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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Blu-ray)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // May 3, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by William Harrison | posted May 13, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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THE FILM:

Click an image to view Blu-ray screenshot with 1080p resolution.

Mike Nichols' directorial debut, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is not always pleasant to watch, and lead performers Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor have the uncanny ability to raise bile from the heartiest of stomachs with their pointed, hateful melodrama. They play George and Martha, a married couple with truckloads of baggage. The pair invites a younger couple for cocktails after a theater performance, and subjects them to some truly dysfunctional behavior. Revered for its direction and acting, as well as its then-taboo subject matter, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is provocative and affecting 50 years after its theatrical release. This is a searing adaptation of Edward Albee's play by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and the film was nominated for every eligible category at the Academy Awards. It feels like a punch in the gut, and Burton and Taylor are nothing short of compelling.

You'll be forgiven for forgetting the film was made in 1966. Burton and Taylor speak in distinctly modern prose, peppered with profanity and sarcasm. This is not how people talked in movies 50 years ago, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rustled the skirts of the MPAA, the Catholic Church and every other conceivable civic group with a pulse. The film does play like a play, but anyone expecting a stagnant, boxed-in bore is misguided. Albee's play is highly regarded, so Nichols had great source material to work with. That does not diminish the work Lehman did to bring this project to the screen. Everything from the direction to the acting to the score by Alex North to the cinematography by Haskell Wexler just works. Nichols had Broadway directorial experience beforehand, but it is still impressive that his cinematic debut is this accomplished.

George and Martha spend the evening trading barbs, turning to alcohol and other compulsions to fuel their bad behavior. Martha is the daughter of the dean under whom George works, and resents George's lack of upward progress from his associate professorship. The unsuspecting guests, Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis), kick the hornet's nest of marital discord when they arrive. Honey is outspoken and pretty, and Martha soon begins manipulating her to speak critically of others. George sees the younger, more attractive Nick as a direct threat, and the film heavily implies that any dalliance between Nick and Martha would not be her first indiscretion. George and Martha fight over work, their absent son, and each other's flaws. The bourbon flows freely throughout the night, and the uncomfortable situation comes to a boil when the group leaves the house and stops at a roadhouse for more drinks.

The film is a marathon of sorts, and viewers are lucky to survive the night. Burton and Taylor are extremely impressive, and the film recalls their own rocky marriage. Once a certain topic of conversation is broached, the pair's exterior defenses are penetrated, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? becomes intensely sad and distressing. This is master-class acting from all involved. The way Nichols pieces all this together is nearly perfect, too. The timing and editing of certain scenes are key to the film's ultimate effect, and Nichols delivers in spades. I understand the film's reputation as groundbreaking social commentary, and time has not mellowed its impact. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not easy to swallow but it makes quite an impression.

THE BLU-RAY:

PICTURE:

The restored 1.77:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image looks fantastic. Warner Brothers clearly has preserved and presented this film with much care. This transfer was newly scanned at 2K, and WB did preservation work to remove dirt and debris from the image. Wexler's black-and-white photography is stunning, and the Blu-ray handles the grays and blacks with ease. Blacks are inky and stable, shadow detail is abundant, and everything is tightly refined and delineated. Fine-object detail and texture are impressive, and there is plenty of detail in the backgrounds of scenes. The image is completely stable, lacks noticeable imperfections and is completely without noise reduction and edge halos.

SOUND:

The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also impressive. The track was culled from the original audio source, and the left and right channels are identical (the previous DVD had a mono mix). Dialogue is clear, crisp and without distortion. There is a lot of simultaneous talking, but the mix is never muddled or shrill. There are a number of ambient effects that are given nice spacing and weight, and those sounds are appropriately layered with the minimal score. There are 2.0 Dolby Digital dubs in French, Spanish, Czech, Polish, German and Japanese, as well as a host of subtitle options.

PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:

This single-disc release is part of Warner Brothers' "Archive Collection," and it arrives in a standard Blu-ray case. There is disc art, which is unusual for WB. There are two excellent Commentaries: The first, from Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, is more technical, and the second, from Director Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, is a very engaging discussion of the film and its place in cinematic history. Too Shocking for its Time (10:37/SD) sees former MPAA president Jack Valenti discuss the film's racy content and how it changed cinema forever. A Daring Work of Raw Excellence (20:14/SD) covers the play, the film and how the story resonates today. Also included are a vintage Mike Nichols Interview (9:00/SD); a Sandy Dennis Screen Test (7:13/SD); and the Trailer (2:13/HD). Finally, you get Elizabeth Taylor: An Intimate Portrait (1:06:30/SD), an ABC documentary from 1975.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Mike Nichols stepped into film directing with this searing adaptation of Edward Albee's play, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has not lost a bit of its power after 50 years. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are fantastic as a dysfunctional married couple that spends a booze-filled evening tormenting some houseguests. The Blu-ray looks and sounds wonderful, and includes some nice bonus features. Highly Recommended.


Additional screenshots:

William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.

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