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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

aka Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

"You are cordially invited to George and Martha's for an evening of fun and games."

Details: 131 mins · English, Latin, Spanish

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Truth or Illusion?

George (Richard Burton) is an impotent history professor at a small New England college. His hard-drinking wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) is the daughter of the university’s president. One Sunday morning around 2 AM, they invite a young couple to their house for an evening of ‘fun and games.’

The couple turns out to be junior professor Nick (George Segal) and the child-like Honey (Sandy Dennis). The fun and games turns out to be a sado-masochistic contest of wits and wills between George and Martha with Nick and Honey initially acting as hesitant pawns, but eventually becoming embroiled in the drunken tailspin that is George and Martha’s dysfunctional marriage (and perhaps a glimpse of Nick and Honey’s future?).

The nature of these games is revealed toward the end of the film when George says “… and when you get through the skin, all three layers and through the muscles, and slosh aside the organs… and get down to the bone, you know what you do then? …You haven’t got all the way...(more)

George (Richard Burton) is an impotent history professor at a small New England college. His hard-drinking wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) is the daughter of the university’s president. One Sunday morning around 2 AM, they invite a young couple to their house for an evening of ‘fun and games.’

The couple turns out to be junior professor Nick (George Segal) and the child-like Honey (Sandy Dennis). The fun and games turns out to be a sado-masochistic contest of wits and wills between George and Martha with Nick and Honey initially acting as hesitant pawns, but eventually becoming embroiled in the drunken tailspin that is George and Martha’s dysfunctional marriage (and perhaps a glimpse of Nick and Honey’s future?).

The nature of these games is revealed toward the end of the film when George says “… and when you get through the skin, all three layers and through the muscles, and slosh aside the organs… and get down to the bone, you know what you do then? …You haven’t got all the way yet. There’s something inside the bone, the marrow, and that’s what you gotta get at.” In short, the evening is designed to peel away the layers of illusion and falsity we build into our identities and foist upon those we love in order to expose the truth of the situation. By the end of the film, we realize that the interactions between George and Martha are a sort of cathartic airing of grievances. For Nick and Honey, the games strip away their delusions about each other and their young marriage. Nick’s last line “I’d like to…” sounds like an offer of gratitude, a thank you for shattering the illusion of their childish happiness, but George cuts him off before we here the rest of the sentence, as if to reinforce the notion that Nick and Honey still do not understand the depth of their situation.

Brilliant mind-games aside, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a brutal masterpiece. The film was nominated for an Oscar in every eligible category, and won five, including a well-deserved Best Actress for Elizabeth Taylor, and a somewhat perplexing Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis, while Richard Burton most perplexingly did not win for Best Actor, despite his expert performance here.

In Burton’s portrayal of George we see a brilliant man who knows that he has failed to accomplish anything, he is a ruined man, with nothing to live for but the pain of his own impotence and the self-hatred that rouses him for his nightly battles with Martha. He is a softer character than Martha, and the close-ups of his quiet, plodding defeat are a visible chink in the armor of academic stoicism he presents to Martha and the outside world.

However, Elizabeth Taylor gives the star performance in this film, her Martha is a large and boisterous woman, best described in her own words, “I’m loud and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in this house because somebody’s got to…” Martha spits some of the nastiest vitriol I have ever seen in the movies, some of it pounced on and torn to shreds, such as “In fact, he was sort of a flop! A great big, fat flop! So here I am stuck with this flop, this bog, in the history department…” while others such as, “I swear to God, George, if you even existed, I’d divorce you,” are tossed into the conversation so casually that their venom seems to sneak up on you, punching you in the throat as soon as you think the coast is clear.

Segal and Dennis perform admirably as the younger versions of Burton and Taylor, transitioning beautifully from happy young couple trapped in the morbid games of George and Martha to overhwelmed children clinging to duplicity in an effort to appear mature. Once the labels are peeled off, the young couple is every bit as corrupt as the elder.

There is a fifth character in the film, the middling, underwhelming, house that will never be a home. Art director Richard Sylbert and set decorator George Hopkins create a labyrinthine battlefield out of the house that traps George and Martha that is at once a painful reminder of George’s failures, and a monument to the lack of warmth in their relationship. The house is unkempt, cluttered. Every surface is littered with the detritus leftover from previous battles. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler uses extreme close ups, a mastery of shadows, and a hand-held camera to create the atmosphere of anxiety and wretchedness that permeates the script. Director Mike Nichols, the mad operator of this two-hour roller coaster deftly juggles all of these elements to create what is surely one of the greatest stage-to-screen adaptations ever made.

