The 1966 film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is an uncomfortable film to watch. At least it is for me, someone who enjoys going to bed at a reasonable time, and who does not enjoy shouting, verbal cruelty, and drinking to the point of vomiting. All of these things happen, frequently, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I think it’s good to be uncomfortable sometimes, however, and for me the film is an exercise in reveling in discomfort.
It is one of only two films to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy awards [it won 5 of those 13 awards]. It was a box office success, with a budget of $7,500,000 and earning $40,000,000 worldwide. It is frequently cited as an important film in American cinema, and has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. It was released the year before Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate [directed by Virginia Woolf's Mike Nichols], films which signaled that something new was happening in Hollywood, after the studio systems had been dismantled and television had taken precedence in the 1950s. In the ‘60s, a frustration with authority, epitomized by hippie culture, was taking over, and the films that became popular reflected a significant relaxing of values. The acceptance of Virginia Woolf as a film worthy of serious consideration, despite its prolific cursing and overt references to sex, is an important example of that change.
The film centers on only 4 characters. Martha [Elizabeth Taylor] and George [Taylor’s real-life on-again-off-again husband, Richard Burton], are a middle aged couple. He teaches history at a New England university and she is the daughter of the university president. They are visited by new, young, biology professor Nick [George Segal] and his wife, Honey [Sandy Dennis]. I first became uncomfortable when watching this movie right at the beginning, when Martha announces to George that Nick and Honey will be visiting at 2:00 AM, after they’ve come home from a faculty party at her father’s house. They are already drunk and tired, and they are going to have guests. I have a policy to never make plans past 8 PM; I can’t imagine how I’d react if my spouse told me we were having guests in the wee hours of the morning.
For the next two hours, George and Martha viciously argue with and insult each other, and get their young guests drunk enough that they eventually join in [to a milder degree]. Secrets are revealed, gender expectations are subverted, a table is flipped, a car is crashed, and adultery is committed [sort of]. It is the kind of movie where I breathe out a sigh of relieve when the credits roll, but I also immediately want to watch it again. There is a lot to dissect here, and once you know that [spoiler alert!] no one dies from alcohol poisoning, subsequent viewings are much easier.
The film deals in view expectations, as well. At the beginning, and for most of the movie, the viewer is under the impression that George and Martha’s marriage is fully antagonistic. Martha says, “If you existed, I’d divorce you” [which gets my vote for one of the best lines, in a film rife with impressive barbs---my other favorite line is, “I’d like another lil’ nipper of brandy, please!”]. But by the end of the movie it’s apparent that Martha and George are making their fucked up marriage work, possibly better than couples who don’t barbarically insult one another on a regular basis. Nick and Honey, on the other hand, who seem at first to be solidly in love, are shown to not really know or respect each other at all.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not a fun movie, it’s not a comforting movie, it’s not a movie that leaves you with a warm fuzzy when you’re finished watching it. But it’s mesmerizing. I hang on every word and every movement of each actor. It’s uncomfortable because it’s talented actors portraying a very uncomfortable situation. It’s illuminating and surprising, with fast-paced, whip-smart dialogue. It’s about people who seem perfect made real; beautiful people made stark and, often, ugly. It’s an important exercise in being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Here’s what we’ll be discussing this week:
- An artist profile of Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor
- A re-imagining of the 39th Academy Awards
- Related Review on another Elizabeth Taylor stage-to-screen epic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
- Deconstruction of one of the film’s most pivotal scenes
- And more!