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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966 - R)
An adaptation of Edward Albee's infamous Broadway play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" captures the psychological torture between husband and wife as they banter, drink, fight, and snafu their way through a marriage that hides a dark, taboo secret. As a prodigal newcomer, Nick, and his mousy wife, Honey, prepare to be entertained by the diabolical couple, they have no idea the misery, suspense, terror, and mayhem that awaits as they walk helplessly into the tragic trap set by the likes of the relentless Martha and George.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? was nominated for the Best Picture award.
Written by: Edward Albee (play) and Ernest Lehman.
Directed by: Mike Nichols.
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Tagline: "It's a scream."
Rated: R for thematic content, suggestive language, and occasional violence.
Meet Martha (Taylor) and George (Burton)… two unhappily married disgruntled partners who's primary source of enjoyment comes from provoking the other into a rampage of tears and screams. As the two begrudging lovers go about their caddy nightly banter as they stroll home from the latest university soiree where they have finished hob-knobbing with the latest and greatest of the educational system, husband and wife prepare to host company for a quick nightcap. And not just any company, but the latest prodigal professor hired to work in the biology department, Nick (Segal), and his "slim-hipped wife" Honey (Dennis).
As Martha runs around the house scooping heaps of clothes under the bedding, stowing dirty dishes in the niches of bookends and night tables, chewing on her alcohol soaked ice cubes, and prancing about, demanding attention from her lackluster husband, George sits indifferently by reading his newspaper and ho-humming his way through the hiatus between soiree and after party. With her incessant demands, between Broadway trivia and requests for "big fat sloppy kisses", George does his best to make it apparently obvious he is ignoring her attention seeking antics.
The door bell rings and the new couple of New Carthage is greeted by the hospitable salutation, "God damn you…oh, come in, come in". It's all downhill from there as the uncomfortable couple attempts to stifle their incessant rejections to Martha and George's painful vocal jousting. To take the edge off of things all four begin sipping their favorite cordials. But of course slipping turns into slamming as each drowns one bottle after the next, and, inevitably, the more inebriated each gets the more obscene the insults, the prodding, the provoking, the painful bullying becomes.
As Martha repeatedly slams her husband's failed professional career, as he is only the husband to the daughter of the principal of the university, and yet, he is only, at present, still a part of the history department as opposed to 'being' the history department, George comes back with his inevitable balking about her ruthless materialistic drive and her wily, unsuitable ways. Yet both attempt to stay leery of "that subject"; the subject of the mysterious history of their son. Yet the obstinate Martha, as always, refuses to subjugate herself to her husband's requests, and begins adamantly leaking information about an apparent mystery son to Nick's wife, Honey. While the naïve, slim-hipped, easily ill, ignorant Honey attempts to participate in the witty banter by shouting ludicrous obscenities, George takes Nick off to the fields where the two begin to bond over brandy in testosterone-driven tradition.
From one laissez fare to the next, the boys dispel the true secrets behind their relationships; sweet on the outside for Nick's, a sour exterior for George's, both men reveal that their relationships contain many a dark taboo that lay buried beneath their contrived exteriors. If anything, it seems perhaps Martha and George's relationship may be the more honest of the two, and George begins to call Nick out on his overly ambitious, smug disposition. As such, the typical competition for the superior male ego, coupled with the over-indulgent sipping of cocktails, leads to a rough spot in their bonding session. Upset at George's cynical commentary Nick heads into the house to retrieve his vomiting wife by the hand so as to head home. But of course they will be escorted by George and Martha. With George behind the wheel, Honey continues to shout absurdities from the backseat, oblivious to the true context of the dialogue between Martha, George, and Nick.
As Martha continuously averts her sexual indiscretions towards Nick, George attempts to snuff the flames of revenge that are seething inside. Honey incessantly requests to go dancing and Martha demands that the quartet pull over for a nightcap at the local club whereby Honey's interpretive dance routing begins to annoy Nick, which of course leads to a sulky, drunken Honey at the table while Nick and Martha play "hump the hostess" on the dance floor. All the while the two are being indecent on the dance floor Martha begins to leak pertinent information that amplifies the story Nick was let in on by George out in the yard only a couple hours ago. Apparently George attempted to write a book about his "friend's" tragic past involving the death of his father and murder of his mother, much to George's dismay. Finding the quick sting to George's heart, Martha relentlessly persists into provoking her husband's rage who nearly all but murders her there on the spot. To avenge his injustice however, George begins to leak the dirty secret surrounding Nick and Honey's marriage as the latter sits anxiously by awaiting to hear the ending to the familiar story, only to shriek in horror at the end, as George happily comments; "and that's how you play get the guests".
