Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

Photo Credit: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf / Warner Bros.
Every time my mother and sister have tuned into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? playing on Turner Classic Movie channel, edging out of the room became my specialty. Honestly, I wasn't "terrified of the film" but I had reluctant feelings towards seeing it.

George (Richard Burton) is an associate professor in the history department married to the college president's daughter Martha (Elizabeth Taylor). Middle-aged, embittered, consumed with alcohol and emotional turmoil, the couple return to their house from a faculty party at two-thirty a.m.

The early morning is far from over as a relentless Martha reminds her husband that a new biology professor Nick, and his weak-stomached wife Honey, are stopping by. Only the further fun and games is a brutal verbal boxing match where nobody is left standing. The four characters become so deeply drunkenly hazed, yet remain so considerably conscience of their pain, they somehow manage to viciously inflict agony on each other.

Based on Edward Albee's Tony-winning play, this 1966 adaptation is so shockingly laden in curse words and screaming matches, it's volatile nature somehow remains weirdly modern. Before, during, and after there may be no movie relationship experience that is as indignant, claustrophobic and brilliant as George and Martha. It's provocative, addictive, and yes a little scary.

The words they use to rip into each other is so addictively dehumanizing that by the films' end you are as wiped out as the characters. Diminishing each others' identities and using each other as punching bags lose every of the possibility of a healthy or even sane marriage. What's lost is lost so there's no use for holding back or wearing a mask anymore. The foursome continually tears off each other's masks and illusions. Some are tender moments of monologues, most are cautiouslessly ripping off band-aids glued to scabby old emotional scars.

Each actor gives a performance of a lifetime and earns their respective Academy Award title (shockingly except Richard Burton who lost). What can I possibly say more to compliment Elizabeth Taylor's exquisite work as Martha? Aged, nagging, and endlessly toiling up for more ammunition against Richard Burton, she manages a balance between a bully and vulnerable scarred wife. Hidden beyond the psychologically-exhausting Daddy's girl is a woman whose run out of love and dreams of her husband doing more with their lives. She's run out of opportunities and time to be the wife and mother she once dreamed of becoming. Her performance is organically hardcore.

Perhaps more so brilliant than the script and the characters is the claustrophobic direction. Shot in black and white by Haskell Wexler, the masterful cinematography remains in such close proximity to the shattered people you've observing, you're rarely ever less than at arm's length to them. Occasionally, we're given room to breathe but most of the screen-time is filled with close-ups. You can almost feel the heat emanating off of the characters' energy as they power up for wordy jabs. With dramatic shades of light cascading across any one of the characters' face, this two-hour bloodbath shines a disdainful spotlight.

As an audience member, it's figurable to believe if you were Nick or Honey you would've high-tailed it out of there after five minutes. Yet something like the characters makes you stay - whether it's to see who survives if the shattered pieces of their lives are even worth picking up at the end of the evening - keeps you grounded and hypnotized to their emotional storms. Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? You better believe it that I am.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? What do you think?

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