Cine-East Film Club Presents #59: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (Mike Nichols)

by George_East on November 26, 2014

George: Try and I’ll beat you at your own game.

Martha: Is that a threat George, huh?

George: It’s a threat, Martha.

Martha: You’re gonna get it, baby.

George: Be careful Martha. I’ll rip you to pieces.

Martha: You’re not man enough. You haven’t the guts.

George: Total war.

Martha: Total.

Mike Nichols died on Wednesday last week at the age of 83. Born, Michael Igor Peshkowsky in Berlin in 1931, he arrived in New York as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1939 at the age of 7. Perhaps he was therefore the last of the great European Jewish directors who found themselves in the US shaping what we know as Hollywood cinema.

On hearing of his death I spent some time pondering his legacy and whether it is possible to discern a style or themes that run through his films.  Was he just a craftsman  (like say Anthony Minghella) with no claims to an artistic vision of his own.  In many ways he is not a director who you think of as an auteur with a distinctive vision. His films, at first blush at least, seem disparate and without obvious links save for the fact that they are put together with great care and a subtle eye.

But a couple of linking things did come to mind which raise him above a mere journeyman. Firstly, his cinema is that of the  counter-culture that emerged in the 1960s, not you understand the blistering attack on the system that would be seen in a film like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point or the radical lifestyle counter-culturalism of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, but a more mainstream liberal attack on the cultural and political mores of the war time and Eisenhower generations.

His most famous film, The Graduate (1967), is after all a quintessential film of the 60s counter culture with its liberal attitudes towards sex and Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack.   This is a theme that would be carried through his flawed but interesting take on Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 as satire on the Vietnam war quagmire that the US had by 1970, when it was released, found itself in. Carnal Knowledge (1971), would continue the exploration of the liberal sexual attitudes that had come to the fore in the late 1960s, starring that emblem of the counter culture Jack Nicholson.   The Day of the Dolphin (1973) would have mild environmentalist themes with its portrayal of intelligent and communicative dolphins and one of my teenage favourites, Silkwood (1983) would tell the true story of  nuclear plant whistleblower and labor activist, Karen Silkwood.   Even his late 1980s masterpiece, Working Girl (1988) would be infused with the feminism that emerged 20 years before.

The second thing I think that can be said for Nichols’ films is that he was an actors’ director. He was capable of getting extraordinary performances from his casts whether big stars or not, something that was almost certainly rooted in his background in the theatre with its need for working on a nightly basis with actors to ensure the best is got out of them

This week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation was Nichols’ first film and is a great example of both of these traits in his cinema.   In adapting Edward Albee’s hit play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Nichols got extraordinary (possibly career best) performances out of the notoriously difficult then real life couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.   It is also a film which attacked what was left of the Hays Code (which had by 1966 begun properly to break down) by portraying marriage as a brutal  no prisoners taken war zone, rather than the ideal state to which everyone should aspire of Hollywood’s Austenian Golden Age.

Although it shares with a former Cine-East Presentation, Twelve Angry Men, a certain staginess that its origins as a 4 handed play make hard to avoid, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is perhaps, after Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage,  cinema’s most devastating portrait of marriage as hell.

The events of the film take place over the course of one long night, as history academic, George (Burton) and his wife Martha (Taylor) entertain new biology lecturer, Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), having invited them back to their house  for drinks after an alcohol fuelled faculty party.   Martha’s father is the University President and the unseen patriarch who sets, in Martha’s eyes, an impossible benchmark of achievement and success, which George can never reach.

When we first meet George and Martha they are walking and talking arm in arm as they approach their big old house.   This, once they are inside will develop into what seems to be a jokey and affectionate banter about a Bette Davis film in which she cries ‘what a dump!’ when she returns to her house (as Martha does when they first get back). However, this soon gives way to something nastier and more bitter.   We quickly discover that the markers of their relationship are alcohol and vitriol, and that there are apparently no lengths to which they will not go, to cause each other pain.

The tagline on the film’s poster proclaimed: ‘you are cordially invited to George and Martha’s for an evening of fun and games’.   A terrifying prospect indeed. The embittered couple use Nick and Honey as foils for their own battles, but the young couple also become targets themselves. The good looking and ambitious Nick is used by Martha to taunt George for the man he is not or at least no longer.   Honey is drawn into George’s cruelest game of all, the game in which he reveals that a telegram has been received informing them that their son has died in a road accident, the day before he was due to celebrate his 16th birthday.

Nichols’ depiction of marriage is one of permanent disappointment manifesting itself as barely repressed hatred, a hatred that will bubble over after a few gins, which are pretty much always on the go.   And  underneath it all are the lies, whether the lie of the ‘phantom pregnancy’ of Honey which with a liberal plying of alcohol and the insistent cross-examination by George turns out to have been an abortion, or the lie at the heart of the George and Martha relationship, a shared imagined child as a mechanism to cope with childlessness.

But perhaps most impressively of all and despite the almost unbearable cruelty between Martha and George, Nichols still draws out a real affection between them, however buried it is.   Martha’s flirtations with Nick (which may or may not have led to a shag) are a poor substitute for George, the man she admits at one stage ‘is the only man who has ever made me happy’.   The impression that you get by the end is that maybe, despite the emotional carnage all around, this is just par for the course for Martha and George, it is just part of what they are and what they do as a couple. Nick and Honey’s relationship might in fact be the one not to survive the night and Martha and George will just go on, playing their games, which however cruel they seem are ultimately just that.

The performances that Nichols gets from his cast are extraordinary. The film would gain Oscar nominations for all four of its leading actors.   Burton, who like the fellow Thespy pissheads of his generation, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris, would often take crappy roles and phone it in, almost oozes with self-hatred as George. Taylor (who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance) was only 32 when she played Martha, a woman at least 10 years older, and shows that she really could act with the best with them.

Burton and Taylor were never better together. And that is thanks to Mike Nichols RIP.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Killingworth November 26, 2014 at 5:01 pm

I don’t think Jane Austen was that sentimental about marriage, even if her heroines sometimes were.


George_East November 26, 2014 at 5:37 pm

I don’t disagree with that at all Mike – I suppose meant Austenland rather than the perspective of the author. Interestingly many classic Hollywood directors would similarly beneath the surface (and subject to the strictures of the Hays Code) show an equal lack of sentimentality about marriage. Douglas Sirk being a prime example – films that are glossy domestic melodramas on the surface, but have bubbling beneath a complexity in attitudes to social and political mores that belied both the genre and the time they were made. Now there’s an idea for a future post…


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