Turning the underbelly of bourgeois academia into a microcosm of human relationships in all their arduous complexities, Mike Nichols' auspicious debut feature is a harrowing descent into the private lives and painful secrets of two couples thrown together for an evening. Based on the controversial play by Edward Albee, this noir-ish 1966 drama stars former real-life couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in what many critics consider to be their best performances. George (Burton) is a senior professor of history who has turned to alcohol to deal with his vituperative, vicious wife Martha (Taylor), whose appetite for administering abuse knows no bounds. Invited to the couple's home for late-night drinks are new professor Nick (George Segal), and his naïve wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), where over the course of the evening, the polished veneer of the hosts tarnishes grotesquely. The witty repartee of consummate sophisticate Martha degenerates into increasingly violent verbal abuse of both her husband and guests, while George's stoic façade crumbles both physically and emotionally. The horrified Nick and Honey initially come off as happier foils to the misery of the older married couple, but the guests are soon mirroring George and Martha in their mutual antagonism, giving voice to buried resentments and alcohol-fueled revelations of repressed injuries.
A director with a reputation for delivering intelligent, "adult" films, Nichols made a remarkably smooth and successful transition from stage to screen with this adaptation of Albee's already-notorious play. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman kept the text of the play virtually intact, maintaining the intensity and sheer violence of the frankly foul language. The film shocked audiences, presenting them with a tortuous foray into a love-hate relationship and, ultimately, mental illness. WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? received Academy Award nominations in virtually every category it was eligible for, winning five of them.
Region 1 Note: Two Commentaries: 1- Directors Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh 2 - Cinematographer Haskell Wexler