Title: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
Director: Mike Nichols
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Music: Alex North
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
The late Mike Nichols’ acclaimed director debut, a four-character powerhouse play from Edward Albee and is adapted by Ernest Lehman. Starring Taylor and Burton in their most virulent aggressions, as Martha and George, a middle-aged couple, George is an associate history professor in a New England college and Martha is the daughter of the college president.
It all happens in one night, after returning home from a party hosted by Martha’s father, under the influence, they starts quibbling about a movie starring Betty Davis, but neither of them can remember the title (actually it is BEYOND THE FOREST 1949), it is vexatious but could happen to any couple who have been married for a sizeable time, squabbles aside, Martha gets offensive when George refuses to kiss her. Although it is past midnight, they are still expecting company, Martha invited a young couple who they have just met in the party to come by. Apparently, they don’t need anyone else to get under each other’s skin, but when there is an audience, it will be more intense.
So it begins, arrive Nick and Honey (Segal and Dennis), a handsome biology professor and his meek wife who are just newly in town. The tension is immediately kindled between the men through George’s breezy teasing, and a clear shot of George noticing Martha’s over-friendly caress of Nick’s hand sets the strain in a highly tangible mode which implies a possibility of fornication. Martha strikes first, rails at George for his ineffectuality in his career, who is “preoccupied with history” and bogged down as an associative professor, while George is busy offering liqueur to both guests and hosts, retorts incessantly in the verbal abuse game.
It is rather embarrassing for Nick and Honey, to watch a couple they barely know throwing harsh accusations towards each other, but their facade of politeness soon dissolves, after Honey mentions that Martha tells her, they have a son and the next day happens to be his sixteenth birthday, and George suddenly turns infuriated. Abetted by the steady intake of alcohol, the game of “humiliating the host” runs amok (a broken bottle and an unexpected gun scare), Honey is the first who cannot hold her liquor. During her vomit break, the onlooker becomes a participant, Nick removes the guard and divulges his own true feelings of marrying Honey after George tells him a disturbing story of a boy accidentally kills his both parents (in two separate cases), it will boomerang at the game of “get the guests” in a roadhouse and escalates the drama into “hump the hostess”.
Eventually, the exhausting cocktail of frustration, complaint, discontent, jealousy, self-contempt and self-destruction has been subsumed to the division between reality and pure illusion, it is something Nick finally realises, and it is the theme has been foreshadowed all along the film, ever since Martha breaks the rules of the game, George has been hell-bent to use the ace in the hole to win the final round, however, the end result is ever so futile, after a long and dragging night, truth is brought to the open, but after a sound sleep and the catalyst of alcohol, little will change for George and Martha and as for Nick and Honey, their ill-matched, lies-riddled young matrimony is destined for a sad ending, what a pessimistic take on modern marriage, yet the impetus is so thrilling and palpable.
The quartet performers, the harridan, the doormat, the climber and the flaky, are marvellous to behold. Taylor inconceivably transmogrifies herself into an unglamorous shrew (she was only 33 then) with the campiest and most relentless verbal strafing, she is the devil of language, while Burton takes the soapbox to unreservedly exhibit George’s more sophisticated inner feelings and bellows out his lines with soul-stirring cadence. Segal and Dennis, mirror a different specimen of incompatible personalities, are both at the top of their games. The film is nominated for 13 Oscars (with 5 wins, including for Taylor and Dennis) and is one of only two films to be nominated in every eligible category (the other one is CIMARRON 1931), a record cannot be exceeded by latecomers, it is rather absurd to image in today’s weather, any theatre-based piece of work with the similar scale (Roman Polanski’s CARNAGE 2011, is the latest cousin in my mind) can harvest all the top honours (especially outside the the acting branches) wholesale and that’s the legacy behind this forcible masterpiece pitilessly scrutinising the most surreptitious human stains.