Mike Nichols’s film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened 44 years ago today during a summer of tumult. Not only were massive protests against the Vietnam War hitting Washington DC, but the last trouble-free marriage sitcom, The Dick van Dyke Show, had just aired its last episode. It was on.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor took on the roles of inadequate associate history prof George and his drunk university-president’s-daughter wife Martha two years into their actual marriage, which itself was one of the most scrutinized in pop culture history. The then-thrice-divorced Taylor won the Best Actress Oscar, and Haskell Wexler’s stark cinematography scored him a statuette as well. Controversy over how much of the play’s profanity to include in the film would compel the MPAA’s Jack Valenti to convert the industry’s old Production Code into the rating system we know today.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman ingeniously situates George and Martha’s relentless turning-point fight in a well-lit parking lot, giving Taylor the pacing space to sprawl out the argument across the psyche of tortured married couples across America. The pair’s agreement on “total war” seems almost chilling in its self-indulgence in the context of President Johnson’s escalating the horrific bombing of North Vietnam at the time.