Today we reminisce about
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis
I have often mentioned in my AFI 100 write-ups the fact that I don’t quite understand how some of the films ended up being chosen for inclusion. Whether or not I personally like a movie has usually not been the biggest deciding factor me — until now.
Rarely have I endured a more damning and unbearable movie as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I went into viewing this film not knowing what to expect and having had only watched a few clips that, at the time, I found tolerable. Since this is hardly the first time I have watched a movie without knowing the synopsis beforehand, I was not the least bit concerned this time around. There was really no way I could have prepared myself for this film because it is quite unlike anything I have seen before. The most disappointing aspect of this film was that it lacked a real plot and, moreover, a purpose. The most surprising is the accolades it was given for a film featuring mentally unstable, verbally and domestically violent alcoholics. Watching a film such as this one, profoundly hating it, and then finding out that it is considered one of American cinema’s crowning jewels is beyond belief. It also makes you question your capacities as a film lover and amateur critic. The real problem lies, however, not with me or anyone else who dislikes it but with the film itself and those who consider this train wreck to be a work of art. Before I go any further with my fuelled and volatile emotions, let’s learn exactly Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
It is two o’clock in the morning and a middle-age couple is just leaving a party. They walk home together through what looks like a university campus and soon arrive at their home. Upon entering, Martha (Taylor) exclaims in a disgusted fashion, “What a dump!” She then proceeds to heckle her husband, George (Burton), as she searches through the refrigerator for a snack. Martha tells George that guests will be shortly arriving and that they need to tidy up, to which he is none too pleased to hear. As the daughter of the University President, Martha says that she had no choice but to accept inviting them because she had to please her ‘daddy’. Before they get there, Martha and George start drinking and verbally insulting one another. This continues on even after the young couple, Nick (Segal) and Honey (Dennis) arrive, which seems to make them very uncomfortable. As Martha is drunker than George, she is making a terrible fool of herself and saying greatly humiliating things about her husband. The two wives eventually head upstairs to powder their noses and the two men get to know each other. George is a history professor and Nick is in the Biology Department. The drinks start flowing and soon George is getting very drunk, just in time for the women to come back downstairs and for him and Martha to start fighting again. This goes on and on until George dances wildly with Honey, making her very ill. He then retreats outside, followed by Nick, while Martha helps Honey. George starts talking about a young man who murdered his parents and Nick starts talking about the private details of his and Honey’s marriage. Though initially seeming like a twisted moment of bonding between the men, Nick is uneasy and seeks to leave. After making sure Honey is fine, George agrees to drive them home. On the way, they pass an after-hours dance joint and both Martha and Honey wish to go there, against George’s wishes. While there, Martha and Nick dance provocatively together and, once more, a screaming match ensues between Martha and George. Nick and Honey again decide to go home after George embarrasses them by revealing their intimate secrets just for shock value. Martha also decides to leave after getting into a physical altercation with George and leaves him behind to walk back home. When George finally arrive home, he finds Honey extremely hung-over in the car while Martha and Nick are having sex in the bedroom. They all manage to get together in the living room afterwards with drinks once again being served. In the end, the guests finally leave – undoubtedly quite defeated – and George and Martha have a heart-to-heart as the day breaks.
After having established a career mostly in comedy and then later in theatrical directing, Mike Nichols was asked by Warner Bros. to direct what would be his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He had already directed several important and iconic theatre productions like: The Importance of Being Earnest, Barefoot in the Park, and The Odd Couple. In regards to this film, Nichols had a particular passion for the play and claimed that the film’s screenplay writer “Ernest Lehman’s pen was in flames.” When it came to casting, the director knew that he wanted Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for the roles. He had been good friends with them since the early 1960s when they were filming Cleopatra. This would ultimately be the fourth teaming of Taylor/Burton out of eleven total combined projects. The film was made in Black & White at Nichols’ insistence and against the wishes of Jack Warner, as he wished to disguise the make-up used to age Taylor by 20 years, which was highly visible in colour. Though filming went over schedule by six weeks, it was a critical and box-office success. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became the first film in cinematic history to be nominated for an Academy Award in every one of its eligible categories.
It is clear from this background information that the film, on the surface, had a great formula for success. There was a skilled albeit novice director, two mega superstars in the lead roles, an attractive screenplay adapted from a revered play, and backing from a big studio. The result of this effort was lauded from coast-to-coast and earned it five golden statuettes of the highest order. With this in mind, it may seem odd that my own appreciation of the film fell well short of its labelled glory. Or perhaps it is that I am simply of more sane mind and less pretentious than the bozos at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
To quote my own dear husband, who summed up this film most aptly, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? captures “the extravagant way a pair of psychopaths are trying to love each other.” Keep in mind that the term ‘love’ is not used in a traditional sense meaning warmth, affection, and security. ‘Love’ to Martha and George is profanity-laden name-calling, playing cat-and-mouse with unsuspecting strangers, mutual substance abuse, and long-standing delusional fantasies – just to name a few. At one point, George goes into a closet in a mad rage and emerges with a shotgun. When he pulls the trigger, aimed at the back of Martha’s head no less, out pops an umbrella. Now, isn’t that a riot? There is ongoing talk of their soon-to-be 18-year-old son whom George refers to only as the ‘little bugger’, much to Martha’s annoyance. There is a whole melodramatic mini-storyline wrapped around their child and the mystery surrounding the mere mention of his existence. It turns out that they never had children and the two invented the child for whatever reason. The first 45 minutes of the film is made-up almost entirely of Martha and George’s incessant back-and-forth pestering and fighting. When the guests finally arrive, you momentarily think the movie will make a turn for the better. Instead, it gets more miserable.
Within a few moments of Nick and Honey’s arrival, I lost any remote interest I had in the film because the premise becomes totally unbelievable. Any real-world couple would have turned on their heels before crossing over the threshold or, at worst, left after a short time. On the contrary, this literary couple stays until the break of dawn, insanely enduring the masochistic situation. There are several instances in which their desperation to leave is obvious, yet they stay. Honey acts weirdly polite in the midst of this tense chaos and ends up getting as smashed as her hosts. She, unlike them, cannot hold her liquor. So here we are, sharing an evening of Martha and George embarrassing themselves through their inebriated and slanderous behaviour while witnessing Nick and Honey slowly unravel from the hosts’ game of “Get the Guests”. I must ask: Are you having fun yet?
There is really not much to say about the casting, as all the players are clearly talented in their own rights. However, when a movie is so utterly bad, does it really matter if the acting is good or not? Does it take quality training to bring negative, pathetic characters to life? While this film may prove useful as a case study for psychology students, it does not make for good entertainment. Unless, of course, you consider getting a colonoscopy as your idea of relaxation.
This is a story of two twisted people. Martha is a brash abuser with whorish tendencies. George is a professional failure who enables his sick wife. There really is no point to going on more about it.
Viewing this film was easily one of my most exhausting cinematic undertakings in recent memory, if not of my entire life. There is nothing but disdain to be felt for these lowly, shallow characters as well as for the foolish people that brought this production to life. I understand that this film was considered ground-breaking back in the day due to its non-compliance with censorship codes, allowing for raunchy and extremely direct language to be heard for the very first time. Perhaps it was mid-60’s society’s way of giving their middle finger to dated social norms. Furthermore, maybe it was these very same people who voted for this film to get on the AFI 100 that saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? during their youth and are clinging on to their nostalgic memories. Whatever the case, I do not applaud its inclusion and hope that its legacy will one day be found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
This article was originally published by Erica D. (Poppity) for the AFI 100 series and is being republished for this blogathon.