The American Society of Cinematographers

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Hirschfeld, ASC
Post Focus
DVD Playback
Pandora's Box
Who's Afraid
The Double Life
ASC Close-Up
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Special Edition
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Monaural
Warner Home Video, $26.98

It’s nearly 2 a.m. on a crisp autumn night when George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) stumble out of a faculty party and head to their home on a small college campus in New England. Far from sober, the couple banter while pouring fresh drinks and cleaning up for their guests; Martha has invited eager new faculty member Nick (George Segal) and his mousy wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis), over for a nightcap. When Nick and Honey arrive, interrupting George and Martha’s loud argument, the hosts proceed to make false pleasantries and glare at one another over cocktails. As the liquor flows, it’s clear that this party will grow long and uncomfortable, and before the night is over, the savage and miserably unhappy hosts will play several games with their unsuspecting guests.

After Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to Edward Albee’s groundbreaking play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the early 1960s, producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman was given control of the project. Warners hoped to cast Bette Davis and James Mason as Martha and George, but Lehman insisted on Taylor and Burton, who were at that time a real-life couple and a tabloid sensation. Although she was much younger than the character Albee had written, a nervous Taylor agreed to the challenge, with the stipulation that New York theater director Mike Nichols direct the picture.

Nichols, who had not directed a film before, insisted Virginia Woolf be shot in black-and-white for two reasons: it fit the tone of piece, and it would help hide the heavy makeup designed to age Taylor. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, ASC was brought on board to fashion the stark, bold images needed to bring the play to the screen. Shooting on location and onstage posed numerous challenges for Wexler, who acknowledges in an audio commentary on this disc that he was occasionally unsure of himself, and wanted to bring as much truth to the images as possible. Crisply lit by practicals and the ever-present moonlight that flows from windows, the film’s interiors exhibit several different levels of blacks and shadows from room to room. Wexler worked closely with art director Richard Sylbert to ensure that the sets would provide ample ways in which to bounce and position light. In his remarks on this disc, Wexler notes that he never wanted the eye “to be bored” by the monochrome density in the interiors, and says he enjoyed lighting each shot with rich depth of field. Wexler won a well-deserved Academy Award for his work on the picture. (In addition to many other honors, he received the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.)

Warner Home Video’s newly remastered, two-disc special edition of Virginia Woolf is a clear improvement over the single-disc DVD released in 1997. This anamorphically enhanced transfer is uniformly crisp, cleanly realizing Wexler’s expressive monochrome palette. The picture accuracy is excellent, with good contrast in interiors and stunning clarity in exteriors. The monaural sound mix exhibits good tonality and a solid bass range.

Fans of the film and first-time viewers alike will be impressed with the generous supplements in this package. Disc one presents the feature with two commentary tracks. The first is Wexler’s, which originally appeared on the 1997 DVD, and the second is a new item, a discussion of the film by Nichols and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. Disc two includes two new featurettes, the 20-minute “A Daring Work of Raw Excellence” and the 10-minute “Too Shocking for Its Time”; these include new interviews with Wexler, Albee and others. Also included is Dennis’ screen test (shot by Wexler); a choppy 1966 television interview with Nichols from NBC; theatrical trailers for Taylor and Burton vehicles; and an hour-long television biography of Taylor.

Some 40 years after its creation, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains potent. The scathing, darkly comic drama is one of the most important and controversial pieces of American theater, and this faithful film version is a classic example of how to adapt a stage play for the screen. With this new DVD, we are all once again invited for drinks with “sad, sad, sad” George and Martha.

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