It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to label Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a disaster film. The destruction hurricane Martha leaves in her wake is devastating, the unpredictable eruptions of volcano George are almost deadly. Those in their paths are doomed of a sort. Sure, Nick and Honey will go home after their cocktail party from hell, but the damage has been done.
In bringing the ravages of this marriage to the screen, director Mike Nichols uses the camera to create a sense of intimacy so oppressive it’s almost painful. We’re so close to George and Martha that we can’t look away if wanted to do [and boy do we want to]—Nichols won’t let us. No scene illustrates this more brilliantly than when Martha tells Nick and Honey the story of her boxing match with George.
The scene begins with a seemingly innocuous request: Martha asks George to light her cigarette. But Nichols stages the scene with George towering over her as she’s seated on the couch, a sign of the ensuing power play at hand, and Burton and Taylor’s performances are rife with passive aggressive bitterness. The drama hasn’t even erupted yet and the audience is already on edge.
Sure enough, George's seemingly amenable attitude falls away when he refuses Martha's request. He'll carry her gin bottles out "so the neighbors won't see" but he will not perform such an intimate act as lighting her cigarette, finishing with, "And that, as they say, is that."
George then victoriously removes himself to his desk in the back of the room and thus the back of the scene. But the battle is far from over.
The camera cuts to Martha's exasperated face on the couch in a comfortable mid-shot allowing the audience to take a breath. But as quickly as it comes, the image is interrupted by one of the most brilliant bits of editing in the entire film.
Nichols cuts to an extreme close-up of the cigarette lighter, and a fast pan follows it as Nick lifts it to Martha’s lips. The cut comes so quickly and it’s so startling, it’s almost hard to tell what we’re looking at until Martha takes a drag, framed in a tight close-up.
Her face fills the screen and we can see the wheels turning behind her eyes. She drinks Nick in with her gaze and turns the conversation to "body talk," the uncomfortable nature of the framing mirroring the uncomfortable nature of the discussion.
Sensing a change in dynamics, Nick's wife Honey dives back into the conversation, but it's clearly too late for her to come between Nick and Martha. Nichols underscores this by crafting a complicated shot of all three of them. Using a combination of close-up and extreme close-up in a single shot, he illustrates the complexity of the triangle that's forming.
Nick’s face dominates the center of the screen with Honey, shot from the chest up, looking on in increasing amounts of concern behind him. Martha, however, dominates the foreground—her presence now too strong to be ignored.
The angle is unattractive and uncomfortable as all three actors are crammed into the shot. Martha is so close to us that it's almost a wonder that she doesn't fall right out of the screen and onto the floor in front of us. We’re too close to the drama unfolding, but it's physically impossible to look away. Nichols's framing has ensured that there's nowhere else to look.
Out of this awkward configuration, Martha switches from sexuality to cruelty and launches into a story about a boxing match she had with George early on in their marriage.
Immediately, the script's word choice sends alarm bells ringing for the audience as “boxing match” plus “married couple” sounds like an obvious recipe for domestic violence. Paired with the bizarre and uncomfortable framing, we’re once again subconsciously put on edge. It’s a feeling that’s only exacerbated once George realizes what story Martha’s about to tell—not one of violence, but of humiliation.
Domineering Martha is finally retaliating against her husband's earlier jibes. She recalls how her father was trying to encourage George to box and he refused. Martha then put on the gloves herself and socks George so hard, he lands flat on his back—a fact that leaves her [and her rapt audience of two] screaming with laughter.
But for almost the full duration of the story, Nichols keeps the camera trained solely on George, who removes himself from the room before she can even begin. Martha might be telling the story, but Nichols’s camerawork says that George's reaction is the only thing that matters.
We follow him in a medium close-up as he walks through the house. Meanwhile, the score slowly, almost imperceptibly, begins to crescendo, building the tension. The change is so subtle, in fact, that by the time you can hear the music clearly, you're not even sure when it began. In this way it's a perfect reflection of the tension in George and Martha's marriage as you're never quite sure when the hostility between them started.
When George finally reaches the hall closet, a bare bulb overhead casts an eerie light, the music begins to peak, and the diegetic sound shifts. Suddenly Martha's voice has a strange timbre, as if George is hearing her from a dream or a memory instead of another room. Altogether, it heightens the sense of unease Nichols has been building, which only grows as we see what George is reaching for: a shotgun.
Just as we get a glimpse of the weapon, Nichols suddenly cuts back to Martha in the climax of her story as she shouts, “POW!” She’s describing the punch she threw, but now her word choice suddenly takes on a more sinister meaning.
When the camera cuts back to George, he’s heading straight for Martha, looking like he’s stalking his prey. We even get a shot from his POV as he points the barrel of the gun straight at his wife's head.
Honey is the first to notice and that's when the scene finally reaches its terrible peak. A quick zoom brings us to a close-up as she screams in horror; another close-up of Nick mimics hers as he shouts in alarm. Only after this do we see Martha, where a fast zoom brings us to an extreme closeup of her eyes, mouth agape, but utterly silent. She looks almost as if she's been expecting this.
Finally George pulls the trigger and an umbrella pops out, breaking the tension with an explosion of absurdity. But the damage of the story and the act have been done. Nichols pulled us in too close to the characters, we can't unsee the anger and frustration on George's face or the desire and acceptance on Martha's, the trepidation on Honey's. The gun might have been a joke, but there's still a war on and it's clear that Nick and Honey stand caught in the crosshairs for no other reason than lying in the way of two titans. The night is young and it’s time for round three.