Warner Archive Review: ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?’

“What’s wrong? Don’t you think it’s funny? I thought it was a scream.” “It was alright.”

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? perhaps more so than any other film makes us question what exactly can be considered entertainment. Seeing dancers glide across the screen is joyous. Watching war heroes fight back the enemy is entertaining. Seeing a team overcome insurmountable odds to beat their rivals is fun. In this particular case, we are forced to consider a couple working hard to break down their marriage as entertainment.

virginia woolf

Of course, it is when you have two of the world’s biggest movie stars at each other’s throats for two hours. It is when we have two supporting actors who are just as shocked by what they are watching as we are on the other side of the screen.

Virginia Woolf?, based on Edward Albee’s seminal play, takes place over a single night after a party at a small New England college. It’s 2 a.m., but history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the college president’s daughter, are still planning to host two guests. Nick (George Segal) is a young biology professor who arrives with his wife, Honey (Sandy Denis). Martha invited the two over at the party, much to George’s chagrin.

Nick and Honey have no idea what they are in for. They get involved in George and Martha’s games of wit that test the limits of how far verbal torture can go. When Martha tells Honey that she and George have a son, the night truly becomes a descent into madness and hell.

Upon first viewing of Virginia Woolf?, it seems like a typical piece about a relationship breaking apart, but the film is so much more than that. It’s a puzzle, a game even for the audience to figure out. What is real? How many of these stories George and Martha share with Nick and Honey actually happen? Are the two really mad or just drying to pull off some elaborate joke? Perhaps Nick and Honey just stumbled into a vicious therapy session gone awry the moment Martha broke George’s rule.

With Mike Nichols at the helm, Virginia Woolf? features four fantastic performances. Richard Burton is more than his usual fantastic, swinging from brooding to uproarious anger without missing a beat. Elizabeth Taylor is a little shaky, but when she’s delivering her monologues, it’s astounding. You simply can’t look away. Sandy Denis and George Segal manage to hold their own. Since Denis won an Oscar and Segal didn’t, it’s probably easy to overlook what he does in the film. However, Segal is just as great, with a mix of naivete and just enough experience to figure out when he’s been played.

There are countless other aspects to Virginia Woolf? that are exceptional – from Haskell Wexler’s beautiful B&W cinematography to Alex North’s score – but I’ll just get to the main point here. What’s the new Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray like? It’s perfect, as it looks like some restoration work was put in. You might be tricked into thinking that a talky film like this one doesn’t need the high-definition treatment, but that’s wrong.

Extras are carried over from the two-disc edition. They include:

  • Two commentaries: In the first, director Steven Soderberg and Nichols go over the making of the film and how Nichols ended up making Virginia Woolf? his directing debut. Wexler provides the second, more technical commentary.
  • Too Shocking For Its Time (10 minutes) and A Daring Work of Raw Excellence (20 minutes): These two made-for-DVD featurettes have the usual Warner Home Video suspects (Dr. Drew Casper and Richard Schickel) praising the film while those involved discuss making it. The first featurette is much more interesting, as it goes over Virginia Woolf?‘s role in creating the MPAA rating system we have today.
  • Mike Nichols 1966 interview (9 minutes): Here’s some fascinating excerpts from an interview with Nichols on The Today Show.
  • Sandy Dennis Screen Test (7 minutes): Dennis had only made one movie before Virginia Woolf? (she was briefly in Splendor in the Grass), so it’s easy to understand why she would have a screen test. This compilation shows her performing a few scenes, while Roddy McDowell reads Nick’s lines.
  • Elizabeth Taylor: An Intimate Portrait (1 hour, 6 minutes): The longest bonus is a 1975 ABC special hosted by Peter Lawford. It’s mostly fluff, but it’s still enjoyable to hear Vincente Minnelli, Rock Hudson, Richard Brooks, McDowell and Taylor’s mom talk about her. The film does feel a little strange though. How intimate can a portrait be without talking to the subject? I guess she was too busy at the time.
  • Trailer Gallery: This is a collection of trailers for the other Burton/Taylor movies in the WB library, as well as the unique original trailer for Virginia Woolf?.

Each time I watch Virginia Woolf?, I’m left glued to my seat as it ends, just thinking about what it all means. On paper, it sounds like a movie that will get annoying quick. How long can you stand two people yelling at each other before it gets tiring? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shows that we can at least stand 131 minutes of that.

Thanks to Warner Archive for providing the Blu-ray for this review!

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