Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

CIRCA 1966: Elizabeth Taylor angrily points as Richard Burton looks on in a scene from the Warner Bros movie "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?" circa 1966. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A mere four years after the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered on Broadway, Mike Nichols made his directorial debut with a film adaptation of this classic American play. Hewing remarkably close to playwright Edward Albee’s script, which mined the rich quarry of marriage dysfunction, the film unfolds in a sleepy university town, where a history professor George and his wife Martha (played by the then-couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) host Nick (George Segal), a new biology professor, and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) for a soirée. Over the course of one night, their little gathering rapidly devolves into a sulfurous booze-addled game of one-upmanship. Unlike the play, confined to the interior of a house, Ernest Lehman’s screenplay grants the characters brief sojourns to the front yard and a roadhouse, but they can never quite escape the tight, isolating close-up of the camera.

So much of Who’s Afraid is concerned with truth and illusion: not merely with how tenuous their boundaries are, but also how George and Martha’s marriage has been sustained by a central illusion. Elizabeth Taylor imbues the role of Martha with the requisite drunk, dyspeptic dissatisfaction—there is her dispassionately delivered line “I am the Earth Mother and you are all flops”—but beneath all the vitriolic potshots, she permits rare glimpses into her inner loneliness. In vino veritas becomes the film’s operating logic, and the profound malaise present in all four characters bubbles to the surface with every sip of alcohol. Yet at the same time, Who’s Afraid drips with acerbic humor, and the film itself, like its couples, oscillates wildly between the poles of comedy and tragedy, mirth and melancholy.

Nichols preserves much of the original script’s verbal and physical provocation. While the amount of profanity that once shocked an older audience might not seem as offensive today, the scenes of physical violence, both threatened and real, still bristle. One of the more interesting questions that Who’s Afraid raises is that its absurdity might also be an allegory: in which George and Martha’s marriage doubles as a parable about the state of America. Consider how they share the first names of the Washingtons, that they reside in a town called New Carthage, and that George reads from Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Albee would later remark that the seemingly jaunty title really was a question about who’s afraid of living without false illusions. In spite of their marital warfare, Who’s Afraid ends with the exhausted and fractious couple coming to terms with their changed reality as the camera moves in on their intertwined hands. In the redemptive morning light of a new day, it is George and Martha who learn, and dare we say, teach us, how to be unafraid. – Alex Foo

Catch-22 

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Mike Nichols’s third feature film, Catch-22 (1970), did not generate the same success as its predecessor, The Graduate (1967), or even its fellow wartime film, Robert Altman’s MASH (1970). However, years later, the film has become a cult favorite. The black comedy, adapted from Joseph Heller’s novel of the same name, parodies army life during World War II from the perspective of John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) and his fellow soldiers. The film’s lengthy establishing shot during the opening credits depicts a striking sunrise over a mountain and lake near the army base, with birds singing in the background—a peaceful morning. Cinematographer David Watkin holds the camera still on this hypnotizing image for approximately 10 seconds after the opening credits conclude. By prolonging this shot, the film creates a stark contrast between this peaceful scene and the sounds of war introduced mere seconds later. The last few seconds of the quiet, peaceful shot are disturbed by the growls of military plane engines. Catch-22’s establishing shot is one of the final times the audience sees an image of tranquility, until the film’s final shot in which Yossarian uses a raft to escape the army and paddle to Sweden. This final shot—an extreme long shot of water and mountains—echoes the film’s peaceful opening scene, a sharp commentary on the hardships of war: the only calmness a soldier can feel is when he leaves the army.A bulk of Catch-22 concerns itself with the characters’ PTSD from the war, including Yossarian’s paranoia. Characters are repeatedly depicted acting outrageously: Aardvark (Charles Grodin) murders a woman he rapes to keep her quiet, and Captain McWatt (Peter Bonerz) crashes into and kills Hungry Joe (Seth Allen) with his plane before committing suicide. Yossarian also struggles to find ways to cope; he repeatedly suffers mental breakdowns and feels discouraged when he learns that even such breakdowns are not sufficient cause for release from the army. The soldiers’ desperation regarding the horrors of war is constantly contrasted with their masculinity. Serving in the army is possible way for men to assert their masculinity, but by putting his characters in a vulnerable position, Nichols challenges the lengths a man will go to prove himself. When Yossarian is injured during a mission early in the film, he daydreams about swimming towards a nude woman. She throws her robe to him, but even as he grabs it he drowns, perhaps alluding to war’s repression of masculinity. Although Catch-22 did not experience the same level of success as other similar films in the ‘70s, Nichols’s wartime black comedy has achieved a more favorable reassessment in modern times. The 48 years that have passed since Catch-22’s release have allowed audiences to remove themselves from the wartime mentality and to enjoy Mike Nichols’s comedic take on macho military men. – Julia Rothkoff

