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A clever camera helps out heavy cinematic Woolf

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Directed by Mike Nichols.

Written by Ernest Lehman; based on the play by Edward Albee.

Starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis.

LSC Classics, Friday.

By Scott C. Deskin

Adapting a play to the screen is a challenge for filmmakers. Often they aim to achieve both artistic and commercial success. The freedom of space in films, however, allows directors to expand the action a bit, change a few locations, and perhaps delete some dialogue to increase the pace of the action or drama. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) as directed by Mike Nichols exemplifies the benefits and drawbacks of the film medium for certain plays.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a moral modernist fable that hits a raw nerve in audiences for profanity and emotional brutality. It has only four characters. George, a history professor, and Martha, daughter of the university president, are a dysfunctional couple well into middle age. Their guests, Nick and Honey, are young, idealistic, and pathetic in their own ignorance toward the "fun and games" that their drunken hosts have in store for them. In the beginning, the name-calling and accusations between George and Martha could be mistaken as drunken, disaffected banter; however, they progressively draw in their guests to games of self-degradation and destruction with isolated bits of sexual innuendo and revelation of secrets. The tension builds to increased animosity between George and Nick, heightened sexual tensions between Nick and Martha, and emotional isolation of Honey, a wan and pale character who gets dragged along by the others. In one scene, she is literally yanked up the stairs by Martha for an impromptu tour of the home.

Hollywood actors are carefully mapped into the characters translated for the big screen. From the start of the play, Martha and Nick are at odds with each other. "What a dump," Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) remarks, asking George (Richard Burton) in which "goddamn Warner Brothers epic" Bette Davis had said those words. This minor piece of dialogue reinforces the incredulity of the audience toward the glamorous acting couple (seen three years earlier in the failed Fox epic Cleopatra), reduced to a bickering middle-aged couple. The younger couple, played by George Segal and Sandy Dennis, convey a idealism and navet that makes them emotionally malleable - ideal victims for the hosts.

The play restricts action to the house; the film moves action outside (first to an adjacent field, complete with a child's swing, and later to a roadside diner) to remove the claustrophobic feeling of the one-room setting and let the audience "breathe" a bit. The necessity of moving the story outside the living-room setting is open to debate, although commercial taste dictates that the film medium be fully exploited to improve upon the play in some way. The few shifts of the location occur when the older couple drive the young couple home and are urged to stop at a diner for dancing by the increasingly delirious Honey (at the same point where the dancing would occur in the living-room setting in the play).

Obviously, the camera can be used to show viewpoints of characters that we can't easily see in a stage production. In an early scene, Martha and Nick are shown in a foreground conversation (she rubs his leg suggestively), with George and Honey brooding in the background on opposite sides of the room: An alternating 180-degree camera viewpoint shifts the audience's attention between the two divided couples. As expected in film, the camera transports the audience into the house and shifts between conversing characters, making full use of the space in the house. High and low camera shots show, at any particular moment, which character has the upper hand. In the diner, for instance, Martha and Nick taunt George and are viewed from a low, slightly skewed angle; toward the end of the film, when George destroys a myth about a son that he and his wife never had, and Martha collapses to the floor in mournful, regretful supplication to her husband, praying that he won't destroy this intimate, sacred illusion in front of the guests.

In both the play and the film, Martha and George are outwardly rational figures with a troubled and compulsive bent toward emotional sadism. However, George is the outwardly reticent professor who slowly, demonically shows his true colors in a series of "games," and the camera follows George periodically to show his moral deterioration. The first major shock is when George retrieves a toy rifle that sprouts an umbrella, sneaks up behind his unsuspecting guests, aims and shoots at Martha's head. This sequence results from George's disgust at Martha's glee in recounting how she knocked him down once into some bushes, catching him off-guard with a well-timed punch. This story is as much a metaphor for his emasculation in marriage as it is a blow to his long-suffering ego. The camera tracks slowly backward to show him walking down the hall to a utility closet to retrieve the gun while Martha's voice becomes more muffled and dreamlike. The camera shifts to George's viewpoint as he sneaks up behind his guests in the main living room right before the gag is revealed.

Second, skewed camera angles convey George's drunken perceptions of his surroundings. For example, the view from the floor in the diner that forecasts George's growing anger toward Martha is shot while Martha and Nick taunt George from across the room, making a low, skewed camera angle perceptually incongruous; nevertheless, it forces a similar warped view on the audience toward the characters.

George's cold-hearted behavior toward the playing of the "games" is detailed by his own explanation, right before all-out "war" between the two couples begins in the middle of the second act. To this end, the battle between George and Martha is structured and rational. Only in the end (of both the play and the film) does sentiment threaten the artfully constructed illusion of this love-hate marriage.

Aside from this heretofore technical critique, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an emotionally draining film that is not really an enjoyable experience. The emotional catharsis achieved by George and Martha is not much more than a thinly-veiled plot device, designed to both increase the audience's empathy for the characters and to hasten the conclusion of the story. The film is also a bit long and hard to digest if you're not ready for it. But it's a great achievement for its time just for handling adult themes; Mike Nichols shows an uncanny sense of pathos and dramatic pacing in his first directorial effort.