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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Special Edition

The Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Film Collection

Something interesting happened to the careers of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor once they became a couple. As is now famously known, Taylor met Burton on the set of Cleopatra, the 1963 Fox debacle that was one of many "important" films the studios made in the early 1960s in an effort to reclaim a drifting audience back from television and to stave off bankruptcy. At that time, Taylor was one of the most famous women in the world, a jet-set celebrity matched in fame only by Jacqueline Kennedy. Burton was a respected actor in films such as The Desert Rats and Look Back in Anger, though not an international name. But in a form of celebrity hypergamy, once the pair married (this being first of two marriages for them) their status flipped. Burton's profile rose, and only alcoholism kept him from having a great career, one that in the end had too few films like Equus and too many like The Klansman. Miss Taylor, on the other hand, after having won two Oscars out of five nominations, did little of interest. But for a time while they were making their 13 or so films together, they did some interesting things, the premier exhibit being Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which serves as a the anchor for Warner's "Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Film Collection."

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, of course, the adaptation of Edward Albee's award-winning and career-making play about an Ivy League academic named George (Burton) and his foul-mouthed wife Martha (Taylor), who one night invite a young couple — a new biology prof (George Segal) and his fragile wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) — to their house for some post-welcoming-party hazing. Like Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962), Woolf was one of those famously "unfilmable" works of art that vexed the administrators of the declining Production Code, whose new leader at that time was former aide to President Lyndon Johnson, Jack Valenti. Jack Warner bought the rights to the play, and writer-producer Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest) brought it to the screen, making some unusual casting choices and somehow managing to transfer the text to the screen with very few cuts. The drama went on win five Oscars, including Best Actress for Elizabeth Taylor, while being the only title in Academy history to be nominated in all eligible categories. It's such a good picture that one wonders why it hasn't been remade (it's not difficult to visualize Sharon Stone and George Clooney as George and Martha, with Mark Valley and Lindsay Lohan as the young couple). At the same time, as the new DVD suggests, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? might have been a wholly different thing if its original director, John Frankenheimer, and its cinematographer, Harry Stradling Sr., had worked with the original names suggested for the film: Bette Davis and James Mason, with Robert Redford and Connie Stevens as the young couple.

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If we view the "independent film" as a style or genre rather than an accounting category, then Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is arguably the first such movie, released a year before Bonnie and Clyde, the picture that Peter Biskin and other writers herald as the one that ushered in the age of the movie brats. When Lehman approached Elizabeth Taylor to star, it was she who turned him on to Mike Nichols, then an ex-stand up comic turned theater director. He was a friend of Burton and Taylor's and promoted himself to the pair as the best man for the job, especially given that he had been obsessed with the play during its long Broadway run. His choice for DP was crucial, and he turned to the relatively inexperienced Haskell Wexler, a family friend from Chicago, who did a fantastic job with many daring shots, ranging from striking close-ups to hand-held tracking shots that would later become standard elements of cinematic vocabulary. From the opening strains of Alex North's plaintive guitar-central score (whose descendent is found in the score to The Deer Hunter) to its final, dawn-lit reconciliation, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a powerful work that remains fresh to this day. Despite the later prevalence of insult-humor-based marital narratives such as Married with Children and 'Till Death, Mike Nichols' movie still reigns thanks to superb acting and the director's paradoxical blend of visual innovations within the context of a burnished "classical" film style, which would be later emulated by Francis Ford Coppola.

Warner Home Video offers up an excellent two-disc DVD release of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which supersedes the previous feature-free flipper from 1997. It begins with a beautiful anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of a superb black-and-white source-print, with an adequate monaural audio (DD 1.0) for a film that's primarily dialogue driven. Extras commence on the first disc with the film's original exit music, and include two audio commentary tracks. The first is with Haskell Wexler, who responds to an off-mike interviewer with his memories and insights into the movie and how he shot it (including the information that Stradling, the original DP, offended Nichols by dissing Fellini's 8-1/2), and he discusses such backstage aspects of the production as Burton's drinking. The second commentary features Nichols being interviewed by Steven Soderbergh — it's an entertaining and informative chat in which Nichols reveals that Robert Redford turned down his offered role because he viewed the character as too downtrodden. He also points out that, in his original draft of the script, Lehman made George and Martha's imaginary offspring real, which betrays either a profound lack of grasp of the source text, or represents the last gasp of commerce-inspired studio "softening" of an adapted work. Extras continue on disc two with "Elizabeth Taylor: An Intimate Portrait," a Jack Haley, Jr., produced TV show from 1975 in which host Peter Lawford interviews Rock Hudson, Miss Taylor's mother, and others (66 min.). Also on hand is "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: A Daring Work of Raw Excellence," a retrospective "making-of" containing interviews with Albee and various critics and scholars (Albee says that essentially he liked the film version) (20 min.). It is paired with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Too Shocking for It's Time," an unenlightening film essay on how Woolf helped change decency standards (10 min.). Other extras include "Sandy Dennis Screen Test" (7 min.), "1966 Mike Nichols Interview" (8 min.), and trailers for Woolf and the other films in the Taylor-Burton Collection. Dual-DVD slimcase in the box-set.
—D.K. Holm



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