US Release Date: 06-22-1966
Directed by: Mike Nichols
- Elizabeth Taylor, as
- Richard Burton, as
- George Segal, as
- Sandy Dennis as
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."
George Segal, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Yes, George and Martha are a very sad and pathetic couple. Martha barks at George and insults him constantly, while he enjoys mind games and making her just as miserable. Nick and Honey are mere pawns in their very personal psychological charades. Martha and George don't explain the rules or take prisoners. It is up to Honey and Nick, as well as the audience, to catch on and keep up.
During this one night, these four very flawed character's personal issues are revealed, discussed and, most importantly, exploited. The secrets come out through screams, devilish smirks and tears. By morning, it seems that the outbursts and reveals have all been a therapeutic experience for George and mostly Martha. However, one also gets the sense that similar evenings have occurred many times in their past and there is little to demonstrate that such nights will not happen again.
The performances are all grotesquely in your face. Mike Nichols uses some close ups that help us to see Martha's emotional rage and the twisted inner workings of George's mind. Elizabeth Taylor certainly deserved her Oscar as she struts around like a drunken trailer park queen, dishing out commands and expecting everything to go her way. One minute she is smiling and giggling then right before our eyes she turns into a cornered wild animal spitting venom with every intention of mortally wounding her attacker. It is a very juicy role that almost becomes a bit too much by the end when the twist shows up. Still, Nichols filmed it with long takes requiring all of the cast to remember lots of dialogue at a time. It really helps with the flow of the film.
Richard Burton as George, is a man who at first seems like little more than the put upon husband. He acts whipped and knows almost immediately that his wife intends to have sex with Nick. As the movie goes on we see that he is as sadistic as his wife or maybe even more so as he likes to refer to his psychological ambushes as "games," which he plays with everyone on screen. He learns their secrets and then sits them all down to reveal them, just to watch them squirm. You could say he is getting back at them but I found him to be quite evil. Martha does what she does out of a need to fill an emotional void while her efforts to do so enrage and inspire George to become manipulative and vindictive.
There lies my problem with this story. So many sores and wounds are opened during this night that you would think that the only thing left to happen is that they begin to heal. After all, has psychology not been telling us for years that the first step is to verbalize and admit the problem. However, I do not think it will happen with this couple, not completely. The only thing they seem to have, besides lots of alcohol, is their anger. If there is any story arc it is that we at first, and through much of the film, see a couple that should have long since divorced, or killed each other. However, in the second act we start to see, as Patrick mentioned, that they do, in fact, share an affection, as well as a deep seeded and very twisted need, for each other.
As for the dialogue, a couple of my favorites are when Martha yells at George, who just called her a monster, "I'm loud and I'm vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house because somebody's got to, but I am not a monster." George dishes out as well, "Martha, in my mind you're buried in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose, it's much quieter.' The best line in the movie though, is when Elizabeth Taylor says, "
A drowning man takes down those nearest."
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a well acted and engaging drama, even though it sometimes becomes a bit too hysterical and Nick and Honey should have left long before they do. As a last note, the real Virginia Woolf suffered from mental illness that by today's standards would be described as a bipolar disorder, which certainly fits Martha's condition.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
This is one of those rare movies where the entire credited cast were nominated for Oscars. In total, the film was nominated for 13 Oscars, that's one for every category for which it was eligible. It was, as Patrick said, groundbreaking in its use of language and is known as one of the films that put the final nails in the Production Code's coffin. It earned rave reviews and money at the box office, helped by the stunt casting of the world's most famous couple in the lead roles. For those and other reasons, it's an interesting film, but as entertainment it's definitely lacking and time spent with these vile people, is time wasted.
Eric hit upon the weakest point of the script, which is that in reality Nick and Honey would have left long before they actually do. Why anyone would spend more than 10 minutes with George and Martha (especially a drunken George and Martha) is a mystery the script never reveals. There are several logical places in the script with an opening for them to leave, but for never adequately explained reasons, they stay anyway. And to be honest, I was rooting for them to leave at every one of the opportunities because the sooner they left, the sooner the movie would be over.
My biggest question, and one that has stayed with me after the film, is what is the point of it all? Albee has written characters that do eventually become fully developed and ones that we understand. These same characters are brought to life by some damn fine performances and the acting nominations were well deserved. But so what? These are unlikable characters (except perhaps for Honey) saying and doing horrible things to each other. Where's the entertainment value in that? Not that entertainment has to be the only result of a movie (although it damn well better be part of it). Smartly written movies can also show us psychological truths about ourselves or humanity in general, or they can make you think. No such truths are revealed here, nor did I think much beyond how much I disliked these people. As Eric so rightly pointed out, there are no lessons learned. This is a obviously a repeating cycle of behavior that will continue and get worse into the future.
I was reminded a little bit of The Lion in Winter, because that is another play turned into a movie that features an older couple picnicking on each other. However, that's a movie I've always loved. Seeing Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn trade barbs as King Henry and Eleanor is witty, incisive entertainment. Maybe it's the regal setting that raises it above the squalor of this film, but whatever the case, that's a movie I've seen multiple times and will gladly watch again, while I'm 100% positive I will never watch this one again.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1966)