Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Great plays get made into movies, and successful stage directors go on to direct films. That's how it is.

The latest manifestations of the above axiom are Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Mike Nichols. And while the product should be seen as long as it exists, one can't avoid wishing that both director and property had never gone to Hollywood.

As most-touted-new-director of the age, Nichols repeatedly demonstrates that this is his first picture. Even his genius for fast-paced stage comedy (Luv, The Odd Couple, and Barefoot in the Park) can't be found in Virginia Woolf; possibly it got lost in poor attempts at fancy camerawork and cutting.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman's adaptation is fine when it sticks to the original. His attempts to "successfully open up the play for the more flexible screen," as Warner Bros. proudly states, are inappropriate: Lehman's own dialogue sticks out a mile, and the exterior and roadhouse scenes are painfully self-conscious.

As Martha, the character who climaxes a series of vicious Edward Albee heroines, Elizabeth Taylor can't quite hold her own. At times she hits just the right note --physically she has made herself ideal for the part--but her portrayal lacks modulation: she is too loud throughout.

While in the play Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen had a relatively equal impact on the audience, Burton as Martha's husband George takes over completely. The only possible complaint about his performance is that it makes the others look excessively pedestrian by contrast.

George Segal as Nick seems much too wide-eyed and innocent at the outset. He provides little in the way of transition to the sharper Nick that should emerge later. Still, Segal is at least adequate. Sandy Dennis as Honey overplays shamelessly, and only the relative unimportance of her role in the movie makes it possible to ignore her most of the time.

In one sense all this is quibbling. For those who haven't seen or read the play, the movie affords a first look at a brilliant and, yes, revolutionary work. The dialogue and subject matter constitute a complete abortion of the Hollywood production code. And since Warner Bros. succeeded in getting a seal of approval despite obvious violations, Virginia Woolf may indicate another change in Hollywood's moral climate.

Otherwise, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? falls into familiar Hollywood traps. It comes across as a multi-collaboration lacking a strong central influence. The stage production was funnier, better-acted, and generally more important.

Luckily, what a lot of people don't know won't hurt them.