“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you.”
Before starting this countdown, there were maybe 20 movies on the list I hadn’t seen before. So that means the vast majority are movies I’m somewhat familiar with. It’s great when it’s an excuse to re-watch something I’ve already seen countless times and know I love, like Goodfellas. It’s a real chore when I have to sit through something I know I will hate all over again, like Titanic. But I think the best results come when it’s a movie I’ve seen once, years ago, and remember liking, but don’t remember why. Those have been the biggest rewards so far with this countdown, knowing I’ll like a movie, but being totally blown away by loving it. It happened earlier with The Apartment and 12 Angry Men. And today it happened more than ever before, with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) are a middle aged, married couple. A very unhappy middle aged, married couple. One night after a party with colleagues at the college where George is a professor, they invite over the latest addition to the college’s teaching staff and his wife, Nick (George Segal) and Honey. An invitation grudgingly made by George and Martha at the behest of Martha’s father, who also happens to be the college president.
In the few minutes before Nick and Honey arrive, George and Martha go from playfully teasing each other, to full blown arguments, to insults, to uncontrollable passion. Once their guests arrive, they only take these wild swings in emotion to a new level. They make no effort to hide their dissatisfaction and resentment from their house guests and only take a break from verbally and emotionally attacking each other when they decide to shift their focus onto the younger couple.
All four actors were nominated for Oscars for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And that makes sense. Based on a play, this movie is all about their delivery of the amazing dialogue. There are no flashy set pieces or locations to do the heavy lifting. But what really brings it to life is the direction from Mike Nichols. Obviously determined to do more than just point a camera at his cast while they performed their version of the play, the way he places and moves the camera makes it a really dynamic, snappy movie, even when technically, most of it just four people talking.
His work became even more impressive when I realised that this is first movie. It takes a lot balls for a first timer to put such an audacious spin on things. Especially when dealing with well respected source material. But especially when it’s his first crack. Nichols could have played it safe and let his proven script and amazing actors do their thing, and it probably still would have been a success. But this debutant swung away and hit it for six.
Although, even for all of that, it’s still impossible for Nichols to outshine the dialogue. There’s never a full second of silence in this movie. Everyone is always delivering a monologue, a well placed zinger, a scathing insult or raw confession. Sometimes, all of those things are happening at once. Every single word in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Is perfect, precise and totally necessary. It’s the kind of thing Aaron Sorkin gets unearned credit for these days. But here, it actually seems like real things real people would say in real situations. Not something some smug screenwriter wrote before patting himself on the back.
I always thought I liked Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? But now, almost a third of the way through this AFI list, it may have just become the best viewing experience I’ve had so far in this countdown. I can’t really call it a surprise, because I’ve seen it before, but it’s definitely an unexpected highlight.
Best Picture (nominated, lost to A Man for All Seasons)
Best Director (Nichols nominated, lost to Fred Zinnemann for A Man for All Seasons)
Best Actor (Burton nominated, lost to Paul Scofield for A Man for All Seasons)
Best Actress – Elizabeth Taylor
Best Supporting Actor (Segal nominated, lost to Walter Matthau for The Fortune Cookie)
Best Supporting Actress – Sandy Dennis
Best Cinematography (Black & White) – Haskell Wexler