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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

     I am generally drawn to movies based on dramatic plays (provided the films are considered good) and am a big fan of adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ works. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an Edward Albee piece that certainly rocks the decency boat, Elizabeth Taylor‘s image and the viewer right out of his seat. It won five Academy Awards including Best Actress for Taylor and Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis.

     Taylor was in her early thirties when she took on the role of 50-something Martha whose course tongue and violent alcoholism produce an image more resembling the crazy Taylor we expect today than the sex symbol she was in 1966. Taylor took quite the leap of faith in pursuing the role that filmmakers saw as more suited to the likes of Bette Davis. The risk paid off, however, as Taylor showed the world she was capable of more than just good looks and a charming personality.

     The plot follows a married couple comprised of Richard Burton‘s academic George and his wife, Martha, daughter of the college president. Taylor’s character invites a young couple new at the school to a 2 a.m. meet-and-drink at their home in the midst of what the viewer is left to assume is commonplace verbal battle between the primary couple. The language is harsh by 1966 standards but goes to lengths to stay true to the play. Terms such as “god damn you” and “monkey nipples” abound and add to the tense circumstances.

     The first 45 minutes of the movie are non-stop shouting between Taylor and Burton, much of which occurs once the guests have arrived. Drinks continue to be poured and Taylor puts on a show for the young pair, paying little attention to their interest in conversation but having the time of her life expounding on the shortcoming of her husband. As far as the guests are concerned, I cannot foresee why they did not escape the situation early on. Insistence that they stay and alcohol might be to blame, but if I had been in the same position I would have left 10 minutes in. The chaos does eventually subside when Dennis’ character becomes ill. From there forward the caustic terms continue but in lower tones as Martha proceeds to seduce the young man (George Segal).

     The story also contains some mystery as to the shame linked to Martha and George’s teenage son, the revelation of which brings the end of the dark night, the young couple’s visit and the film. The closing shot is a tender one between Taylor and Burton, but the viewer is left in limbo as far as what lies ahead for the couple.

     I do not think if the entire picture had paralleled the first heated portion I would have liked Virginia Woolf? so well. No one enjoys being party to an intimate quarrel, so to witness the flagrant disrespect among spouses herein is uncomfortable. The reason to watch this film, however, is not so much the story as the performances and dialogue. I have often noted that a movie can be identified as an adaptation of a stage play by the dialogue. Movies like this and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night are heavy on conversation that is artistically written. I suppose that set up is not for everyone, but I revel in it. To see Taylor at her best, you must watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which is why it receives my first, full-length Wowza! review.

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