Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The 100 Best Movies: #94

94. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Based on one of the most controversial plays to open on Broadway in the 1960's, producer-screenwriter Ernest Lehman trusted his adaptation of Edward Albee's dark character drama to a young stage director and first-time filmmaker named Mike Nichols. The result is a riveting and mind-blowing dramatic film that is a must-see. Lehman convinced Jack Warner to bank on Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (rather than Henry Fonda and Bette Davis) in the coveted roles of George and Martha, the condescending professor and his shrewish wife. Burton and Taylor were the Brangelina of their day and Lehman knew how to use this. Nichols draws the best performances of their respective careers out of them (as well as from George Segal and Sandy Dennis as the younger couple).

In addition to the brilliant adaptation of Albee's language and fervor that Lehman supplied, Mike Nichols brought a frenetic quality to the film that you cannot quite get on stage. True, the stageplay is brilliant (especially in the hands of great actors), but the stage is a different animal. On stage, actors have to play to the balcony and have to (in the words of Gypsy's Mama Rose) "Sing Out, Louise!" In this film, Nichols uses close-ups and quick cuts to help build the energy of the heightened moments around the softer scenes (especially the heartbreaking final one). It is also a good choice to film this movie in black and white instead of in color (which is supposably what Jack Warner wanted). The black and white adds to the darkness and empty quality that fills the lives of George and Martha. One would think from the way the film moves that wherever George and Marta go, the black and white follows them. Not a bad first film for an amazing director who constantly challenges the audience's minds.

Next Post: #93

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