Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Release Date: June 22nd, 1966 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Mike Nichols Actors: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis
ith a full moon out and a certain haziness cascading around a dimly lit estate of magnificent proportions, brimming with gothic architecture, one might think the opening moments were a setup for a werewolf flick. But “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” isn’t a horror movie – at least, not in the traditional sense. There is, however, something quite horrifying – and entertaining – about the deceptively simple premise that brings together four people for a night of aggressive, angry, conversational discomfiture and anticipation.
At 2:00 AM, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband George (Richard Burton), an associate professor of history, saunter home from a party, somewhat drunkenly, and begin arguing about a phrase (“What a dump!”) and the Bettie Davis movie from which the line is uttered. She munches on a cold chicken leg, while he starts working on a crossword puzzle. This quarrel spills over into another verbal clash about their socialization routines, and then another concerning a young couple who are about to arrive, despite the incredibly early hour of the morning. The guests are a young biology department teacher, Nick (George Segal), and his slim, mousy wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), who have recently moved to town so that Nick can work at the university where George teaches – and for which Martha’s stern father serves as President.
From the first second the younger couple walk in the door, the mood is uncomfortable and hostile. Martha is loud and continues to drink unreservedly, while George stays sour and disapproving. Nick tries to make small talk while Honey attempts to excuse herself to the restroom. But the hosts’ caterwauling and fighting unavoidably drags the newcomers into the unpleasantries, making the conversation more caustic by the minute.
While the talk encompasses all manner of topics, from professions to children to sports to ages and weights to drinks, it’s all very antagonistic, tongue-twistingly riddle-oriented or double-edged, and fast-paced. The sarcasm is ever present and mean-spirited. But it’s also quite funny, particularly as George seemingly ensnares his prey in a match of wits and affronts, while Martha borders on indecency with her insinuations and sexual commentary. What begins as something nearly obnoxious descends into delirious hysterics; the continual, circular prattling becomes scary and then riotous, revealing, quite explosively, the overwhelming unhappiness between the leading couple – previously kept just below the surface. At one point, when George unearths a gag gun, it’s evident that he could shoot his wife for real – perhaps as easily as she can sling unveiled contempt.
“You make me puke!” The bickering and nagging is ceaseless, alternating at brief times into playful teasing, but primarily remaining bitter and critical. Based on Edward Albee’s play (with a script by Ernest Lehman), this filmic adaptation can’t conceal its stage origins, what with its limited sets and characters and its uneven distribution of actions to wordiness (despite an odd camera angle here and there). But the sequences are smartly orchestrated and superbly acted (aided by Alex North’s understated, romantic score). It’s a rambunctious, wholly singular four-person show (for which all of them received Academy Award attention). Idle gossip transforms into dark secrets – pried forth by a needling interrogation of sorts (with plenty of liquor) – with a quiet spot or two arising for further meditation on discontent or remorse or depressive digressions, as toxic relationships deteriorate spectacularly. It’s nasty, cruel, judgmental, and contagiously, psychologically destructive (and it carries on a bit too long) – but it’s also brilliantly, intelligently devious and twisty. “You’re looking for a punch in the mouth!”
– Mike Massie