Aside from great performances by Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, George Segal and Best Actress Oscar winner Elizabeth Taylor, there is the remarkable direction of Mike Nichols. In my opinion, Mike Nichols may be the most underrated director in Hollywood history.
Here’s a short clip of one of my favorite scenes.
What makes this film so remarkable is that Mike Nichols disregarded the cinematic conventions of the times. Even today the film seems modern and electric. The use of wide angle and extreme close ups represents George’s POV. They accentuate the uneasiness of the guests and in turn makes us very uncomfortable and ill at ease, as well. When George looks at his wife Virginia or his guests they are in Extreme Distorted Close Ups.
It’s also claustrophobic, trapping the viewer along with George in the room. Observe how Nichol’s has arranged the actors at first. George and Martha dominate and Nick and Honey are subordinates, irrelevant to the conversation.
Then Nichol’s changes it up and uses a classical triangle construction. We see Nick and Martha as they get “closer”; George in the background. But notice that even though George is in the background he is lit from overhead. Brighter than the other characters making sure that we never loose him in the frame. Honey is nowhere to be found. This is not unlike the young Kane framed by the window in the CITIZEN KANE scene where he is being sent away by his mother and father which I deconstruct in my “Anatomy of a Scene” section.
His use of sound is stunning, George walks away when he can’t take it anymore, but now there is a subjective use of sound. The conversation continues at the same level it was in the living room. The soundtrack further tortures George, as we hear Martha’s voice haunting and torturing George even when he is in the closet. Terrific use of subjective sound. Sound is distorted like the image and again this is George’s POV, this time aural.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF was Mike Nichols first film after years of directing for the Broadway stage. Did you know Mike Nichols also directed THE GRADUATE, CATCH 22, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, SILKWOOD, and WORKING GIRL, to name just a few?