There are a lot of people who do not like this movie, presumably because it has no clearly spelled out resolution. There is no one to come out and tell you that George and Martha have no son, no one to make it clear that their marriage is not completely doomed, and no one to confirm that what the ending suggests is true. To those viewers I suggest an ounce of courage. Step up to the plate and make decisions for yourself, you have been invited to participate, so participate. A lot of the negative reviews I read held disparaging views about the material, upset by the darkness and hideous nature of the film, as if the purpose of film were to delude viewers into believing the world was made of puppy turds and rainbows. It’s not.

This movie is not perfect. There are segments where it dragged, and the sensationalism of the language and content has all but disappeared over the decades, but to the dozens of reviewers who “only watched the first ten minutes,” give it another chance, and stop reviewing films you haven’t actually watched. You’ll feel a lot smarter when you are able to make accurate judgements about the films you’re reviewing. (less)

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Cast:

Small Martha
Small George
Small Nick
Small Honey

Crew:

No_movie_poster Harold Michelson Storyboard
No_movie_poster Ernest Lehman Screenplay
No_movie_poster George James Hopkins Set Decoration
No_movie_poster Gordon Bau Makeup Artist
No_movie_poster Mike Nichols Director
No_movie_poster Haskell Wexler Director of Photography
No_movie_poster Alex North Music
No_movie_poster Ron Berkeley Makeup Artist
No_movie_poster Sam O'Steen Editor
No_movie_poster Richard Sylbert Production Design
Small Irene Sharaff Costume Design
No_movie_poster Sydney Guilaroff Hairstylist
No_movie_poster Jean Burt Reilly Hairstylist
Small Edward Albee Theatre Play
No_movie_poster Michael Daves Director
Small Bud Grace Director
No_movie_poster Craig Binkley Set Dressing Artist
No_movie_poster M.A. Merrick Sound Designer
No_movie_poster George Groves Sound Recordist
No_movie_poster Frank Flanagan Gaffer
No_movie_poster Ralph Gerling Camera Operator
No_movie_poster Michael A. Jones Rigging Gaffer
No_movie_poster Robert Willoughby Still Photographer
No_movie_poster Meta Rebner Script Supervisor
No_movie_poster T.J. Healy II Producer
Small Herbert Ross Choreographer
No_movie_poster Hal W. Polaire Producer
No_movie_poster Ernest Lehman Production
Small Edward Albee Story Contributor

Taglines:

"You are cordially invited to George and Martha's for an evening of fun and games."

Plot:

Set on the campus of a small New England college, the film focuses on the volatile relationship of associate history professor George and his hard-drinking wife Martha, the daughter of the college president.


It's 2:00 Sunday morning, and they have returned from one of her father's gatherings. Martha announces she has invited a young couple—Nick, a young, good-looking, newly appointed instructor, and his mousey wife Honey—to join them for drinks. George is disturbed because she did so without consulting him first, prompting Martha to launch into the first of many loud and lengthy tirades during which she taunts and criticizes him. Knowing his wife is drunk and quite lewd, he asks her to behave herself when they arrive, and when the doorbell rings, he warns her to refrain from mentioning their child to their company.


Overhearing Martha's crude retort as the door opens (which seems to be by design, since George baited Martha immediately before opening the door), Nick and Honey immediately feel ill at ease and quickly find themselves caught in the middle of a verbal war zone when their efforts to engage in small talk set off a volley of insults between their hosts. Martha begins to flirt brashly with Nick while his meek wife tries to pretend she is unaware of what is happening.


While Martha is showing Honey where the bathroom is, George tests Nick's verbal sparring skills, but the young man is no match for his host. Realizing he and his wife are becoming embroiled in the middle of marital warfare, he suggests they depart, but George cajoles him into staying.


