Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), directed by Mike Nichols.

It's amazing, after all these years, all these films, how many lines I remember from this one. Not just the words, but the reading and the meaning. I've been quoting them all this time, not with vicious intent I hope, but you never know.

Partly this is because I saw it when young and impressionable. It made an academic career less appealing, and -- along with a certain Carly Simon song -- made the prospect of marriage much less appealing. I finally succumbed at age 40; it must have taken the effect that long to wear off.

The other factor is the quality of Edward Albee's words themselves, polished and weaponized, meant to wound, meant to leave a mark. The story is like a circular exorcism; I don't know of anything else like it.

The damnedest thing is that George and Martha really are in love, and well-matched. It's easier to see in those moments when they forget to fight, but even when tearing at each other we have to understand their rage comes from disappointment, each in the other. You experience that only for people you care about.

Like Vertigo (1958), a plot secret transforms the entire movie for a second viewing. The secret is hidden in plain sight; George and Martha discuss it openly, but we don't understand at first.

George seems like a submissive, whipped man, but that is deceptive. Who dominates at the end, and who plots his victory from the outset? He tells Martha: "Don't start with the bit", knowing that will be a red flag. He provokes that whole traumatic evening, deciding to bring everything crashing down.

The dawn seems more peaceful.

As for the title: Woolf was mentally ill and committed suicide. Everyone's afraid of that.

This was bold filmmaking for Burton and Taylor. I always presumed they were the same way at home, but really know nothing of their biographies.

It's tremendous how the talents of the cast balance each other and serve the story:

Alex North score, Haskell Wexler cinematography.

Available on a Warner Archive Blu-ray with two commentary tracks and several extras. The image detail is ok, but the black level is inconsistent. It's a must-have regardless.

The first commentary is a conversation between Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh. They go deep into filmmaking craft and it is a pleasure to listen in.

This was Nichols's first film and he says the best advice he got was: "Fire someone on the first day".

The second commentary has wide-ranging remarks by cinematographer Wexler. Not just on the camera work but fond notes on the cast and crew: