Elizabeth Taylor. Richard Burton. Edward Albee. Even George Segal, who was kind of a fixture on NBC during the ’80s and ’90s. Need I say more? Probably not, but I will.
Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman stick pretty close to Albee’s 1962 play with their film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and it’s hard to watch. Really hard. To be fair, though, it’s supposed to be, and that’s what makes it so good.
The promotional poster promises an evening of fun and games, but very little joy is to be found here, at least on the surface: all that marital baiting, sniping, and yelling is miserable. Fuck! It took me five or six false starts over a few years before I finally got into the film—and only with the help of a bottle of bourbon. Once I was in, though, I was hooked: watching this disastrous night unfold and all four characters unravel engrossed me desite the buzz I had going.
The oddly but appropriately named George (Burton), a history professor at a small East Coast university, and Martha (Taylor), the daughter of the school’s president, stumble home drunk from a faculty party, neither one listening to the other as they babble about nothing. Martha quotes Bette Davis, which ultimately reveals more about her viewpoint than any other comment she makes—and the woman can talk.
They babble and respond to each other half-heartedly. Martha tells George that she invited a young couple, a professor from another department and his wife, over for a drink. George is miffed, but there’s no time to react.
Enter Nick (Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis), a polite, young, good-looking couple that, as we learn, has their own set of problems. Martha and George pour drinks and pick at each other while Nick and Honey watch, uncomfortable at first, thinking maybe they shouldn’t be there. As the drinking continues, though, they’re pulled into the…drama? Turns out, they have more in common with each other than they think.
Here’s the thing about George and Martha: their marriage is dysfunctional, but they seem to operate well inside the confines of their explosive relationship—Martha brays and George stays, responding in a passive aggressive manner as he fixes them both another drink. Over and over and over again. Do they have any limits? It’s hard to say, partly because it’s never clear that we should take anything at face value: what we see is not necessarily what it is. That’s the genius of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
In 2013, the United States Library of Congress deemed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).
With Frank Flanagan, Agnes Flanagan
Production: Warner Brothers
Distribution: Warner Brothers
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