Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (USA 1966)

whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolf-01-1Richard Burton used to reach over to Elizabeth Taylor during off-camera moments, take her breasts in his hands, and squeeze them like antique car horns, making “honk! honk!” noises. Dirty bastard. So he must have relished some of the lines he had to utter in this cinematic tour-de-force: “Well dear, if I kissed you I’d get all excited. Then I’d have to take you, by force, right here on the living room rug.” Liz and Dick were married in real life and it was reported that they had similar encounters with Jack Daniels and boisterous ‘conversations’ at home, so this should have been a walk-in-the-park acting job for both of them.

If you don’t like alcoholic marital conflict then steer clear of this. It’s a highly dialogue-driven affair, with lots of long takes. You’ve got to be able to pay attention to get into this film. And unlike some contemporary and rather self-indulgent dialogue-heavy writers like Tarantino or Sorkin, the dialogue never seems arch or self-conscious or unnecessary. Every conversation is very natural and has a deeper meaning, especially when you dive further into the film and discover just how self-constructed George and Martha’s lives are. Their lies, fantasies, and fictions are ironic considering how brutally truthful they are in other moments. But, it goes to show just how honest and how dishonest people can be, at the same time. Even the most straightforward people lie to themselves and to others, at times, to be protected from the harsh reality of frustrations, doubts, failures, or unhappiness.

virginia-woolfAnd when this all emerges during the climax, it’s totally heartbreaking. The writing is genius but the performances are really what seal the deal. In my opinion, there’s not a link weak in the bunch. Everyone adds something different and distinctive to the film. Elizabeth Taylor rightfully won an Oscar for Best Actress for her hurricane of a performance as Martha. It might seem a bit overplayed, at moments, but that element completely works when you consider how overplayed Martha is, as a person. She is intentionally loud, obnoxious, rude, and vulgar. But, Taylor adds such soul, heartbreak and humanity to her that you can’t help but feel for her and even see some of yourself or someone you know in her mean-spirited streak. Her bespectacled hubby, Richard Burton, has, in some ways, the less showy role.

George holds back quite a bit in the first act, seeming simply like Martha’s sharp-witted yet castrated husband. But, when he lets loose, watch out. The passivity drops and he is totally ferocious. You see the anger that’s been brewing inside of him for years with Martha, as well as the disappointment and emptiness. He should’ve won an Oscar too. George Segal has the most thankless role of the quartet, having to basically be the “sane” one throughout the film. But, he also acts as our moral compass. You can relate to Nick’s horror and discomfort at everything that’s happening, as well as the way he’s eventually roped into all of the games and how that’s even more horrifying to him. Sandy Dennis gives a winning performance full of unusual yet spot-on choices. She plays dumb very well, especially since Honey is playing dumb herself. She’s just so awkward and out-of-place in the midst of everything that she has to act stupid and oblivious, as well as getting hysterically drunk, just to survive. This is a true acting masterclass and one of the most moving, layered, and truthful films I’ve ever seen.

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Comments

  1. I’ve heard the title of this film before but have never delved into it. Thank you for the well-worded synopsis, I’m definitely adding this to my to-watch list!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the kind words…despite the lack of action in this one you should find the dialogue will keep your attention. 🙂

    Like

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