"They dance like they've danced before" -Honey
Martha and George silently survey the landscape of their disheveled living room and Martha declares, "What a dump." This single sentence begins the onslaught of the next two hours of screen time. It will not be this quiet again until two minutes before the curtain folds.
Nichols 1966 film is shot in black-and-white, a deliberate choice to utilize lightening as a means of distinguishing the opposing personalities of the film's four trapped characters. George (played by Richard Burton), Martha (exquisitely played by Elizabeth Taylor), Honey (Sandy Dennis), and Nick (George Segal) become lightening bugs trapped in a jar, bouncing off the walls, desperate to get out of the darkness and into the light. These two hours of unrelenting celluloid capture two deteriorating marriages brought to their knees by deception, jealousy, and hatred. Love has long left these four and they must each find a way to make the others weak so that they can stand a victor. Nichols traps both the old and the young under one roof and makes us watch until the the participants are beaten, bloodied and on the ground.
Nichols took extreme care with the blocking of his actors in this film. Each time a character stands, sits, or moves around the enclosed space of the house, the bar, the car, and even the front lawn; they are instantly imbued with a sense of power or impotence. George consistently towers over Martha's head, both in stance and through the camera angle. Most of the shots of George are from a low angle, giving him a perceived power over his wife. Martha in contrast with George gains her power when the camera goes wide and lets her move about the space. When she is in opposition of George, Nichols chooses to show her from a high angle, a position of submission, even if only physical. George and Martha only move with purpose, they move like boxers in the ring, each ready to throw out the next fatal punch.
Their are four locations in the film; the house and its grounds, the car, the roadside bar, and the party from the opening shot. Each location serves as a metaphorical cage for the characters that inhabit it. The confided quarters create a sense of mistrust that breeds paranoia. The increasing interest in getting drunk helps to fuel the linguistic battle. The camera moves in, out, and through these locations with the ease of someone looking on but unwilling to participate. The camera in this film feels more like an voyeur onscreen, and at times, the audience wants to turn away but the relentless stare of the camera denies us this simple pleasure.
The film also expertly uses sound to create an unrelenting cacophony of noise; screeching, yelling, growling, and screaming. The characters, as well as the audience, feel claustrophobic from the volume and consistency of the noises. Tone and inflection of the actors creates an immediate sense of intimacy with the audience. Over the course of the film, this forced intimacy creates an alienating effect on the viewer. When the final moment of the fim ends, and the camera blurs the image in front of the frame; we are glad to leave George and Martha clutching each other, we have finally found a way out.
Nichols' film expertly navigates the disillusionment and deterioration of a single portrait of a marriage. He examines the confines of social distrust and hierarchic structures that society has dictated to George and Martha and has slowly begun to work its way into Nick and Honey's lives as well. Through the quippy and sharp dialogue read by all the actors, Nichols was able to create a film that sought to define truth and illusion and argue that in the end truth is nothing more than a illusion.
Nichols debut film won five oscars at the 1966 Academy Awards for Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor), Best Supporting Actress (Sandy Dennis) , Best B/W Cinematography (Haskell Wexler), Best B/W Art/Set Direction (Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins) and Best B/W Costume Design (Irene Schaff) . The love and admiration shown by the academy and audiences effectively put an end to the Production Code. This film broke down the final barriers of language and themes that were beginning to overturn the code in the early 60s. It is still seen as a landmark achievement that cemented Nichols into a rare cinematic circle of auteurs, where he still stands today.
Nick, beautifully contrasted in the world of black and white
A beautiful rendering of the claustrophobic use of space
Opening title credits
Martha and her many forms of illusion
Nichols directs husband and wife in the kitchen
George pretends to execute Martha
Another glorious angle as Nichols directs
A rare wide shot to establish space and characters
A perfect view of Burton towering over Taylor's space