Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

“You take the trouble to construct a civilization, to build a society based on the principles of… of principle. You make government and art and realize that they are, must be, both the same. You bring things to the saddest of all points, to the point where there is something to lose. Then, all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.”

‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, directed by Mike Nichols in 1966, is an American black comedy and an adaptation of a play by Edward Albee. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a married couple called Martha and George. Martha is the middle-aged daughter of the president of the local college, George is a History professor who has failed to advance in their career. They return home after a party having invited a younger couple, Nick and Honey, for late night drinks. As the two couples drink, Martha and George slowly tear each other apart with insults, physical abuse and psychological taunts, with Nick and Honey in the middle as a combination of a catalyst and an audience for the older couple’s cruelty. As the digs continue, it becomes clear that the relationship between Martha and George has a weak point relating to the identity and location of their son. It’s an intense, painful and, at times, hilarious film. The barbs employed by the older characters are cruel but rich, with each giving as good as they receive. The main pleasure of the film is watching the infamous couple of Burton and Taylor slowly demolish, through their grotesque portrayals of George and Martha, the mystique built up by the Hollywood press. To this end, each actor buries themselves in their roles, Taylor in particular physically transforming herself. It’s easy to forget that this film was made only three years after the film that launched the fantasy of the pair’s relationship, ‘Cleopatra’, and this film feels very much like an antidote to this.

Would I recommend it? ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ falls into the same camp as ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’, taking Hollywood actors with a mystique and taking them apart. Watch in a double bill with either of these.

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