George and Martha are a middle aged married couple, whose charged relationship is defined by vitriolic verbal battles, which underlies what seems like an emotional dependence upon each other. This verbal abuse is fueled by an excessive consumption of alcohol. George being an associate History professor in a New Carthage university where Martha's father is the President adds an extra dimension to their relationship. Late one Saturday evening after a faculty mixer, Martha invites Nick and Honey, an ambitious young Biology professor new to the university and his mousy wife, over for a nightcap. As the evening progresses, Nick and Honey, plied with more alcohol, get caught up in George and Martha's games of needing to hurt each other and everyone around them. The ultimate abuse comes in the form of talk of George and Martha's unseen sixteen year old son, whose birthday is the following day. Written by
Jack Valenti, the newly appointed head of the MPAA at the time, said years later, "This film was like a burning arrow that was flown into a haystack." When issues over certain dialogue were raised with the Production Code office, the studio pressured Mike Nichols to make certain changes. For instance, the scene towards the beginning of the film had Martha yelling, "Screw you!" to her husband just as he opens the door to their guests, Honey and Nick. Elizabeth Taylor had already shot the scene and said the line as written. Warner Bros., however, had Nichols change the line to "Goddamn you!" which Taylor then re-record. Since the new phrase clearly didn't fit over the words her mouth was saying on the footage, Sam O'Steen used a shot of her back as she starts to say it juxtaposed with a shot of Burton opening the door. It worked perfectly. Even with the line change, the Production Code office refused to give the film its seal of approval, citing its overall content and language as too vulgar. Warner Bros. appealed, but the decision was upheld. See more »
As George and Nick are coming back into the house from their scene in the garden, Nick's shadow on the porch is seen to suddenly disappear just before George enters the shot. See more »
Ailing couple George (Burton) and Martha (Taylor) invite a young couple over for a late-night drink - much to quiet and repressed George's annoyance - and what starts off as a twisted game by sultry Martha to annoy her husband and get her way with young stud Nick (George Segal) ends up in a horrific duel of wits.
Adapted from the play and boasting very few locations, "Virginia Woolf" is notable for many unsuspected reasons. Designed for the stage, the film makes the story uniquely cinematic and tense, amped up by stunning photography (in Black and White, a daring choice in 1966). The younger leads are superb, but Burton and Taylor still manage to walk away with film, giving stunning renditions of the world's most demented couple. They make the surreal dialogue hurt and touch in ways never thought possible.
Though there are countless reasons to recommend this jewel of a film, there are also reasons why one would wish to avoid it. This is the kind of film that makes you feel like having a showing (or a very concentrated drink) to wash away the grit and human evil and pain absorbed. You'll feel dirty, but in a way you'll also feel enlightened: that a small character film can carry more punch than any explosion-packed blockbuster out there is a thing of beauty indeed!
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