Oscar Vault Monday – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966 (dir. Mike Nichols)

I saw this for the first time about a month ago during TCM’s Summer Under The Stars and I was completely blown away by it. It’s compelling and perfectly shot, featuring some truly exquisite black-and-white cinematography. It sinks its hooks into you from the very beginning and doesn’t let up for a minute, ending with one of the most simultaneously heartbreaking and tender finales in cinematic history. It also features one of the greatest on-screen, as well as off-screen, couples, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in some of their greatest work. It was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, winning five: Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best B&W Costume Design (won), Best B&W Cinematography (won), Best B&W Art Direction (won), Best Supporting Actress Sandy Dennis (won), Best Supporting Actor George Segal, Best Actress Elizabeth Taylor (won), Best Actor Richard Burton, Best Director Mike Nichols and Best Picture. It was up against The Sand Pebbles, Alfie, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and winner A Man For All Seasons.

I will admit I still haven’t seen A Man For All Seasons. Actually, it’s the only one of the five nominees from that year that I haven’t seen. But it’s really hard for me to imagine that it is a better film than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I think this film is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. Everything about it is pitch-perfect and it resonates as much today as it did over forty years ago.

Elizabeth Taylor’s win for Best Actress for her performance as Martha in this film makes my Top Five list of most-deserved acting Oscars of all time. She kills it in this film. She attacks this role such astounding ferocity, with everything she has and the result is the finest performance of her career, and one of the finest performances captured on film ever. I’d always really love Elizabeth Taylor, but I never thought of her as a great actress. A good actress, sure, with lots of screen presence. But after I saw this film I realized she’s the real deal. It makes me want to go back and watch her other films more carefully and see what I missed, because clearly she is a far greater actress than she’s ever given credit for being. This was the performance of a lifetime, and maybe the greatest performance of the sixties, let alone one of the greatest of all time.

Poor Richard Burton. One of the greatest actors to ever grace the stage and screen and he never won one freaking Oscar. He was nominated for a whopping seven Academy Awards, but never won and died before they could give even give him an honorary Oscar. I haven’t seen all of the performances he was nominated for and, like I said, I haven’t seen A Man For All Seasons, so I don’t know why Paul Scofield beat him. But I can say out of the other four performances that were nominated, Burton was definitely the best. I read recently that he had absolutely no training. How amazing, that he was so great, had such great screen presence and that voice, my God, that voice, all of it his own. It boggles the mind.

I loved Sandy Dennis as Honey. She was perfectly cast in this role. Equal parts bubbly, giggly drunk and equal parts somber and haunting. She more than held her own against the rest of the cast as well. What I loved so much about it is, even though her character is drunk throughout the whole film, there is this ever-present gravity to her character, this sorrow. A lot of it is in Dennis’ eyes and you all know how much I love performances that fully utilize eyes to convey emotion.

I was shocked when I saw the George Segal was in this, because I mostly think of him as the bumbling dad/CEO in the 90s sitcom Just Shoot Me! but he was fabulous in this. Such great range and such report with his fellow actors. He lost to Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie, which I have seen. To be honest, I don’t understand Matthau’s win in that film. It’s maybe the only Billy Wilder movie I’ve seen that I didn’t really care for, and as much as I like Matthau, I didn’t think his performance was all that stellar. Conversely, I thought Segal was phenomenal in this. All the performances, really, are phenomenal.

This film reminded me a lot of another Nichols film that I love, 2004’s Closer, which is also an adaptation of a stage play starring two men and two women. Both films are filled with fabulous tour-de-force performances from their casts and I highly recommend them both.

If you’re interested in buying the film, you can do so here.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on September 20, 2010, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Sigh. I loved Burton so much and he was cheated….. over and over and over…. All four of them should have won for this. What an amazing film. I wasn’t allowed to see it when it came out in theaters but when I watched it on TCM I thought it held up really well. And my God, Elizabeth taylor overweight and frousey looking is still beautiful. Who knew she could be so feroucious! Loved it.

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