Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Directed by Mike Nichols

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Martha and George (Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton) are suburban witches in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Their conservative campus residence plays like a nightmarish cottage deep in the woods, to which is drawn a young couple named Nick and Honey (George Segal, Sandy Dennis).

The entire film, a very theatrical adaptation of a hit play, takes place over the course of one night and almost exclusively within Martha’s and George’s home.  The story opens deep into the night, already several drinks in, as Martha and George feud in a nasty fashion but one familiar to them.  It is full of venom but conveyed as if it’s a language only the two of them speak.

Martha has invited over Nick and Honey, almost as if only to have a jury in front of whom she can pick apart her husband.  He of course will return the favor before the young couple find themselves pulled into the muck.  If Martha and George have curdled, boiling blood then soon Nick and Honey will too.

This idea of a dinner party from hell is quite familiar now, it’s its own sub-genre even.  You take what look like sophisticated individuals and then undermine them, show what’s missing from their humanity, what can be measured in cultural and financial success but which has resulted in an empty core.  Characters in stories like these have succeeded on one level but gone bankrupt on another, and their incredible lack shows both what our culture values and ignores.

But for the time these characters must have been even more monstrous.  They exist right there within a heteronormative, dominant culture, no less marked by academic success.  Martha’ father is the president of the university at which they live and at which George is an associate professor of history.  Not only have they ‘made it’ in some sense, but they are in a position to transfer knowledge to the next generation.

They are important, pivotal people, at least in theory, and yet all they can do is drink to excess, pick each other apart and then decide to make a spectacle of the whole thing in front of two supposedly innocent people who reflect them at a younger age.  They are miserable and proud, and that they want to show it off to the younger generation only heightens their curmudgeonly vanity.

In 1966 so much of what would mark the 60s as a whole hadn’t yet happened.  Aside from John F. Kennedy the assassinations were a couple years away, the Vietnam protests were only just getting started, Charles Manson was unknown, Ted Kennedy was unmarked by scandal, and Kent State was just another small university.

George and Martha suggest there’s something rotten underneath the facile facade of the post World War II boom.  They are born out of, perhaps, an oppressive conformity, having played the game on the outside and suffered as a result on the inside.  That their marriage could simply be so ugly didn’t make sense, I imagine.

Over the course of the film there will be information revealed but nothing so simple as to explain their behavior, perspective and proclivity for abuse.  There is no clean, neat inflection point which birthed these characters like a fissure in the ground opening a portal to hell.

Instead they are a more nuanced product of the system and the culture, as if a natural but hard to see epidemic of the times, one that would become more visible over the rest of the decade.

These characters and the film must have been a shock to the system for the country and audiences alike.  This is just before the rise of disaffected young adults, acid bikers and romanticized killers which would begin in earnest the following year, tapping into the pulse of young America.

Along with Arthur Penn’s The Chase (1966), this feels like a film that perfectly captures that inflection point in time, between the conformity of the 50s and the revolutionary spirit of the late 60s and 70s.  There is a calm facade that gives way to chaos underneath and suggests, whether purposefully or not, what was to come.

Up Next: Sightseers (2012), You Were Never Really Here (2017), First Blood (1982)

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