Working Girl

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Working Girl opens with a shot of one of the most recognizable feminine symbols of hope and change, The Statue of Liberty, as it overlooks the busy city of New York. As a recurring image throughout the film, it does a subtle yet successful job of hinting to the viewer exactly what this film is about: A smart, ambitious woman who wants to show she is equal to others in every way in order to prove she belongs in the city as a successful, working businesswoman.

The film follows Melanie Griffith’s character, a thirty-year-old woman named Tess McGill, as she climbs her way up the hierarchical ladder from a secretary position to a top associate spot on Wall Street. But Tess takes a non-traditional route to reach her dream: When she finds out her boss Katherine Parker (played by Sigourney Weaver) is planning to steal her idea for a business deal, Tess decides to take control of her life by assuming Katherine’s mantle at work to further her own agenda while her boss remains absent due to a ski injury.

The permed and teased-to-perfection hairdos, shoulder pads, and colorful eyeshadow make it obvious that Working Girl was released in 1988. Despite its dated iconography, its story remains relevant to today’s audience, especially in light of the recent #Me-Too Movement. Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Kevin Wade capture the sexist, demeaning, and discriminatory challenges women typically face when entering a male-dominated world that, unfortunately, has improved little since the 1980’s. Though hailed an iconic feminist film, Working Girl is helmed by men. The main antagonist is a woman, and while most critics praise Nichols’s insight into the strong female characters who often inhabit his work, I imagine that his depiction of diabolical female power dynamics in the workplace has a powerfully negative effect on the audience, as well. Nichols pits women against women, as demonstrated through Katherine and Tess’s fight for the attention and admiration of a dashing Harrison Ford as Jack Trainer who is Tess’s love interest and ticket to striking a business deal but also her boss’s beau. Nichols makes Katherine malicious, giving us no positive reference to other already successful women in the business. On top of that, Tess is determined to expose and supplant Katherine in order to make room for herself at the table, instead of claiming one of the many spots occupied by men. It is easy to dismiss these themes as “givens” in favor of the empowering message of change that marks Tess’s journey from working, middle-class girl to modern, professional woman with an office view and an executive assistant. Working Girl succeeds in many ways as an enduring anthem of female empowerment, but, in viewing it through today’s lens, it would have benefitted from an enlightened female creative perspective that more deeply considered, at the very least, the implications of a female antagonist and the female stereotypes that it left intact.

One of the more classic rom-com storylines this film does conform to is the romantic relationship that Tess develops with Jack, though Nichols imagines a different dynamic. When they meet, Jack first recognizes her intellect and treats her as his equal. They both resist any romantic impulses as professionals working together, but when, Tess is kicked out of the deal for being dishonest about her identity, Jack’s loyalty and support for her is put to the test. As the 1980’s dictated, it’s Jack’s validation of her that saves the day. He tells Katherine and the other stakeholders that he will not continue the deal without Tess because she is the only one who will get the deal done right. Oren Trask (the decider) asks Jack why, and he responds by saying, “she said so and I believe her.” But here, Nichols puts a spin on the man coming to the rescue. Jack, in this case, believes in Tess as he has all along and stands by his principles, even if that means blowing up the deal. In today’s society, this resonates a powerful statement as women are punished, rather than rewarded, when they come forward with their stories of sexual assault. Jack’s decision to stand up for what is right and support a woman stripped of her power, can be thought of as an antidote to—or even model behavior for—the society looking back on this film today.

By the end of the film, Tess accomplishes her dream of being a top associate on Wall Street. She, too, has the opportunity to model behavior, now that she is in a position of power. When her secretary asks her what is expected of her, Tess treats her the way she would have liked to have been treated by her bosses—as an equal.

In its closing sequence, Tess kicks her feet up on her new desk and takes in the view, as she calls her best girlfriend Cyn to tell her all about it. When Cyn announces the news to her all-female secretary office, they erupt into cheer. Working Girl is a film that empowers women to pursue their dreams, and validates men in their support of women as their equals. Thirty years on, Nichols’ film remains an entertaining screwball comedy that disrupts social normalities and provokes conversation about gender relations in our society. – Lux Frisina