>> Sunday, February 3, 2008
USA/B&W-131m./Dir: Mike Nichols/Wr: Ernest Lehman (based on the play by Edward Albee)/Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), Sandy Dennis (Honey)
A middle-aged associate history professor (Richard Burton) and his brazen wife (Elizabeth Taylor) host the world’s worst “after hours” in Mike Nichol’s screen version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home after midnight from a university staff party, George (Burton) discovers that his evening has just begun. At the urging of her father, the president of the university, Martha (Taylor) has invited Nick (George Segal), a new biology professor, and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) over for drinks and conversation. The young couple is in for quite a party, as George and Martha brashly air their dirty laundry in front of their guests. As the verbal and physical abuse continues into the early morning, Nick and Honey find themselves pulled into the fun and games.
I had long avoided watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, because I had often heard the film described as depressing, but “depressing” is the last word I would use to describe this exhilarating movie. A play lives or dies by its dialogue, and Albee’s word choices are top-notch and often laugh-out-loud funny. The cast is up to the verbal gymnastics required by the play, and Taylor and Dennis deservedly won Academy Awards for their brave, unglamorous performances. However, as fine as the rest of the cast is, Burton really carries the film. How he did not end up taking home an Oscar is a mystery to me. The intensity of the actors is matched by the excellent direction of first-timer Nichols and the cinematography of Haskell Wexler (who also took home an Oscar statue). They keep what is basically a shouting match between four characters constantly visually interesting.
I wouldn’t describe the storyline as “depressing” either. Although George and Martha’s relationship is tempestuous, they are obviously in love (if not obsessed) with one another. However loud, their relationship works, and no other partner would satisfy them emotionally or cerebrally. And although the play’s ending could be considered sad, George and Martha’s relationship has turned a corner, which may allow them to focus on the present rather than on the disappointments of the past. If not, they have a well-stocked bar.
Speaking of the bar, boozing is very important to the plot of the film. Each of the four characters have a drink of choice--George (scotch), Martha (gin), Nick (bourbon), and Honey (brandy)--that they down liberally into the early morning (as Honey enjoys repeating, “Never mix, never worry”). Much of the discussion amongst the foursome revolves around boozing, including George’s revelatory speech about “the grandest day of my youth; and the characters often blame their bad manners and bad behavior upon their imbibing.
Of course, the film isn’t perfect. It doesn’t make much sense that while the characters’ back-and-forth banter is extremely witty, the jokes they actually laugh at are terribly corny (“Church mouse,” “Bergen,” and of course, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). Also, the ending revelation is telegraphed to such an extent that it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. However, those are extremely minor misgivings in comparison to the feast of pleasures that this film provides. All in all, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an electrifying experience.
Drinks Consumed--Scotch, gin, brandy, and bourbon
Intoxicating Effects--Slurred speech, staggering, stumbling, vomiting, harmonizing, the giggles, drunk driving, soused sex, bickering, destruction of property, and physical violence
Potent Quotables--MARTHA: Fix me another drink, lover.
GEORGE: My god, you can swill it down, can’t you?
MARTHA: I’m thirsty.
GEORGE: Oh, Jesus.
MARTHA: Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want, so don’t worry about me.
GEORGE: I gave you the prize many years ago, Martha. There isn’t an abomination award going that you haven’t won.
Video Availability--The film is available as a stand-alone Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Two-Disc Special Edition) DVD or as part of the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Film Collection (Warner Brothers).
Similarly Sauced Cinema--Liz and Dick re-teamed the following year to take on another famous play, The Taming of the Shrew, with Burton as the wine-guzzling Petruchio.