IMDB#228 Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

Next up is a classic, multiple award-winning 1966 film, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? I know it’s a rhetorical question, but I had to study To The Lighthouse in college and I’m not afraid, I gotta say.

If you happen to be watching along at home, get ready for two straight hours of bitter, non-stop vitriol that will make you never even want to think about marriage, children, being a professor, or pretty much relating to other humans. But hey, there wouldn't be comedy without tragedy, I suppose.

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The Key Players:

Our director is Mike Nichols, Best Director winner for The Graduate, who pretty consistently puts out a solid film every three years or so- recently Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War have gotten their share of nominations for things. This is actually his first directorial effort, working from and Ernest Lehman script of Edward Albee’s lauded 1962 play.

Our stars are two middleweights, George Segal (the dad on “Just Shoot Me”) and Sandy Dennis (a multiple Tony-winner), and two of the heaviest of heavyweights: Elizabeth Taylor (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Cleopatra, BUtterfield 8) and Richard Burton (Cleopatra, Becket, Equus).

The Story:

Taylor and Burton play a middle-aged, bitter, caustic, yet eloquently playful married couple- a minor cog in the University history department who married the University President’s daughter. After a party, they welcome the young, bright-faced couple Segal and Dennis (he’s in the Biology Department).

What follows is two hours of making the young couple uncomfortable, getting them drunk, prying into their personal lives while airing their own skeletons out to dry (I think I mixed my metaphors there), and generally being miserable.

Burton and Taylor run down their entire history, nearly, with cryptic mentions of an unseen sixteen-year-old son and Burton claiming (maybe) to have accidentally killed both of his parents.

The Artisticness:

Well, it’s a pretty straightforward movie visually. There’s some darkness and light, but mostly we get mid-range shots of characters laying into one another.

It only seems a bit stagy for the first ten minutes or so, before the guests show up, but then it’s just a tour de force of vacillating moods, long speeches, and wild emotions. You can easily see why all four actors got Oscar nominations (with Taylor and Dennis winning Lead and Supporting Actress, respectively).

Though it whittles three act, three hour play down to a palatable 2:10, it does tend to drag a bit in the second act (I guess there’s always a part of me thinking “for crying out loud! Somebody throw a pie!”). But the weary eruditeness of Burton provides a steady thread for the film to follow, as we get more time with him than any other character.


So after forcing Segal and a drunk Dennis to confront (or at least openly acknowledge) that he married her because she had a hysterical pregnancy (which is to say, a pregnancy all in her head), Burton decides to play one more “game” and announces to all that his and Taylor’s son is dead. He claims they received a telegram earlier, when Taylor and Segal were upstairs perhaps being adulterous.

It turns out that he and Taylor, unable to have children, had pretended in private to have had a son, that they would discuss to the point of knowing elaborate fictional details like his love of the sunlight and the circumstances of his birth. Taylor, it seems, broke the rules of this arrangement by mentioning their “son” to other people, so he had to “kill” him.

Finally the guests leave, and a broken down Taylor and Burton somewhat temper themselves. The film ends with Burton asking “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Taylor replying “I am.” Because she’s afraid of living without cheekily modernist self-deception, get it?

Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I appreciate the powerhouse of acting on display here, but personally I wouldn’t watch this film terribly often. I struggle with ranking things on the basis of achievement as a work of art versus entertainment value, but dammit: this is a populist enterprise here on this blog, and if you’re going to depress the hell out of me at least make it more visually exciting.

So in conclusion: works better as a play.

The Legacy:

Well, four Oscars, and nominations in every eligible category speak pretty highly, and George and Martha are probably the archetypical caustic hosts in American culture. Not to mention spoofs from both Mad Magazine and the Benny Hill show.

It’s also somewhat known for causing a language kerfluffle with the FCC for the use of the term “screwed” and the phrase “hump the hostess.” Something tells me that the FCC was not really in touch with the priorities of the sixties as a whole.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube

The craziest scene in the film, wherein Burton, seemingly fed up with it, approaches his wife with a rifle and aims at the back of her head…

Leftover Thoughts:

Burton and Taylor were of course married in real life, which drummed up plenty of tabloid intrigue for the film. Don’t married couples normally have terrible chemistry onscreen? Isn’t that a rule?

There are some good lines in this film, but they fly by way too quickly to catch. But pretty much everything Burton says sounds awesome, thanks to his grand wizard voice.

Fun fact: Taylor gained nearly 30 pounds of what I call “Oscar weight” to play the role of Martha.

2 Response to "IMDB#228 Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?"

  1. notemily says:

    Agh! The entry cuts off after "lauded" for me.

    Arrgh! Fixed it. Blogger decided to put random lines of html to collapse the text in three separate places in that one. I've been composing everything in html this week to avoid such things.

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