Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Released:  1966

Cast:  Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis

Oscar Wins:  Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor), Best Supporting Actress (Sandy Dennis), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Haskell Wexler), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Richard Sylbert, George James Hopkins), Best Costume Design, Black-and-White (Irene Sharaff)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Actor (Richard Burton), Best Supporting Actor (George Segal), Best Director (Mike Nichols), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Lehman), Best Sound (George Groves), Best Film Editing (Sam O’Steen), Best Music, Original Music Score (Alex North)

SUMMARY:  George (Richard Burton), an associate history professor at a small college, lives near the campus with his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor).  Martha is the daughter of the president of the college, and is very volatile, especially when she has been drinking (which is often).  One night after a staff party, Martha invites a new professor and his wife over for drinks, much to George’s dismay.  The husband, Nick (George Segal), is a biology professor at the college; he arrives with his wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis).  All four have already been drinking for some time, and continue to drink at George and Martha’s house.  George and Martha have a tempestuous relationship, and make no effort to hide this from Nick and Honey.  They constantly say nasty things about the other, goading and pushing farther and farther.  Each seems determined to find the one thing they can say that will finally push the other over the edge.  Nick and Honey are embarrassed by the arguing (which is anything but good-natured), but remain at the house.  Not long after arriving, Honey and Martha leave the room; when they come back, Honey tells George that Martha had been talking about their son, and how his sixteenth birthday is the next day.  Already angry at Martha, George now becomes furious.  This doesn’t stop Martha, who continues to purposely embarrass and humiliate George in front of their guests.  Nick and Honey begin to look for reasons to leave, but are stopped when Honey suddenly gets sick from the alcohol.  While Martha tends to Honey, George and Nick go outside.  There, Nick tells George about his relationship with Honey:  rather than for love, he had married her because of her wealthy family and an alleged pregnancy.  He also tells George that he intends to advance his career by any means possible, including sleeping with the wives of other professors (including Martha).  When Honey emerges from the bathroom, Nick finally insists that they leave.  George offers to drive them home, and Martha also comes along.  On the way to Nick and Honey’s house, the (still-drunk) Honey sees a roadside bar, and insists on going in to dance.  Inside, Honey dances by herself, while the other three continue to push and pick at each other (after Nick’s comment about sleeping with Martha, George becomes extremely hostile and derisive towards him).  Fed up with George’s taunts, Nick begins to dance rather inappropriately with Martha, while George and Honey watch.

George now suggests that, having played Humiliate the Host (and since Nick will be saving Hump the Hostess) for later, they should play a game of Get the Guests.  He then divulges the information Nick told him about the reasons for his marriage to Honey, embarrassing Honey and infuriating Nick.  The younger couple run out, while George and Martha return to the parking lot.  Things seem to come to a head here, with George telling Martha that he is sick and tired of the way she constantly humiliates and harasses him.  Martha throws it right back at him, saying that he wouldn’t have married her if he didn’t secretly enjoy it.  Following a nasty argument, the two swear all-out war on each other.  Martha takes the car home, but picks up Nick and Honey on the way.  George is forced to walk home; when he arrives, he finds Honey sleeping in the back seat of the car.  By a window outline, he can also see that Nick and Martha are upstairs in the bedroom together.  George and Honey sit outside together; while Honey rambles drunkenly on, George tries to think of a way to get back at Martha.  When Nick and Martha come downstairs, George has apparently disappeared.  Their encounter apparently did not go well, as Martha is now just as nasty and derisive towards Nick, even telling him that he now has the status of a houseboy.  George suddenly shows up, and seems to be contrite.  He and Martha even briefly gang up on Nick, until the issue of Nick and Martha is brought up again.  George then returns to form, announcing that he has one last game for the group to play.  He eggs Martha into telling Nick and Honey about their son, though she clearly does not want to.  Finally, Martha relates the story of the boy’s birth and childhood, before the two begin accusing the other of ruining the child.  George then tells Martha that he has just received a telegram stating that their son is dead.  Martha is obviously devastated, and pleads with George not to “kill” their son.  Finally, Nick is able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together:  George and Martha were not able to have children, so they instead invented one, and made up stories about him.  The only rule of this game was that they could not tell anyone else about the son.  Martha broke this rule by mentioning him to Honey, so George retaliated by killing him.  Martha seems to be beside herself, and Nick and Honey are finally able to quietly leave.  As the movie ends, Martha asks George if he had to kill their son; he tells her that it was time.  He then sings the “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” song, which had been brought up all evening; this time, Martha answers him, saying that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf.

MY TAKE:  This is always what I have imagined Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s real-life relationship to have been like (after all, they were married and divorced twice).  They just have an extremely volatile relationship, which is made infinitely worse by the fact that both of them drink to excess (which they also both did in real life).   The film is basically two hours of them screaming abuse at each other.  At first, it’s kind of intriguing, because you wonder why they do it, and how long it will take for one of them to just lose it.  The, I started wondering why in the world George ever stayed with Martha, who is hell on wheels.  By about the second hour of the film, I was just tired of them.  The fighting got so old that I wasn’t even that interested when the big reveal rolled around.  Honestly, by that point I was just trying to figure out which one was crazier.  In my opinion, Martha really does have psychological issues; George is nuts for getting sucked into her world of deception and head games, and then for staying with her.  I was also blown away by the fact that Nick and Honey stay that long at George and Martha’s house.  Maybe this is because I don’t like dealing with other people’s crap, but after the first few minutes, when George and Martha are at each other’s throats, I would have been out of there.  I sure as hell wouldn’t have stayed for another two hours, regardless of what they said to me.  At the end of the movie, everybody is left feeling emotionally worn out, including the viewer.

Fun fact:  This is one of only two movies (the other is Cimarron) to ever be nominated for every eligible Academy Award (13 nominations).  It was also the first film to have its entire credited cast nominated for Oscars; this has only been accomplished twice since then (Sleuth and Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!).

RATING:  Irritating.

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