Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon is an event focusing on cities and towns in movies, presented by Hometowns to Hollywood. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Who’s Aftaid of Virginia Woolf?

In the summer of 1995, I worked as a counselor at a sleepaway camp in Massachusetts. To someone whose childhood summers were spent at day camps, this was a new experience. 

While I relished the opportunity, I probably would’ve suffered cabin fever without the occasional break from hikes in the forest, swimming and canoeing in the river, and daily recreation on the camp grounds. This was for the kids more than the adults, after all. 

Fortunately, there was a town to which I could retreat on my days off: a tiny college community called Northampton.

The college that supported the town and helped shape its identity was Smith, a liberal-arts women’s school located on the cusp of the downtown area. In 1966, theater director Mike Nichols, in his Hollywood debut, helmed the adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a Tony-award winning play by Edward Albee set in an unspecified New England college town. In Nichols’ version, Northampton stood in as the town and Smith as the school; exteriors were filmed around campus. Later, Nichols would say he could’ve used a sound stage for those shots without any great difference.

Smith, established in 1871, is one of the “Seven Sisters,” a group of northeastern women-only schools. Two, Radcliffe and Vassar, are now co-ed, but the rest—Smith, Barnard, Bryn Maur, Mount Holyoke and Wellesley—remain women-only.

I attended a music seminar hosted by Smith in 2018 and familiarized myself with the campus for the first time. It’s the picture of a New England school: staid brick buildings are spread proudly across green and inviting grounds designed as a botanical garden and arboretum by world-famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

In Woolf, Richard Burton plays a professor at Smith and Elizabeth Taylor is the daughter of the school’s president. They’re a bickering married couple, and over the course of a single night, all the resentment and pent-up rage festering between them for years gets unleashed at the expense of younger couple George Segal and Sandy Dennis, acquaintances they met at a party.

Both play and film were supercharged with unprecedented levels of language considered profane and sexually frank at the time, and even today, Woolf has lost little of its coarse edge. It was a key film in the eventual dismantling of Hollywood’s long-running production code, which limited what could and couldn’t be said and done in an American movie. It went on to win five Oscars.

Northampton may have been the first time I got a feel for life in a college town (I stayed home for college and didn’t live on a campus). Woolf doesn’t display the town outside of a sequence in a roadhouse, which is clearly a set, and it would’ve looked very different in 1966 anyway, but my experience of Northampton was of a small, but hip and happening place with record stores, bookshops, cafes with live music that stayed open late and diverse eateries.

On my days off from summer camp, a bunch of us would load up the van and travel east on Route 9 from the Berkshire mountains to Northampton’s Main Street and spend the day eating or shopping or both. I was enamored with a gift shop that sold silly little trinkets and a record store with bootleg material and rare imports. At the time, there was also a museum of comic book art.

While researching for this post, I was pleasantly surprised to discover there are more movies set and/or filmed in Northampton than I thought. After Woolf, Nichols returned there five years later for Carnal Knowledge. Recent Oscar winner The Cider House Rules is set in Maine but was partly filmed in Northampton. There’s also the Mel Gibson crime film Edge of Darkness, the Alec Baldwin-Nicole Kidman thriller Malice, and In Dreams, a fantasy directed by Neil Jordan, among others. Woolf is by far the best known.

Could I live in a place like Northampton? Maybe... artistically speaking, it’s lively and diverse, and pre-pandemic, it even had a nightlife, but it’s a bit too small for someone used to a major metropolis like New York. I would need a bicycle to get around, which is what I did when I lived in Ohio, but I’m not certain how good the infrastructure for biking is in Northampton, not to mention the surrounding area. If you know me, you know I consider such things important. I could definitely spend a summer there, at least.

As for the camp, I enjoyed it so much I came back the following summer. I still miss it.

4 comments:

  1. Your personal touch makes this a compelling visit on this cinematic road trip.

    Olmsted was quite an influence on the sense we have of a place.

    There is a very claustrophobic feel to Albee's play, but the added layer of the where it stands geographically and what the impact of that may be on the characters is very interesting.

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  2. I don’t know if this story could’ve taken place somewhere other than New England. I never thought of location while watching it, but since suppose Albee had his reasons.

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  3. I've seen Malice as well as Woolf, without realizing it was the same set! But it makes sense. The campus is almost a character in both films. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Maybe I’ll look at it sometime. In WOOLF you don’t see much of the campus though.

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