Year of release: 1966 Directed by Mike Nichols. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis.
Less than half an hour into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, after some exchanges of mildly charged verbal barbs, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) turns to her husband George (Richard Burton) and snaps at him with a profanity. That profanity is uttered in place of a less offensive vulgarity from the stage play, which in 1966 ironically had to be censored for the film. At the same time, the profane line demonstrates the cruelty and contempt to which George and Martha’s marriage has disintegrated. More importantly, the way the new line is filmed highlights the cracks in the façade of playful marital sparring which the protagonists have maintained to hide the painful truth that eats away at their marriage, a façade which a young married couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) will pass straight through over the course of the film as they learn the tragic reason behind the bitter fun and games ruthlessly played by George and Martha.
Since Taylor had initially filmed the scene saying the original line from the play, it was quite noticeable that the dubbed profanity did not match the movement of her lips. Therefore, director Mike Nichols re-edited that scene to show George opening the door for their evening guests right as Martha swears at him. In that cut, the unhealthiness of George and Martha’s marriage manifests itself to another couple, and the viciousness contained in that line perfectly sets the stage for the navigation of that tempestuous marriage which form the remainder of the film.
In many ways, the two hour “evening of fun and games” fueled by alcohol and spiked not only with profanities, but also with humiliating personal insults, betrayals of confidence, and attempted infidelity forms a near perfect tragedy. The lashing out is a cry for help and form of self medication, not dissimilar from a chronically depressed person turning to alcohol or drugs. At the centre of all the pain is a marital disappointment from which George and Martha have tried to hide by denying it through the calculated rules of their ruthless games, all for the sake of appearances.
A few years back, several friends and I were discussing the Arts and Faith list of the top 25 films on marriage, focusing on the merits of two films that had just missed the cut: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Eyes Wide Shut. A friend of mine stated that the former was a personal favorite he wanted to see included, but the latter was essential, and its absence was the greater loss. With all respect to my friend, whom I deeply respect, I now think it’s the other way around. While I love both films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an essential film about an unhealthy marriage, because the reason behind the failure of George and Martha’s marriage acknowledges marriage as a social institution, and it reveals how the frustration regarding one social aspect of marriage fermented into bitterness and contempt that carefully displays itself to the public as a demented social interaction.
When the revelation of the tragedy finally occurs, Nichols shows that he has given clear thought to this story as a film and not just a recreation of the stage production. The climax alternates between long distance overhead shots that allow the film to breathe as the night of games comes to an end and tight close-ups showing the heartbreak that the characters can no longer ignore. Similar brilliant directorial choices abound throughout, such as the editing for Martha’s aforementioned profanity and the tracking shots as George plans his revenge for a particularly humiliating story of Martha’s.
As the two couples, Taylor and Burton – married at the time – give the fiery bouts their all with Burton providing a quiet intensity that perfectly balances Taylor’s more flamboyant antics; and George Segal and Sandy Dennis are fantastic as the young couple Nick and Honey, initially reticent to play along with George and Martha, but quickly warming up to their callousness until things take a shockingly harsh turn. The film became the first movie for the entire billed cast to receive Oscar nominations for acting, and all four were richly deserved.
In case this review has not made it clear, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an extremely difficult film to watch, but the way it handles tragedy through the sharpness and wittiness of its retorts underscores the painfulness of loss and the unhealthy ways which people deal with that. The title itself refers to another game of George and Martha’s which appears several times throughout the film, usually in an attempt to distract from something more unpleasant. However, at the end, the only way to acknowledge the pain is to answer the titular question with a sobering, heartbroken “I am.”
Personal Recommendation: A+
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment