Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Warner Bros., 1966
by Nicholas Rombes
In March 1973 Edward Albee turned me into a writer.
That was the year that CBS TV broadcast the film version of Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I was a kid in northwest Ohio, the United States. Black skies and black fields.
The movie had been made in 1966 and directed by Mike Nichols, who would follow it up the next year with The Graduate. It starred Elizabeth Taylor (Martha) and Richard Burton (George), who were married at the time.
I knew none of this at the time. The film washed over me with no context, no history.
I was eight years old in 1973, and I can’t remember if I knew who Virginia Woolf was. I came to love Virginia Woolf, but not then. Then, she was just a name, a name that seemed unreal.
What do I remember from that first viewing? The eruptive screaming, the aggressive camera angles and movements, the shoving, the collapse of a physical world while at the same time its verbal world was being erected higher and higher. I didn’t understand what was happening, and yet somehow I did. It was primal. I was not of these people. They were alien to me. And yet they weren’t. I felt intimate with them even though I barely understood what it was that ailed them. Their anger was rich and deep and pure and yet I still couldn’t comprehend where it came from.
For years I was guilty. Why did I “like” a movie (I’d not seen the play live, on stage) that was so hateful, so against the sort of niceties that veneered my own troubled life?
What did it mean to “like” hate?
How and why could the critic Ellen Willis identify with the hateful Johnny Rotten? From her essay “Beginning to See the Light,” published in 1977.
And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and effectively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated . . . challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.
In our era of trigger warnings, humanities instructors who give their students the option of “opting out” of reading texts that might upset them or fundamentally challenge the way they want to see the world, and other careful calibrations of the proper doses of the right sorts of art, a play like Who’s Afraid Virginia Woolf smashes barriers we erect between ourselves and the ugliness—and also the dirty, flawed, humanity—of ourselves.
Something shifted in me back then in 1973, and although I felt the change profoundly I couldn’t quite name it. This had something to do with the nature of the medium back then, because I couldn’t simply re-watch the film. It had been broadcast in CBS and that was that. There was no VHS, or DVD, or streaming, so I had know way to watch it through again. I don’t remember when the next time I saw it—probably one more on television and then when it was released on VHS. In a sense, twenty years before David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? tore the façade off normalized life to reveal the churning that lies beneath. I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to identify with, and I loved that about it.
They were all assholes.
More or less.
How did it become all unraveled? At what moment, in my life, would this happen?
Was hetero-marriage a mirage?
Why marry someone you hate?
Why marry someone who hates you?
Is screaming fundamental to a deep relationship?
Does violent arguing equate to true and deep love?
Does to love someone—to really love them in a deep, deep way—mean to excavate them, to dig deep and dredge up the muck of them? Did love mean tearing down the other person until you can see them beneath their human skin?
Does love mean screaming?
I believed it did.
The other thing . . . the other thing was about that camera. I didn’t know the technical terms back then, when I was just a clodhopper kid in clodhopper northwest Ohio, United States, the pungent black earth coming up and up during bus route stops, but I could feel it, could feel the way the movie was edited and of course that crazy, expressionist, movement of the camera, which I’d never seen before. In my imagination cameras moved like crazy, but not in real life. The feeling of real life, even though I had no connection to these “East coast” people, whoever they were.
In the following clip:
:01 – :34 – Single take, calm, classic medium framing until Martha bolts from couch; camera follows her; George’s voice off-screen
:34 – :36 – Cut to George
:36 – :42 – A cut that’s hard to see, capturing Martha as she turns her attention back to Nick
:42 – 1:07 – A remarkable take that follows Martha, close-up, punctuated by her asides (“Getting angry, baby?”) to George
1:07 – 1:09 – Brief travelling shot between Nick and Honey, not only gauging their reaction to Martha’s tirade but also establishing Martha’s boozy point of view
1:09 – 1:19 – Cut back to Martha, and right after that flip of her head at the lines “maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all,” the way she spits out after is if the word itself is an actual physical, poisonous thing.
I didn’t know at the time that Haskell Wexler was the director of photography and the person who realized Nichols’s idea of using a hand-held camera to capture the disintegrating, drunken, increasingly subjective and expressionistic feel of the film. He would experiment with shaky, hand-held camera work (long before digital made this easier to do) in John Cassavetes’s 1968 film Faces, and his own film Medium Cool (1969). It’s as if the turbulent Sixties produced turbulent camera work (Richard Lester’s 1964 A Hard Day’s Night is the epitome of radical and inventive hand-held camera work from that era) only to be followed by the slow, elegant, stately, long-take cinema of the Seventies in the films of Kubrick, De Palma, Polanski, Antonioni, and others.
One facet I’ve come to appreciate in the years since I first saw the film are these little rivulets of meaning that accumulate suddenly and then just as quickly disappear. The fighting between Martha and George hits you so hard that some of the smaller battles between the to professors—Nick (biology) and George (history)—get buried. Here is one:
George: I read somewhere that science fiction is not really fiction at all. That you people are rearranging my genes so that everyone will be like everyone else. I suspect we shall not have much music, much painting. But we will have a civilization of sublime young men very much like yourself. Cultures and races will vanish. The ants will take over the world.
Nick: You don’t know much about science, do you?
George: I know something about history. I know when I’m being threatened.
Although genetic engineering wasn’t realized until the 1970s, this prescient exchange very much reflects the excitement and anxiety of Cold War-era research into genetics, and in fact the double helix structure was discovered in 1953 by two molecular “biologists.” (And in a weird side note: Albee told The Paris Review in 1966 that he came up with the title after see the phrase “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in a Greenwich Village restroom in 1953 or 1954.) But there’s a deep, deep bedrock truth to all this, as if somehow George and Martha—and all of us, all of us who love, who dare to love, who send their hearts out on expeditions that might very well result in the mutilation of genes and love and the crazy imperfection of this human project.
“I know something about history. I know when I’m being threatened.”
The truth of that is so terrible as to not be admitted, at least not in polite society. “I know something about history.” What is history but a wreckage of bodies, innocent bodies? In the service some-or-others agenda for how a government or society should be run or administered or whatever?
Art, art. A very sharp and harsh lens on who we are, and why we are. Today, we are so far beyond the “crude” language of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that it seems weird and, even, nostalgic to talk about it.
In the realm of trolls, what is left unspoken?
I took the plunge. I dove into the black lagoon.
There was a hand there, reaching out.
I understood that hand, its weird, genderless shape.
We all are.
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio), Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series (Bloomsbury) and Cinema in the Digital Age(Columbia UP). His film The Removals was released in 2016. Rombes is a columnist and contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine, and teaches in Detroit, Michigan.