Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?– IMDB 228/250

Hollywood icons Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are probably more famous for their own tumultuous relationship than any they portrayed on screen, but the next film on my list was them exuding their chemistry and love life on film in Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

One of only two films (along with Cimarron from 1931) to be nominated for every eligible category at the Academy Awards, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a hilarious yet dark portrayal of a long term relationship between Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and college professor George (Richard Burton).

Having just come from a party, Martha has invited a young couple round to their house (despite it being the early hours in the morning), and the four of them soon reveal intimate secrets about one another as the drinks consistently flow.

The early beginnings of the film really set the tone, brilliantly depicting a drunk, constantly battling couple, with George frustrated that Martha has invited these relative strangers round to their home. Immediately we see the fiery chemistry between Burton and Taylor, and many said this film mirrored their own troublesome relationship.

It's thought George and Martha's relationship resembled Burton and Taylor's own troubled Hollywood romance

It’s thought George and Martha’s relationship resembled Burton and Taylor’s own troubled romance

George and Martha’s insults to one another seem to flow through their conversation like the alcohol is flowing through them, with a new drink seemingly poured every 10 minutes. They are in a long marriage of convenience, grown bitter towards each other yet somehow thriving off of their confrontation and arguments. It is like they are at war, in a battle of wits in its most literal form as each tries to one up the other and get the last word in.

What really impressed me about this film along with the performances of the actors was the dialogue. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was originally a play by Edward Albee, and that theatrical mind-set and feeling is highlighted here, as the film is very reminiscent of a theatrical production. The fact Nichols shot the film in black and white also adds a kind of film noir and mystery element to it, which made me think of plays such as An Inspector Calls or The Mouse Trap, particularly in the secrecy surrounding George and Martha’s child.

The dialogue is written with precision and care, perfectly executed by Burton and Taylor. It is smooth and funny without coming off as unrealistic, and actually is very relatable to the audience. Burton’s hilarious retort when Honey (Sandy Dennis) says she needs to powder her nose particular stood out for me, “Martha would you show her where we keep the euphemism”. The film I found genuinely funny, which is a rarity for me when it comes to older films.

Ernest Lehman who wrote the screenplay brilliantly depicts drunken conversation and arguments, with the masterful dialogue showcasing a screenplay real writers would strive to write. It is something seen so rarely in modern films, with too much focus on action, franchises and reboots, and not on character driven narratives like we see here.

The story and plot isn’t told through action, but rather in the dialogue of each character. The mystery regarding George and Martha’s son, the story of their relationship, and even Honey and Nick’s (George Sagal) secrets are slowly revealed, all boiling up to a point towards the end until George drunkenly and bitterly reveals all their secrets when he himself has been humiliated.

Burton and Taylor are the clear stars of the film, but their characters needed another couple to play off, and Dennis and Sagal are wonderful in their roles too, with Sandy Dennis scooping a best supporting actress award for her role. (Taylor would win best actress).

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Taylor, Burton, Dennis and Sagal all deserve high praise for their performances

The contrasting couples help with the comedy at first as Honey and Nick are baffled to walk into their drunken domestic, but as the film progresses all four characters get darker, bitter and vengeful toward each other.

Essentially as our characters get drunker the film gets darker, this is why it is often described as a black comedy. The first sign of this is when Burton pretends to shoot his wife with a fake gun, which although taken with surprisingly good humour from the guests, is a clear sign things are becoming more serious.

With the exception of Honey, each character gets more vindictive, bullying and attempting to embarrass each other, with George taking it a step further. When he physically attacks Martha we see a truly brutal side to him, and our sympathies lie solely with Martha as we see how cruel George can be.

By the films end George and Martha are essentially in a twisted sort of personal game, which George particularly thrives and ingratiates himself in. The ending is very bizarre, and George becomes especially cruel to Martha, but this darker element to the movie only gives this film more depth and helped make it one of the best films I’ve seen on this list.

The film can be accused of being slightly overly long, and by the end their back and forth dialogue loses some of its earlier edge, but its portrayal of relationships and characters is really masterful.

And for anyone that has been blind drunk this is a highly relatable film, and the fact I drunk a whole bottle of wine while watching it added to its effect, almost like I was joining in on their revelry and drunkenness. Which can only be a good thing.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: 9/10

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