In the months following Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s cinematic debut, the ashes of Old Hollywood began to scatter. The Production Code was nixed and the Paramount lot was sold to Gulf + Western. Warner Bros was acquired by Seven Arts (a deal likened to if the Pasadena News bought the New York Times by one executive). Walt Disney croaked and Bosley Crowther cleared out his desk. New blood pumped in: Mike Nichols and Haskell Wexler were hastily sent back to work on The Graduate, with even bigger returns.
Woolf begins with Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and George (Richard Burton) failing to produce the name of some “goddamn Warner Brothers epic”—King Vidor’s 1949 Beyond the Forest, Bette Davis’ last for the studio and one she considered an unmitigated failure. It’s the first of countless references to the spectre of a fading golden age Hollywood, allusions that often pivot into eerier intimations of the never-acknowledged Holocaust. Taylor and Burton, just barely having shook off their tormented production of Cleopatra; discussions of eugenics and Spengler; and the provocative title, which Edward Albee says he lifted from barroom graffiti. Virginia Woolf took her own life after the destruction of her London home in the Blitz; it’s less commonly recalled, however, that the composer of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”, a favorite tune of both the Allies and the Axis, took his life only months later, apparently while in the process of scoring Bambi.
The premise of the film is simple. George and Martha invite a young couple Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis) into their home for an evening of desperate psychological games—seductions, power plays, betrayals. While the film shares themes and tone with other Sixties ‘topical’ social dramas (the American Dream, generation gap, battle of the sexes), Albee’s scenarios skew too Euro, too absurdist, and too dire to be tidily cinematized. Manny Farber gets at this when he unfavorably quipped that it’s “as though the curtain were going up or down on every declamation.” Taylor and Burton’s ham-fisted performances are what keep Woolf a vital watch. They fumble with the material, render whole pages of the script lifeless, and knead into the utter despair of aging—the best performances of their respective careers.
If Virginia Woolf anticipates the “coming apart” psychodramas of the New Hollywood—Faces was shooting as Woolf took theaters—and caustically echoes the newly departed studio melodramas of the Old, it’s also incidentally channeling the cinematic energies across the country. George and Martha were modelled after real-life tempestuous couple William Maas and Marie Menken, whose salon-style gatherings in the East Village were crucial for young Brakhage, Anger, and Warhol. Warhol referred to them lovingly as scholarly drunks, “the last of the great bohemians” (it’s been suggested that Maas was the off-screen fellator in Warhol’s Blow Job).