No. 21: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)

Nick: “You’ve all gone crazy. Nuts.”
Martha: “Relax. Sink into it. You’re no better than anybody else.”

George (Richard Burton) likes to paint himself as the put-upon husband, an innocent victim shocked by the viciousness of his marriage. His wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) knows better. “You married me for it,” she hisses at him, and right there she breaks through the skin layers and bone and hits the marrow. George feeds on her boozy tirades, but it’s more than that. Martha’s tantrums give his life — which, he’s concluded, is nothing but a string of compromises and failures — a bizarre kind of purpose. With her, he’s browbeaten and emasculated; without her, he wouldn’t exist at all.

Fulfilling, lasting marriages are hardly built on such relationships, but great movies are. (Happy marriages don’t sell as many movie tickets.) Adapted from Edward Albee’s incidiary Broadway play, Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” works beautifully as a study of marital misery — sadism, masochism, abuse (all kinds), profanity and alcoholism included — and an explosive/quietly revealing character study. How can a film be both at once? The pyrotechnics come nearly every time Burton and Taylor open their mouths. They take the heat between them to dark places, lunging at each other like starved pitbulls. Both go so far that the line between acting and reality isn’t just blurred, it’s totally erased. Albee’s biting dialogue, mostly preserved here, is what provides the gentler insights into the dynamics of George and Martha’s marriage, their individual character and that of their unfortunate guests, Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis), as well.

And what an unholy flaming hell the couple’s unwitting guests find themselves in. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” begins with what, somehow, we sense is a familiar scene: George and Martha, fairly well-liquored, stumble in from a social gathering held by Martha’s father, president of the bucolic New England university where George teaches history. She mimics Betty Davis’ “what a dump!” and claims she can’t remember where she heard it. Taylor’s face clues us in that she’s baiting George. Burton sighs, but he’s barely hiding a smirk that suggests he knows the game well and enjoys it. There’s no time for a battle, though, before their guests arrive. Why a visit at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning? Martha’s father arranged it, and George has resigned himself to accommodating the whims of his employer, whom he calls “the white mouse with tiny red eyes.”

In come Nick, new to the university’s biology department, and Honey, both nervous and looking for any excuse to split. Presented with fresh blood, Martha and George aren’t about to let that happen, so drinks are poured and the trap is set. So commences the first of two wars, with the hosts hurling scaldingly insults (one of the best: “Martha is 108 … years old. She weighs somewhat more than that”) and picking open old wounds related to their mysterious son. Next is “Get the Guests,” where Martha and George intend to divide and conquer their weaker guests — Martha by bedding Nick and George by preying on Honey’s fragility. Segal, in his moments alone with Taylor, lets sadness and recognition pass over his face, and his still moments with Taylor, including a drunken porchfront tête-à-tête and a scene where she admits George is the only man who’s ever made her happy, are some of the film’s best.

But let’s boomerang back to the fights, which earned Taylor that Best Actress Oscar and Burton that Best Actor nomination. Whether it was life experience (Taylor and Burton married and divorced each other twice), raw talent or some combination that made them such a great team here is anyone’s guess; the power of their work, however, is undeniable. Such towering rage their words have, and such pain we see in those expressions as they play their one-up-on-you games. Their energy, captured expertly and artfully by Ernest Lehman, is what pushes the film from showy melodrama into the kind of psychological subterfuge that leaves us drained, reeling and affected for days to come.

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