A violent separation of one married couple from the next results in a drunken Nick and Honey stumbling down the street while Martha and George shoot violent verbal accusations back and forth; bringing up their torrential past in marital abstract allusion fashion. As each begins to threaten ruining the other's happiness, the raging Martha gets in the car and drives off; picking up Honey and Nick on the way. Seeking her vengeance, Martha and Nick leave Honey passed out in the backseat of her car as the two head upstairs to engage in an illicit affair. As George stumbles upon the evidence laden scene, he begins to, at first, laugh at Martha's insidious headstrongness, only to break down in tears before the drunken Honey. While Honey implores, "who rang [the bells]", George attempts to direct her attention to the clairvoyant shadows dancing across the curtains. But Honey averts her eyes and begins to spurt out the truth behind her incessant sickness; her desire to never get pregnant. And that's when George out's with it; the truth about his son.
As Martha and Nick head back to her home, she begins to lament her decision, and confesses her true love for George; the only man ever able to make her happy and learn her games as quickly as she compulsively changes them. But just as soon as she begins to confess her devious deeds George knocks at the door with flowers for his "chaste" wife. As Martha and her "houseboy" prepare to invite her "hubby' into his home, more witty banter ensues through a series of pet names, varying alliances, and more of George's euphemistic games. The four will all learn the grave importance of discerning between truth and allusion. And as Martha observes; "truth and allusion George, you don't know the difference". But George seems to think that no one can tell the difference, most importantly his wife, and with one final hoorah, one Grande and witty showdown, George will make puns, metaphors, and allegories all too loaded with personal resonance, for once conflating truth and allusion into one final revolutionary epiphany that includes the unveiling of George's one, last, dark secret that not even Martha has yet to guess, or admit…
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a powerful, pulse racing, thriller drama that operates brilliantly around the inevitable power of the conventional suspension of disbelief. However, this time, instead of holding the audience in suspense, this time it is the characters that are held in suspense until the very end; the audience gets pat glimpses into the dark secret long before the conscious characters will willingly admit the truth they have been hiding for years. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a deeply psychological film that topples taboos and tackles controversial content scene after scene. From affairs, to parental homicide, to psychological abuse, to alcoholism, in the chaotic, violent mayhem there is, somewhere, a twinkling of love; a flame that still lingers. Though on the surface it appears as if George finally attempts to snuff the flame at last, underneath his contorted innuendo it appears as if he may have actually rekindled the flame long lost by denial and self-regret. In the end "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" manifests brilliantly the poignant truth that, above all, love hurts.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are spectacular as the bantering duo of George and Martha respectively. Perhaps the aid of a real-life romance was a catalyst for the fundamental bittersweet chemistry needed between the two actors, perhaps not; nonetheless each of the two shined in their ground breaking roles of the tired husband and obstinate, self-denying wife. Also impressive were George Segal and Sandy Dennis in their roles of the pompous prodigy and naïve blonde, to typecast their roles of Nick and Honey. In fact, it appears that the role of Honey could not have been more perfectly cast as Dennis shines with her blonde hair, mousy appearance, and her portrayal of a young woman's nonchalant, albeit obscene obsequiousness and 'ludicrosity'.
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is a ground breaking film that tackled many boundaries including the controversy of censorship by challenging cultural and social norms. Credited as the film responsible for the creation of the MPAA rating system, for a film produced in the 1960's, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is a radically controversial and highly subtext-dependent film that was revolutionary for its time.
The film was a critical success, stealing 5 Academy Awards including an Oscar for Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor), Best Supporting Actress (Sandy Dennis), Best Cinematography (Haskell Wexler), Best Art Direction (Black-and-White) and Best Costume Design (Black-and-White). The film was also a UK hit winning the British Academy Award for Best Picture Best British Actor (Richard Burton), and Best British Actress (Elizabeth Taylor). In addition to the National Board of Review's Best Actress Award (Elizabeth Taylor), and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor),"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" also had several other wins and 18 other critical nominations. The film is a true success and transcends the margin between stage and silver screen effortlessly with the help of a solid quartet of actors, a promising, albeit brilliant, script, a haunting score, and a legendary history as a precursor. This 1966 production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is a must see for true film aficionados.
Elizabeth Taylor plays Martha, George's obstinate, self indulgent, self denying wife who hides behind a flippant lifestyle to mask the pain of a dark family secret.
Richard Burton plays George, Martha's tired, lackluster, indifferent husband determined to conflate truth and allusion at last.
George Segal plays Nick, the ignorant prodigal newcomer with a dirty secret of his own.
Sandy Dennis plays Honey, Nick's mousy, naïve wife who also harbors a little secret yet untold.