Directed by Mike Nichols (1966)
by Billy Russell
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a movie to watch between the crisscrossed fingers clamped tight over your eyes to shield you from the awful awkwardness on display, peeking out only momentarily during the most intense scenes to hear George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) scream something deep and cutting at each other.
The thing about Virginia Woolf is that we’ve all been there. We’ve all of us been stuck in a situation we desperately wanted to leave, but for whatever reason we couldn’t. It’s like watching people in a haunted house movie and you want to yell at them, “Why don’t you just leave?!” But you know why they don’t just leave. They can’t. Too much alcohol has been drunk, too many ugly things have been said, and everyone’s in it now. Everyone’s in it for a long, stygian descent of an evening.
As the film begins, George and Martha are already drunk. They stagger through the house, defeated in their lives and angry with each other. Martha reveals to George that she has invited a young couple they met at the party over for a few more drinks. When the young couple arrive — Nick and his wife Honey (played by George Segal and Sandy Dennis) — it only gets worse. Since Nick is a professor at a university and Martha is the daughter of the dean, he and his wife appear to be trapped, to endure the torment of their hosts.
At first, George and Martha’s openly-antagonistic relationship plays like some sick game that they’re playing on their party guests. It seems like they’re getting off on watching them squirm. But as the evening progresses and the booze flows and insults are hurled at each other, Nick and Honey go from innocent bystanders to active participants in the acts of cruelty.
When the evening finally comes to a close, we’ve been witness to so much it feels like smoke is clearing when those final credits roll. There are histories exhumed that involve both real and fictional deaths of children… threats… adultery… impotence… black-outs. Whenever I re-watch the movie, I feel like never having a drink again in my life.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is probably the darkest movie I love with unabashed glee. Darker movies exist, and I’m sure darker movies that are technically better, too, exist. But something about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? speaks to me. It’s at turns deeply depressing, equally upsetting, but somehow also laugh-out-loud hilarious in equal measure. People talk about the art of “cringe comedy” in shows like Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louie, but none of those shows have got anything on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which has such brilliant and funny lines as, “I hope that was an empty bottle, George! You can't afford to waste good liquor, not on your salary!”; “I swear, if you existed, I'd divorce you.” and “Martha is 108... years old. She weighs somewhat more than that.”
The screenplay by Ernest Lehman remains mostly faithful to the original play by Edward Albee. The direction by Mike Nichols (in his first film, though he was a veteran of the stage by that point) is some of the best of his entire career.
I’m surprised Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hasn’t been remade again and again and again. It seems ripe for it. If I were to remake it (I’m not saying I should, but if I did), I would want to cast a real-life couple again, but perhaps not one with the up-and-down Hollywood Royalty drama of Burton and Taylor. I think I’d go with a healthy couple everyone loves seeing together, and get them to scream insults at each other for the better part of two hours. Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, maybe?
Movies and plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? exist as a kind of catharsis. You feel beaten down when it’s over. You feel exhausted. You feel like you’ve gone 10 rounds of emotional fighting with someone you’re supposed to care about. You, frankly, feel like crap when it’s all said and done and wrapped up. And as for me, personally, I often have to wonder, “What was the point of all that?” The point, I suppose — if there is one — is that when you recover from the madness, you can hopefully say, “Well, my life might have its problems, but at least I’m not George or Martha.” They exist as an example of what never to become. And if you’ve not reached the rock-bottom lows that they have, you’ve done alright for yourself.
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