Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is classified as a black comedy by my good friend Wikipedia, which means it uses humour in a sardonic way, usually at inappropriate times. The key word here is “humour”. It implies levity and a bit of laughter. But there is no levity at all in this movie. None. Zilch. The only laugh comes from a man who has just found out that his wife is having an affair, probably in his own bedroom. That’s not really humour. The characters are so miserable, so angry, and so violently aggressive it’s a miracle their house doesn’t implode from an overabundance of evil energy.
The movie is adapted from Edward Albee’s play of the same name, and much like A Streetcar Named Desire, it is even filmed like a stage play. There are few close ups. The sets are well-decorated and barely come into contact with the characters. The dialogue is almost Shakespearean and the four main actors do a good job of treating it as a foreign language. They don’t use words heard in casual conversation. But then most of their conversations aren’t casual to begin with. They are masters of insult and condescension.
As the movie opens, we are introduced to Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and George (Richard Burton), an ageing couple who works for a university somewhere in New England. Martha is the president’s daughter, and George works in the history department. They despise each other. Or at least that’s the vibe they give off. They’ve just returned from a faculty party and they’re drunk off their heads. The story gets interesting when a much younger couple from the university (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) is invited over for what they’re expecting to be a civilised night of mature conversation. They get none of that.
What unfolds over the course of the night is a series of horrific mind games employed by George. He is wonderful at making others seem insignificant. His tone is always sarcastic, and he is relentless at bringing up past issues that everyone else has struggled for years to keep hidden. Burton steals the show. He is the catalyst; the cog-turner who keeps the wheels of the story moving ever forward. At times he is funny, but most of the time we’re wondering why Martha has yet to divorce him. Only when the very last scene comes about do we realise that maybe there are painful truths buried deep within the couple’s memory banks that prevent them from being happy.
The movie is directed by Mike Nichols, who also directed The Graduate, a movie about a troubled young college jock. Nichols has a keen interest in the subjugation of the young male figure. In both movies he crafts a young man driven almost to the point of insanity by older tormentors. In The Graduate, Anne Bancroft tries mercilessly to seduce poor Benjamin. She preys on his innocence and vulnerability. In Virginia Woolf, the husband of the young couple is manipulated and mistreated by George, and later succumbs to Martha’s advances, who later also talks down to him as if he were nothing but a lowly servant. The thing that puzzles me about these two men is their insecurity, and their fear of older women. I suspect they’re gay.
There is superb acting all round the table, as well there should be. Elizabeth Taylor plays Martha as a severely damaged woman who enjoys teasing her husband, and there is no question as to her believability in the role. As always, she is natural. I mentioned before that Richard Burton makes the perfect George — ruthless and vile, yet whimsical. But the more subtle gems come from Segal and Dennis, who become so convincingly intoxicated by the end of the night that I had to wonder if the props master accidentally left bottles of alcohol lying around on set during filming.
All four actors work well with one another, but sadly none of them make persuasive couples. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s just me. I am reminded of Joey Tribbiani from the TV show Friends, whose rule about the chemistry of stage actors is as follows: “If there is no chemistry on stage, they are definitely doing it off stage”. This applies here to Taylor and Burton, who were married during the filming of this movie and seem to have lost all chemistry in front of the camera. Not once did I believe them as a real couple who, though incredibly bitter now, might have shared a romantic moment at any point in their marriage.
So what is there to enjoy about Virginia Woolf if the story is plodding and the characters are unlikable? I’ll leave that for you to decide. You might find something truly inspiring in the way the characters degenerate from civilised human beings to broken down empty shells. But there’s too much distress and anger in this movie for me to enjoy it thoroughly. I appreciate the quality acting and the complicated dialogue, but that’s as far as it goes. And for the life of me I can’t figure out why anyone would be afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Best Moment | Many of Richard Burton’s lines. I particularly relished the way he kept deliberately confusing facts about his guests.
Worst Moment | No, there’s no one particular moment.