything is near perfect here,I remember after I saw it last year,I gave it a rating of 9 out of 10,which only happens several times a year for me.

    • My previous rating was 9/10, this time I had to up it to my highest ranking (“Masterpiece” being the equivalent of 10/10).

      I think I agree on your “best play-to-movie adaptation ever” designation, off the top of my head I can’t think of anything better.

  3. SDG said

    What a movie !! Masterpiece is just THE word for it. I love every single thing you said about it – performances(especially Elizabeth Taylor), dialogue, subject and that ending.

  4. […] 96. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols) […]

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