Thursday, 12 May 2016

Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" – To The Shite-House

Another film towards the bottom of the IMDB 250 list, another stage adaption.  In this case it is Mike Nichols’ version of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  He breaks up the stage action with some outdoor and location shots, though, as well as some ingenious lighting and close camera shots of characters as they walk around the set.


The world has perhaps too many campus novels and plays and I can’t say I share some writers’ apparently endless fascination with the bed-hopping and worldly-wise dialogue of jaded academics.  But this is a pretty sophisticated piece of drama that’s been given a decent treatment in Mike Nichols’ film.  Yes, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ham it up massively at times and some of the earlier drunken sequences are not completely convincing, but then they also both have many moments of acting genius to compensate.  Burton in particular delivers some beautifully quiet and understated lines and convincingly shows how his character is control of most situations he finds himself in.

Sandy Denis plays athletic Nick’s wife Sandy, who spends a lot of the film looking for a loo to be sick in after getting drunk.  Less of “To The Lighthouse” and more “To The Shite-House.”

Elizabeth Taylor put on weight for this role and looks strikingly like and older Helena Bonham Carter at times, and Bonham Carter was later cast to play Taylor in the TV movie “Burton and Taylor”.

So, what does the title mean?  On the one hand it’s a joke between academics at a party that took place before the film starts, a playful turn on “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ with scary, austere Virginia substituted.  But at the end, when the fantasy of an imaginary child is laid bare, we are left with the lines:

George: Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Martha: I am, George, I am.

Looking online, most people explain these lines and by extension the title, by saying that Virginia Woolf represents reality and that the characters finally face up to reality at the end of the play by killing off their imaginary child.  I happen to be reading Woolf’s novel Orlando at the moment – described on the back cover as “the tale of an extraordinary individual who lives through centuries of English history, first as a man, then as a woman.”  Hardly a realist novel.  I couldn’t help wondering if those final lines of the film really meant “Who’s afraid of becoming Virginia Woolf” – the characters frantically spinning fantasies and fictions in an attempt to avoid confronting a mental illness that has the force to overpower them.

George: Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Martha: I am, George, I am.

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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