AFI #67: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is about a train wreck. Well, okay, it’s about a husband and wife who seem to get off on verbally abusing each other, but it felt like a train wreck…the kind you don’t want to watch but something deep inside you makes you sneak a peek. The film is a big screen version of the Edward Albee 1963 Tony Award-winning play by the same name and it’s not a a comedy despite the play on words that it its title. The thing is you can’t really tell if the husband, George, or the wife, Martha, is the big bad wolf!

I wanted to dislike this film after the first 10 minutes, but I couldn’t seem to stop watching it and as it went on I took some sick pleasure in how abusive these people were to each other. Just when you think maybe their relationship is playful, the booze continues to pour and the repartee gets harsher and harsher. Damn…these two fucking hate each other. It’s one thing to verbally beat each other up by themselves, but they do it in front of a couple they don’t even know. Poor Nick and Honey just wanted to stop by the house for a quick drink, but they get dragged into this heavyweight bout and they barely survive. There is so much going on between George and Martha it’s hard to keep track, but the gist is that he is an assistant professor and she is the daughter of the college president and neither of them have lived up to each other’s expectations. Add to that their inability to conceive a child and a ridiculous amount of alcohol and what you get is a marriage that makes Frank and Estelle Costanza look like June and Ward Cleaver.

Did I like the film? I did, but sort of in the way you like a good crash at a car race. One thing that is certain though is that the acting is tremendous. All four characters were nominated for Oscars and both Elizabeth Taylor (Martha) and Sandy Dennis (Honey) took home a trophy. So much for the men, though Richard Burton was intense and brutal as George and a young George Segal was wonderful as Nick. This was Taylor’s second and last Academy Award for acting (she also won in 1961 for Butterfield 8), though she was nominated three other times. She’s a bit older and thicker around the middle in this film, but her performance is mesmerizing as the boozy Martha. I understand the film was also a bit risqué for 1966, but mostly for language. If you want to see people who have a co-dependence on each other’s cruelty this is the film for you.

Next up: Raiders of the Lost Ark


2 thoughts on “AFI #67: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

  1. I think you give short shrift to this epic film–not epic like Lawrence of Arabia but epic in its emotional and psychological depth. The issue of the mysterious child gives additional emotional dimensions. I have to confess (speaking of shrift) that I never saw the complete film until just a year ago when I picked up the DVD. I think some older films never get a proper viewing by subsequent generations because there are few if any repetory cinemas anymore and films like this don’t get re-run on TV.

    I highly recommend the DVD for the director’s commentary by the self-admittedly inexperienced Mike Nichols in his first feature film. How he managed to put this together is a testament to the power of assembling a great team — cinematographer and actors, not to mention story. How Nichols could go from Woolf to Graduate is an amazing feat in itself.

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