This vintage edition of TRAILER MIX looks back at a film preview from days gone by, and measures its virtues in terms of nostalgia, contemporary comparison, and innate artistry. Vintage entries will appear periodically throughout the run of the column.
The only thing uttered by the characters in the trailer for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) is the film's title, a wicked pun repeated and chanted by members of the story's unraveling quartet, originally created for the stage by Edward Albee. “It's easy to talk about it,” the trailer's ever-earnest narrator says of the movie. “It's hard to tell about it.” He then adds that discussion of the film's worth can be summed up by simply mentioning the talent involved, name-dropping Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and director Mike Nichols with great reverence. As it should be, the trailer is a reflection of the movie itself – a stark snapshot with a tight-lipped veneer that hints at the degradation of decorum. There's no mistaking that something's terribly wrong here, but the preview's refusal to divulge details beyond synopsis basics calls to mind the thin masks George (Burton) and Martha (Taylor) wear in their daily lives.
The first nod to the movie's simmering stew of ugliness comes when Martha finishes her title recitation with a booze-induced choke. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nothing's fully pure, not even the jovial repetition of a pun. The eerie insistence of laughter continues in the trailer, as the narrator tells us that history professor George and wife Martha are “the essence of Ivy League charm to students and friends . . . who don't know them.” In between cackles, the most foreboding of which come from gravelly-voiced Burton, film stills are flashed across the screen, the slideshow looking more and more like a string of crime scene photos (after all, the movie's events could certainly warrant a border of “caution” tape).
“George Segal and Sandy Dennis are the newcomers,” the narrator says, “led by their charming host and hostess to the hell that hides behind those ivy-clad university walls.” The word “hell” is emphasized and followed by a delirious descent. Cigarette in hand, Martha continues to laugh devilishly, then Nick (Segal) gets a turn, then Honey (Dennis) pricelessly lets her giggle transform into a shrill scream of horror. Chilling images of George and Martha in the midst of a struggle are soon topped by a perfect cut to a spinning camera – a sick, twirling dance between Honey and George that hears the two of them chant the title yet again.
It's ironic that a trailer for a work that's so well-written is devoid of any remarkable dialogue. And yet, it's both gracious and appropriate that nearly none of the film's transgressive goodies are revealed. The narration sounds both hasty and deliberate, but were this a modern film, you'd likely know half the plot by the time the clip wrapped, weakening the desire to actually bother seeing the movie. The end of the trailer remains ironic, almost unwittingly so. In order to sell the film, screenwriter Ernest Lehman's work on West Side Story and The Sound of Music is mentioned, as if that could properly prepare anyone for what they'd be getting from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And the word “Incredible,” tacked on as “the only thing left to say,” reads as an off-key, comically unsure way to close. Not that many people would argue with the sentiment.
R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.