This essay has had three lives: as a reader-requested post for Bright Wall/Dark Room, considering the 1966 film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? generally; as an expanded essay commemorating Elizabeth Taylor; and further expanded (and my favorite version) for BW/DR’s 2015 issue commemorating Mike Nichols:
Nichols and cinematographer Haskell Wexler keep the focus shallow, the New England trees and houses defocused into a fluid play of lights. It is nothing that can be reached. It exists only through the properties of the camera, in the lens and on film, while in the foreground George and Martha talk their way to daybreak.
Released three years after Cleopatra, and after Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s on-set affair, the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was from the first, as director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman intended, difficult to consider separately from the fame and charisma of its stars. The casting ensured commercial success. It also works for the script. Taylor and Burton’s physical awareness of each other is palpable, moment by moment. They calibrate their positions and postures to and against each other, playing off what each can anticipate the other will do. Neither exists absent the other as they do together. In the small interiors of George and Martha’s house, they own the screen.
Nichols frames much of the film as a close-up on them. The camera tracks faces, filling the screen with expressions of distress and triumph as accusation turns to flirtation that turns to condemnation, and line-by-line the initiative shifts from Taylor to Burton and back. His piercing eyes, their wide-set wariness, are tempered much of the time behind thick-rimmed glasses. On the bed, fully clothed, drinking before their guests arrive, Taylor handles him with violent liberty. Her voice is brittle, her full mouth rarely still. She sneers, smokes, cackles, yells, contorts, enraged. Virginia Woolf’s profanity may not shock as it did or was predicted to, but the force of Taylor and Burton’s delivery, their bare aggression, compel attention, their guests’ and each other’s.
Playing Martha, Taylor sought credibility as a serious actor that she didn’t feel she had from her previous roles. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress. It was the peak of her box office draw.
Excerpt lightly edited.
Illustration: Brianna Ashby