March 24, 2011

THE SHOWBUZZDAILY REVIEW: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Airing on TCM March 24 and April 10:  See It On Any Screen.


The legacy of the late Elizabeth Taylor arises at least as much from her stature as one of the great, iconic Hollywood movie stars (and the prototypical tabloid goddess) as on the breadth of her acting skills.  But she leaves behind one genuinely great performance in a classic movie:  Mike Nichols’ film version of Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF.  TCM had coincidentally scheduled the film for overnight on March 24/25, and they’ll re-air the film April 10 as part of a 24-hour marathon of Taylor’s films.


It’s hard now to recapture the scandalous thrill of Virginia Woolf in 1966:  2 years before the MPAA ratings system, it introduced shocking words like “son of a bitch” and “bastard” into neighborhood theaters.  And of course it starred Taylor with Richard Burton, the couple who’d shocked the world with their romance on the set of the mega-epic Cleopatra (Vanity Fair’s terrific account of that story is here) and taken root in tabloid soil ever since, along the way appearing in the hit glossy romances The VIPs and The SandpiperVirginia Woolf was something altogether different, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that followed 4 characters intensely over the course of a single apocalyptic night, and one that would require serious acting chops.  No one questioned Burton’s ability to play George, and George Segal and Sandy Dennis were clearly talented up-and-comers who could handle the roles of Nick and Honey, but Taylor had never even attempted a performance with the magnitude of George’s wife Martha.

Mike Nichols made the brilliant decision to shoot the film in black-and-white (the remarkable photography is by Haskell Wexler), which apart from anything else greatly added to Taylor’s ability to change her look for a part she was patently too young (only 34 when the film was made) and too beautiful to play–color publicity photos from the set dent the illusion of age and dissipation.  But technical assistance aside, Taylor took the role and ran with it, finding a savagery and depth that has stood the test of time and the many first-rate actresses who’ve played the role in the years that followed.  The 4 actors formed a spectacular ensemble, and the film remains not just one of the all-time great adaptations of a theatrical work for the screen, but hugely moving, scathingly funny and fiercely entertaining, long after the scandals have passed..

Virginia Woolf marked the peak of Taylor’s acting career:  she played a few roles that had traces of Martha’s DNA (The Only Game In Town, X, Y & Zee), but mostly tapered off into B-movies, TV and curiosities like the misbegotten adaptation of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music; her celebrity became more important than her talent.  She well deserved the Oscar she won for Woolf, though (and in her deglamorization she created the template for actresses like Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry to win their own awards), in a masterpiece that will always be worth watching.


–Mitch Salem

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."