Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- Elizabeth Taylor as Martha
- Richard Burton as George
- George Segal as Nick
- Sandy Dennis as Honey
One of the most emotionally fraught, honest and unremittingly uncomfortable looks at marital dysfunction ever to appear on the screen, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? still has the power to pack a punch with its acerbic dialogue and committed performances. If you’re looking for a successful translation of a famous play to the screen, then look no further than this drama.
Martha and George, a college history professor and his wife return home in the early hours of the morning. There marriage is by turns loving and savagely cruel. Martha, who drinks too much and roars like a harpy constantly berates George about everything, while George is equally adept at playing these childlike games with her. Martha announces that she has invited a biology teacher and his wife over for a nightcap. It is here that all the venom within each of them begins to surface. When Nick, the handsome teacher and his meek wife Honey arrive at the house, Martha and George immediately launch into one of their many games, that eerily mirrors their troubled marriage. Soon, the young and seemingly innocent couple are drawn into this verbal war zone, and as the drinks continue to pour and as the early hours wear on, the vicious words and psychological abuse take full effect on all of them. Secrets are unearthed and grievances aired as the young couple watch the effects of a damaging marriage, while showing that there’s isn’t exactly on solid ground either. As an audience, you will be paralysed with shock at the violent effects of words and the volatile relationship of the central couple. But, don’t let the grim premise put you off, because if you do you will miss the talented Mike Nichols crafting a startling and full-blooded vision of marital confusion that will never be forgotten once it has been.
The use of black and white in the film exceptionally conveys the stark situations that the characters are stuck in. The editing style, mainly close-up’s and cuts to long shots help back up the verbal volleys that the feuding couple inflict on each other throughout the film. Above all, it is the acting the lingers longest in the memory. Elizabeth Taylor sheds her glamorous image to deliver an electrifying Oscar-winning performance as the monstrous and abusive Martha. But instead of creating an evil caricature, she imbues the character with a strange sort of sympathy and sadness that makes us realise the internal anger and pain that lie inside of her. Equally matching her is Richard Burton’s portrayal of the weary George, who although he tolerates Martha’s abuse, the audience comes to see that he is the one who has the upper hand as the games get evermore personal. Sterling support is added by George Segal and especially Oscar winner Sandy Dennis, who gives a performance full of neurotic tics that reveal her uncomfortable feelings with the situation unfolding before her eyes. The script is one of the most scathing , honest and corrosive things I think I’ve ever heard, the cast delivers the lacerating words with conviction, emotion and above all, power. One needs to remember how controversial the film was upon release, mainly because of the language used. And even though the years may have lessened some of the impact, the bruising words still have a raw and intense power that is hard to escape.
Mike Nichols delivered an auspicious debut with this film that surely ranks as one of his best, along with The Graduate. If you can handle the arguing and emotional impact of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, then I advise you to see it as it is uncomfortable and unflinching in its view of a broken marriage, but rewarding because of the excellent performances captured.