Classic Review – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Jesus Christ this film is heavy.  I have been warned that this film is depressing, but man is it emotionally draining.  The characters are so horrendous in their actions and words, so full of hate and spite (and alcohol).  It is a story of the failure of the American Dream, about the perils of alcoholism, the entanglement of abuse and love.  But damn is it a classic that is so watchable.

The premise is simple.  An older couple, George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) are two heavy drinkers who walk home late at night after a party and a younger couple they met at the party come over.  George is a professor at a local college, whose president is the father of Martha.  The young couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) are new in town and the husband is a new professor at the same college.  Then the four characters drink and drink and drink and shit goes down.

The film written by Ernest Lehman and directed by the incomparable Mike Nichols paints a nasty portrait of the struggle of marriage and failed aspirations.  George and Martha spit vitrol at each other as the night goes on and on.  There are glints of love and happiness, but those little glimmers of hope are smothered by more gin, more bourbon, more brandy, and more games.  Games, the lies and half truths George and Martha spin for the young couple.  George and Martha are full of secrets, and the movie is so watchable due to seeing these amazing performances unveil these secret and hidden aspects of their characters and their relationships.  These characters might be hate filled alcoholics, but they are human, and the actors and Mike Nichols always make that fact apparent.

And the acting, my God the acting.  If you ever want to know what it means to give powerhouse performances, look no further than Burton and Taylor.  I did not notice a false note between the two of them.  They never pulled a Pacino and overacted.  They were never too big.  They were just two broken people living a broken life together.  They were funny, tragic, morose, spiteful, sexy, cruel, and human.  This film is worth watching alone just to witness Taylor and Burton trade insults and cruelness at each other.  It’s amazing work.

George Segal and Sandy Dennis are also great.  I don’t know how she did it, but Dennis was a wickedly hilarious and sad drunk.  She deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as she amusingly overdrinks as she tries and fails to keep up with George and Martha.  To say that George and Martha drink a lot is an understatement.  They guzzle down booze like there’s no tomorrow.  This young couple struggles with the alcohol, their own marriage, and trying to understand the truth behind George and Martha.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is an amazing film that deserves to be seen today.  Its themes and performances are still worth exploring.  This film was groundbreaking when it was released, dealing with sex, alcohol, lewd language directly and without inference was unheard of in 1966.  I was shocked at what I heard, as I did not expect to hear such words or such controversial topics discussed in a black and white film starring two of classical Hollywood’s biggest stars.  I highly recommend anyone who is interested in seeing a piece of cinematic history featuring four powerful performances skillfully directed and tamed by a master director.


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