Upon returning to the living room alone, Honey innocently mentions to George she was unaware he and Martha had a son on the verge of celebrating his sixteenth birthday. Martha reappears in a new outfit—form-fitting slacks and a revealing blouse—and when her husband makes a snide remark about the ensemble, she begins to demean his abilities as a teacher, then escalates her seduction of Nick, complimenting him on the body he developed as both a quarterback and an intercollegiate state boxing champion while criticizing George's paunch. She informs their guests about a past incident when George refused to engage in a friendly outdoor boxing match with his father-in-law and Martha put on a pair of gloves and punched him in the jaw, knocking him into the bushes. As she relates the story, George aims a rifle at the back of her head, causing Honey to scream. He pulls the trigger, which releases an umbrella, while he tells his wife she's dead.


Honey again raises the subject of George and Martha's son, prompting the couple to engage in a conversation Martha quickly tries to end without success. To counterattack George's relentless comments about the boy, she tells their guests her husband is unsure the child is his own, although he most assuredly is. They argue about the color of the boy's eyes until George threatens to expose the truth about the boy. Furious, Martha accuses him of being a failure whose youthful, idealistic plans for the future slowly deteriorated as he came to realize he wasn't aggressive enough to follow in his father-in-law's footsteps, leaving her stuck with a flop. George cuts the diatribe short, first by smashing a bottle of gin against the fireplace mantle, and then by spinning Honey around and mockingly singing, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to the tune of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?," a joke Martha had made herself during the party earlier that evening.


Inebriated and on the verge of throwing up from George's spinning, Honey rushes from the room. Martha goes to the kitchen to make coffee, and George and Nick go outside. The younger man confesses he was attracted to Honey more for her family's money than passion, and married her only because she mistakenly believed she was pregnant. George describes his own marriage as one of never-ending accommodation and adjustment, then admits he considers Nick a threat. George also tells a story about a boy he grew up with. This boy had accidentally killed his mother. Years later, George claims the boy was driving with his father. He swerved to "miss a porcupine" in the road, and the resulting accident killed his father. The boy ended up living out his days in a mental hospital.


When their guests propose leaving, George insists on driving them home. In the car, the talk returns to George and Martha's son. They approach a roadhouse, and Honey suggests they stop to dance. While Honey and George watch, Nick suggestively dances with Martha, who continues to mock George and criticize his inadequacies. George unplugs the jukebox and announces the game is over. In response, Martha alludes to the fact he may have murdered his parents like the protagonist in his unpublished, non-fiction novel, prompting George to strangle Martha until Nick manages to pull him away from her.


George persuades the owner to serve them one more round before closing and suggests that, having played a game of Humiliate the Host, the quartet should now engage in Hump the Hostess or Get the Guests. He then tells the group about a second novel he allegedly has written about a young couple from the Midwest, a good-looking teacher and his timid wife, who marry because of her hysterical pregnancy and then settle in a small college town. An embarrassed Honey realizes Nick indiscreetly told George about their past and runs from the room. Nick promises revenge on George, and then runs after Honey.


In the parking lot, George tells his wife he cannot stand the way she constantly humiliates him, and she tauntingly accuses him of having married her for just that reason. Their rage erupts into a declaration of "total war". Martha drives off, retrieving Nick and Honey, leaving George to make his way back home on foot. When he arrives home, he discovers Honey nearly delirious and realizes that his wife and Nick are presently engaged in a sexual encounter. Through Honey's drunken babbling, George begins to suspect that her pregnancy was in fact real, and that she secretly had an abortion. He then devises a plan to get back at Martha.


When Martha accuses Nick of being sexually inadequate, he blames his impotence on all the liquor he has consumed. George then appears and requests that everyone gather once more for one last game. He mentions his and Martha's son, prompting her to reminisce about his birth and childhood and how he was nearly destroyed by his father. George accuses Martha of engaging in destructive and abusive behavior with the boy, who frequently ran away to escape her sexual advances. George then announces he has received a telegram with bad news—the boy was killed the previous afternoon on a country road when he swerved to avoid hitting a porcupine and crashed into a tree.


As Martha argues with George that he "can't do this" and begs him not to "kill" their son, Nick suddenly realizes the truth—Martha and George had never been able to have a baby, for reasons that are unexplained. Instead, their game together is to imagine they have a son and invent situations and stories of him. By declaring their son dead, accordingly, George has "killed" him. (There are hints of this throughout the script that become clear in retrospect—for example, when George and Nick were sitting by the swing waiting for Honey to finish throwing up, George comments quietly that Martha never had any pregnancies.)


The young couple departs quietly, and George and Martha are left alone as the day begins to break outside. They speak quietly, and in the last lines Martha answers the title question with "I am, George, I am."

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