Top 2000 Movies
- Written by Peter Burnett Peter Burnett
Nobody could have predicted the success of Edward Albee’s stage play of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which at over three hours, is to this day a marathon to view and perform; never a problem for Richard Burton. Timely in its own era however, was its use of bad language, which among other things saw its Pulitzer Prize withdrawn. In the play as in Mike Nichols' 1966 film version, there are incessant references to truth and illusion, which were the great themes in the theatre of the day, for which see The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman, Streetcar Names Desire, and many more.
When it came to the film, there was even more success, and in fact all four actors in the cast were Oscar nominated, and two of them, Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis won theirs. And yes, did anyone ever deserve an Oscar more than Liz Taylor here? This is the same woman who had been Cleopatra only three years hence, transforming herself from the greatest beauty in screen history into the greatest monster imaginable, a middle-class Grendel, shocking and terrifying and very, very funny.
Famously, it was Richard who talked Elizabeth into taking the role of Martha, saying that it could be her Hamlet, and when she accepted, she did so only on the proviso that Richard played George, which the studio was less keen on. Although he did not win an Oscar for his starring role in this brutally beautiful domestic epic, he perhaps should of for the scene he does under the tree, which Mike Nichols the director said he did in one take. In this scene, Burton tells the story of the boy and the drink of ‘Burgen’, and it is possibly the most memorable in the picture.
The real trick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is how much damage can be done with so little. Four actors, each one of them at the top of their game, a devastating script and miracles occur.
Sometimes it’s hard to get everything right, it appears.
For his great book Richard Burton, Prince of Players, Michael Munn spoke to scores of friends and colleagues of Richard Burton, and over many years. Nobody in the process of producing this fine book spotted that the play of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is cited as being written by an ‘Albert Albee’. I guess that is one of those fancies that creeps in the mind due to overwork, when you make a simple assumption in trying to remember a fact, and miscast it in the mind.