Would you call me uncultured swine if I told you I took an edible and watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the very first time on Saturday Night? Who is afraid of Ms. Woolf, and who thinks she’s actually just joking around and would be a fun companion with whom to share a joint and some gay porn? How the hell am I just now discovering who Sandy Dennis is? These are the questions, among many others, that I’m left pondering immediately after completing Mike Nichols’ debut (!!!!!debut!!!!!) 1966 film, which would go on to accumulate 13 Academy Award nominations, winning 5 and becoming one of only two movies in history to receive an Oscar nom in every category for which it was eligible.
Accolades aside, the film, which stars Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, and George Segal, has left an indelible impact on modern culture, setting a blueprint for its successors in virtually every genre, namely: horror, comedy, and drama, among which the film is deftly and uncannily able to oscillate from shot to shot. Of course, that’s a testament to Edward Albee’s play of the same name, which debuted on Broadway four years earlier, and which, according to Wikipedia, at least, varies from Ernest Lehman’s screenplay in only infinitesimal ways. But while the writing is, obviously, a masterwork, it’s the cohesion of virtually every element of this movie’s production—the acting, the directing, the lighting, the cinematography, the production design, the score, the implicit tabloid narrative swirling around its stars—that have worked in harmony to create a masterpiece impactful on our performative everyday lives to this day: how we speak, perform humor, and understand the language of fear and lust, among other daily tasks.
This is, of course, Elizabeth Taylor’s movie. She won her second Oscar playing Martha, a middle-aged, alcoholic housewife in a small New England college town, the daughter of the University President and wife of George (Burton), one of the school’s history professors. Taylor, who’s obviously revered as one of the most talented and ravishing icons of silver screen history (I mean, Charlotte York named her Cocker Spaniel after her, after all) is in one moment absolutely terrifying and revolting to watch—her tear-smeared eyeliner becomes more and more reminiscent of a literal slasher villain like Mike Myers as the film progresses—while in the next frame hilariously horny and deliciously irreverent, conjuring up another Sex and the City legend: the insatiable Samantha Jones. Taylor’s the film’s backbone, without a doubt, and while I believe the only other role I’ve seen her in is Death On The Nile (I’ve just been told I can no longer say ‘faggot’) I’m comfortable assuming this has to be some of her career best work. It reminds me of another Oscar-winning favorite acting job of recent memory: Olivia Colman in The Favourite. What makes the performance so compelling is that, campy and melodramatic as it may be, you can’t help but feel you’re watching a real person (and for that matter, four real people) hashing out their differences over the course of one drunken night.
But it’s the performance from Sandy Dennis, who also won an Oscar for her supporting performance as Honey, the wife of a twunky blonde Biology professor, Nick (Segal), both of whom visit George and Martha’s home for a late nightcap following a cocktail party in town, that I was most blindsided and delighted by. I’d never heard of Dennis, whom (again from Wikipedia) I’ve learned was a Tony-winning stage actress as well, and in her later years an animal rights activist and bonafide cat lady. Her mannerisms, tone of voice, subtle toothy overbite and vapid blinking added up to one of the funniest film performances I’ve ever seen, on par impact-wise with Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids or Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip (though, of course, extremely different in style from both of those). Her sweetly oblivious delivery of lines like “I love familiar stories, they’re the best” and “I love dancing, don’t you?” had me HOWLING, as well as rooting for her survival in this veritable pit of snakes. A modern comedic role that more closely resembles Dennis’ Honey would be Ellie Kemper’s work, both as the hyper-naive newlywed Becca in Bridesmaids and the sweet-but-disturbed receptionist Erin in The Office. Though that’s still not quite what Dennis pulls off—you’d need to inject some of The Shining’s Shelly Duvall into there to approximate Honey, who serves as the bright (and deeply tragic) comedic relief in a world growing more and more approximate to the horrors of something like The Exorcist with each passing minute.
The Exorcist comes to mind thanks to the film’s lighting—it’s shot in black and white, and takes place almost entirely in the dead of night, moonlight casting long shadows across the wide, dark lawn. The starkness reminded me specifically of The Exorcist’s poster, where weak streetlamps punctuate an otherwise velvety blackness. If we’re continuing with SATC parallels, then what New York City is to Carrie Bradshaw this filthy old New England home is to Martha and George. It’s cliche to say, but the house really does serve as another character—early scenes where Martha hurries to tidy up before her guests arrive by shoving clothes, dishes, and food scraps under bedding and into random drawers really made me feel as if this matriarch were staving off an inevitable and irreparable decay congealing around and within her, while even further creating tension by aggravating the spirit of the building itself.
Before you try and tell me it’s a little obvious to say that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has impacted our literal day-to-day vocabulary, I implore you to read some of these direct (incredible) quotes from the film. One of Elizabeth Taylor’s opening proclamations: “You are such a SIMP!” And later: “He was a flop!” I’m telling you, our everyday jargon resembles the script of this film. I won’t trouble to do the work of tracing the etymology of “simp” and “flop” back to their origins, but I’m comfortable assuming this film played a large part in their modern prevalence, even if only via the Miranda Priestley “Cerulean” speech trickle-down effect.
As I’ve stated, if what makes the movie fascinating is the deft and rapid shifting between horror and comedy, what makes it all work is that ALL THE WHILE, even as the film arrives at and blasts through Germanottan levels of camp, you somehow feel that you’re actually watching real people in real time, in a real place, awkwardly spiraling into chaos. In that way, it almost reminds me of Shiva Baby—gloriously painful interactions happening almost exclusively within one home over the course of several egregiously painful hours—hilarious and gut-wrenching but grounded in reality. Mike Nichols’ directorial choices are key to the story’s verity. He’s clearly a genius — the other films of his that I’ve already seen are The Graduate, Silkwood, Postcards From The Edge (one of my ALL-TIME favorites), Working Girl, and The Birdcage… and no, I was not aware until checking Wikipedia just now that all of those are his. He’s made 18 films total, and each of the entries I’m privy to are totally different from one another. Glancing through his Wiki-bio, I’m stunned to announce he’s an EGOTer and an all-around icon… I’ve placed a hold on his biography, Mike Nichols: A Life, which I hear is exceptional, at the library, so expect a follow up on my review of that book in 3-5 business years.
In conclusion, I’d just like to say that I’m aware of the Oscar-winning elephant in the room: Nicole Kidman took home gold playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours, which is a great movie and an even better book. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not actually about the legendary, suicidal author at all, but I felt a duty to my readers to acknowledge Ms. Kidman wherever and whenever possible. In all earnestness, though, I can’t recommend Mike Nichols’ debut enough. It’s streaming currently on HBO Max, and if by some series of unfortunate events you have yet to see it, I suggest quitting your job immediately and cracking open a cold one, because you’re in for a wild ride, flop.