1 Year, 100 Movies #67 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

by Trey Hock on October 17, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

I’m having a little bit of trouble with this review. #67 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is by far the most academic of the films encountered on AFI’s list thus far. It’s an adaptation of Edward Albee’s play of the same name. Albee’s brutal dialogue and excoriating critique of “civilized” life in the 1950s and early 60s makes watching this movie more like studying for a class than entertainment.

If you haven’t already sought this movie out, then I doubt I can convince you to watch it, but if you love watching intelligent people viciously attack each other with words, then this is a film for you.

The story takes place over the course of one night. George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), an older middle-aged couple, have invited a younger couple over for drinks. George is an associate professor of History, and Martha is the daughter of the President of the university. They have a troubled relationship, that relies on witty and brutal argument for its vibrancy.

The younger couple consists of Nick (George Segal), a newcomer to the Biology department, and his “mousey” wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis). Nick and Honey have problems of their own, including a “false” pregnancy, which led to their quick marriage at a young age.

As you can tell from the description, there will be lots of talking. Albee’s dialogue is brilliant, but as with any film that has its origins in a stage play, an anchored or static quality can dominate the visuals. As with “12 Angry Men,” we are firmly placed in one or two interior locations, but director Mike Nichols keeps the movements of the camera and actors aggressive, which helps elevate the emotional quality of each scene. Even in this early scene that comes just before Nick and Honey arrive, we can see how the blocking of the actors seems to force the camera to move, and as the characters become more agitated and their movements more frenetic, so too the movements of the camera. (Sound starts at 7 seconds.)

Just pans and a slight dolly move early on, but the camera movement helps underline the destructive tone of the verbal game George and Martha play.

The story itself explores the deceptions and fictions that we construct in our daily lives, that offer comfort while they destroy us. Early on there are hints of a son, George and Martha’s son. George tells Martha that she may talk about anything she wishes, that she might attack him in anyway, but she cannot discuss their son with the guests. It is not long until Martha breaks this trust. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)

The tone of the dialogue tells us that something is off with this son, but what is wrong is not fully revealed until much later. George understands that Martha’s betrayal is an attack on him, and though he retaliates, the verbal attacks against him continue to escalate. Honey wants to dance and George spins her too much, considering the alcohol consumed. She gets sick and after an exchange outside between George and Nick, George and Martha decide to drive their guests home.

In the car, Honey sees a bar that boasts dancing, and the party moves on to this local bar. Here the attacks from Martha towards George become all the more pointed and personal, until finally George snaps and lashes out. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)

The awkward and perfect yelling for violence from Honey accentuates the gravity of the scene. Albee has ungraciously stripped his character of George bare. His failures as a husband and professor lay exposed. It is now someone else’s turn. George decides that the game of “Humiliate the Host” has now concluded and calls for another game. (Sounds starts at 3 seconds.)

You can see that no one will be left standing by the end of the film, and now we are all just waiting to see who will be torn to pieces next.

George’s game “Get the Guests” enrages Martha and she threatens to destroy him. But George is up to the challenge, and he swears he will retaliate at each offense. Martha rushes off with Honey, who is passed out in the backseat of the car, and a distraught and drunk Nick.

By the time George walks home, he finds Honey still asleep in the car, and his wife and Nick in the bedroom. George plots his revenge; he will destroy their son. Despite the fact that Nick’s ability to perform in the bedroom falls flat, the plan is set in motion. In the following scene, Nick and Honey listen as Martha describes their son and George reads a funeral mass in Latin. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)

George then describes a scenario in which a telegram arrived and told him of the death of their son in an automobile accident. We soon realize that there was no son, no real son, only a fictional construct that covered the reality that George and Martha were unable to have any children.

The very name of the movie get’s at the nature of the piece, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a funny play on the “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and really asks the question who’s afraid of the lies we tell ourselves and the realities that hide behind them. Of course the answer is all of us. The hope in this story is slim, but is idea that though a truthful life is in some ways more difficult to bear, it is also less destructive from the inside out. It is not until all of the falsehoods have been stripped away that there can be a small moment of genuine tenderness between George and Martha.

I would like to mention the acting briefly. All four of the actors in “Virginia Woolf?” were nominated for Academy Awards, and both Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis would win in their respective categories. The acting is profound, and even if you shy away from the content or films that emphasize clever dialogue over action, you should really take a look. Burton is a master, Taylor is unstoppable, and Dennis nails the not-so-dumb Honey.

Contemporary films that are similar are Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” (2005) or Nichols’ more recent film “Closer” (2004), though whereas “Virginia Woolf” offers some slim hope, “Closer” offers none. Still if you’re into emotionally turbulent films like the two I’ve mentioned, then make sure to put “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on your list of films to watch.

Up Next, oh sweet relief from the heady and emotionally destructive, #66 “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981).

1 Year, 100 Movies #68 Unforgiven (1992)

1 Year, 100 Movies #69 Tootsie (1982)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Tyler Campbell March 26, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Alright, so I just happened to watch this film tonight for the first time. A, it was on the list. B, I wanted to catch a glimpse of one of Elizabeth Taylor’s supposed finest roles. I have to say, while dialogue heavy, I agree with you and the Academy Awards in how great each of the acting performances are. Taylor and Burton have great chemistry and anti-chemistry as the story unfolds with each dramatic scene. I am also thankful they chose to film this movie in black & white. It gives it just a bit more flavor and unique shadow treatments. All in all, great film. R.I.P. Elizabeth Taylor!

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