Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
More than any other movie Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? stands at the crossroads between old and new Hollywood. The 1960's was the greatest decade of change for the movie industry since the 1920's. Whereas the advent of sound heralded that first revolution, this time around it was a cinematic reflection of the sexual revolution and changing attitudes in general. The characters in Virginia Woolf talk like real adults. They argue, get pissy drunk and sleep around. Never before had the words "Goddamn, Bastard and Son-of-a-Bitch" been uttered in a major Hollywood movie. And one of the biggest stars in the world, Liz Taylor, delivers them - or rather shrieks, slurs, purrs and howls them. She picked up her second Best Actress Oscar for her efforts.
The screen version of Edward Albee's hit play is a complex psychological drama about a drunken evening spent together by two married couples. George and Martha are middle-aged. She is the daughter of the president of the college where George works in the history department. Their guests are Nick and Honey, a younger couple that have just joined the faculty of the school.
As the evening progresses and the drinks are swilled, George and Martha play a vicious game of words that soon entangles their reluctant guests. The action is sparse and the black and white cinematography adds to the subdued tone. This one's all about the dialogue and the dynamics of the characters. It ends with a psychological twist.
All four leads give career defining performances. Elizabeth Taylor is overweight and made up to look older than her actual age. She is coarse, sadistic and emotionally fucked-up. Richard Burton is shabby and pathetic but with a steely core. Even with all the yelling, taunting and mockery that passes between them you realize how much they desperately need each other. This is by far their best work together. George Segal and Sandy Dennis easily hold their own. He provides the sexual tension while she gets most of the laughs.
This is not a happy movie but it is a landmark and it has some great quotable lines. Here are my favorites...
Martha: (imitating Bette Davis) "WHAT - A - DUMP."
Martha: "You're all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops."
Honey: (in a sing-song voice while she twirls around) "I dance like the wind."
George: (after Martha has changed into skin-tight jeans and a revealing top) "Why Martha! Your Sunday chapel dress!"
And the line that pretty much sums up their relationship and the movie. "George and Martha, sad, sad, sad."
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1966)