Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? screenshot

Year: 1966 | Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is one of the most batshit crazy films I have ever seen in my life. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? walked so that Uncut Gems (2019) and Shiva Baby (2020) could run. I feel like I’ve been put through the wringer, like I’ve borne witness to something that I wasn’t supposed to see.

There’s literally nothing that can be said about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s legendary performances in this film that hasn’t been said before, but I think that an aspect that is often overlooked (in my opinion, due to the massive success and cultural ubiquity of The Graduate [1967]) is how monumental of a debut film this was for Mike Nichols, surely one of the great “first films” in cinema history. For him to be able to wrangle these performances out of actors who were already very much legends at this stage in his career is just an incredible testament to how prodigiously talented this man was. The more I see of his work, the more I’m convinced that he was truly one of the greatest American filmmakers of his generation, if not ever.

Interestingly, it seems like Broadway plays (such as the one on which this film is based) were pretty ahead of film as far as pushing the envelope with things like language and adult content at the time. Perhaps it’s because plays were considered “sophisticated” art, where it was acceptable to take risks because of the perceived maturity and intelligence of the audience, while cinema was still by-and-large considered a low-brow form of entertainment. I think that the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did a lot to change that perception and prove that there was (and always will be) an audience for provocative cinema that takes risks and pushes the envelope.

At any rate, this is one of those rare films that feels so ahead of its time that it boggles the mind that it even got made at all when it did. Perhaps the first great film of the New Hollywood movement, it’s not difficult to track Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?‘s influence on the decade of film that followed, or on the American Indie movement of the 1990s. But it’s also simply an absolutely riveting and, at times, anxiety-inducing character study that deserves the legacy that it has enjoyed even without its historical context.

Language: English
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 2 hr. 11 min.
Rating: Not Rated

Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Agnes Flanagan

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