This is a gloriously effective adaptation of Edward Albee’s stage play because it stays very close to the stage roots. It is opened out a little to see the garden, something of the university campus and a few other locations, but the bulk of the action remains in George and Martha’s curiously claustrophobic sitting room.
With few distractions, the focus remains firmly on the words and the acting, playing very much to the strengths of the playwright and a very fine cast – though it may ultimately have cost Nichols a well-deserved Best Director Oscar. And while I’m talking about gongs, it seems a shame that Liz Taylor and Sandy Dennis got Oscars, when Richard Burton and George Segal are every bit as good – and indeed, were they not so the entire balance of power on which the play and film depend for their success would be distorted and it would not work.
Each character in Albee’s quartet has a precise role to play: George and Martha as the antiheroes, playing out their domestic dramas, Nick and Honey the gullible witnesses. As it is, a piece about power relationships and territory works brilliantly where the drunken banter descends into terrifying mind games played between the four protagonists, though ultimately Nick and Honey are just cannon fodder, an audience for the main event as George and Martha rip each other to shreds, beyond the skin, flesh, bones and organs and penetrating the barely-beating heart of their relationship with shards of glass.
As coruscating as the verbal duelling becomes, it leaves enormous pathos. Only the greatest of actors can strip away the layers and reveal the underlying truths with such finesse – George’s final revenge is delivered with sorrow more than anger, the twist the guests eventually catch on to. Here the audience is not browbeaten so much as invited to witness the death throes and attend the funeral. It requires neither ghoulish curiosity nor schadenfreude, but the pity one can raise only when all else has died.
This is not a film to be taken lightly. If you do not pick up on all the barbed insults it will not matter, though reading the subtext most certainly will. If you did not spot the twist, go back and listen again… this is very definitely a movie that repays a second and third viewing. A masterpiece! Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? I am….