Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which turns 55 on June 22nd, is best known for its performances. It features Academy Award-winning turns from Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis, as well as very effective work from Richard Burton and George Segal. But to view this film as merely a collection of great acting is to ignore its most fascinating and important element: its technical style.
There are many ways to describe this film’s technical style. But my favorite is a word that is not often used to positively describe film adaptations of plays. That word is cinematic. More often than not, film adaptations of theatrical works — a subgenre into which Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? falls due to its theatrical roots as an Edward Albee play — feel like filmed plays. Those failed film adaptations use static long takes that fail the impossible task of capturing the magic of seeing a live show. Or, on the other end of the theater-to-film spectrum, they take away from the original value of the theatrical work by “opening it up” too much by setting scenes in multiple, unnecessary locations that were not present in the original play.
Director Mike Nichols never makes these mistakes in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was the first film he directed. He had started his career as a theater director, but he was also a lifelong cinephile (his favorite film, A Place in the Sun, starred Taylor as the female lead) and learned the importance of directing cinematically from mentors such as Jean Renoir and Billy Wilder (which makes up a brief, fun section in Mark Harris’s superb biography of Nichols). His theatrical background and love for cinema made him an ideal person to translate what made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? great into cinematic terms.
The first two shots of this film immediately demonstrate that Nichols knows what he is doing when it comes to making movies. He opens his film with a low-angle shot of a full moon, which perfectly establishes the late-night atmosphere that is essential to the story’s sense of desperation. The second shot — in which the camera tracks across a college campus to rest on a long shot of lead characters George (Burton) and Martha (Taylor) leaving a party in the far background of the image — is important for several reasons. It establishes tracking shots, perfectly executed by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, as an essential part of this film’s visual grammar as opposed to static shots that plague less successful film adaptations of plays. This shot establishes the air of intellectual refinement that gives an added charge to George and Martha’s verbal boxing matches. Most importantly, these shots — which include narrative material not present in the original play — demonstrate that Nichols knows how to “open up” the play in a way that accentuates what made it great as opposed to making it look more like a traditional movie. They are two great shots with which to begin a career as a film director.
In addition to its high cinematic value, the technical style that Nichols and his collaborators crafted accentuates the most famous element of the film: the performances. Wexler’s tracking shots, zooms, and other visual pyrotechnics turn the fact that this film takes place in mostly one location — George and Martha’s house — from a theatrical liability into a cinematic advantage. But Wexler also captures every fascinating facial expression the actors make with brilliant close-ups. Editor Sam O’Steen creates a lively narrative rhythm that makes the film’s 137 minutes whirl by at great speed. But, just as importantly, his knowledge of when to precisely cut to a brief reaction shot or when to let the camera linger on a character’s face is essential to sculpting the actors’ brilliant performances out of celluloid. While the performances, particularly those of Taylor and Burton, would have been great onstage, they are able to have a more enduring legacy thanks to the cinematic expertise of Wexler and O’Steen.
The brilliant technical style of this film means that it has many images which, if watched at the right time, can burn themselves into your brain as the best cinematic shots do. But the one that I treasure most related to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not a part of the film. When A Place in the Sun first came out, Nichols became obsessed with it. He saw it dozens of times as a poor college student in Chicago. I love to imagine him watching it, over and over again, perhaps tentatively thinking about the day when he could direct a film of his own. But in all of those viewings, he probably never imagined that he would direct the second Academy Award-winning performance of that film’s star, Elizabeth Taylor. But then again, what happens in real life is more often than not wilder and better than what happens in the movies.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.