1966. 131 minutes. unrated.
George: You can sit around with the gin running out of your mouth; you can humiliate me; you can tear me to pieces all night, that’s perfectly okay, that’s all right.
Martha: You can stand it!
George: I cannot stand it!
Martha: You can stand it, you married me for it!
It won five Academy awards (and got thirteen nominations). It was the most expensive black and white film made at the time, costing $7.5 million to produce. It was considered obscene when it came out, resulting in at least one arrest (of a Nashville theater owner). And 45 years later, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains crisp, relevant and mesmerizing.
Just after coming home from the faculty mixer at 2:30AM, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) informs her professorial husband George (Richard Burton) that they have guests coming over— Nick (George Segal), the rising star of the biology department, and his mousy wife Honey (Sandy Dennis). The younger couple become a vehicle for Martha and George’s bitter relationship, propelled by contempt and alcohol.
My favorite things:
You could make a drinking game out of counting the number of drinks poured. There were so many, it it made me crave a gin & tonic.
Funny, smart, scathing, the way George and Martha treat one another ranges into cringeworthy at times:
Martha [derogatorily, to George] Hey, swamp! Hey swampy!
George: Yes, Martha? Can I get you something?
Martha: Ah, well, sure. You can, um, light my cigarette, if you’re of a mind to.
George: No. There are limits. I mean, a man can put up with only so much without he descends a rung or two on the old evolutionary ladder, which is up your line. Now, I will hold your hand when it’s dark and you’re afraid of the boogeyman and I will tote your gin bottles out after midnight so no one can see but I will not light your cigarette. And that, as they say, is that.
Did I mention every billed character got a nod from the Academy, and both Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis won Oscars for their portrayals? Dennis has the most textured performance, as she gets charmingly intoxicated, then brayingly loud, puking, stinking drunk.
Movies were just made differently way back then. The blocking is very reminiscent of the stage, and scenes are longer than the fast paced scenes in today’s films. Characters are more physically static. The dialogue is so intense, that the viewer is left to focus on the acting. Martha is over the top in her disdain of her spouse George, but George is more passively aggressive, and sometimes his tone doesn’t match his words, so careful attention must be paid, or you’ll miss his brilliant, cutting commentary.
Stick to straight bourbon while you are watching this gem, and remember: Never mix, never worry!