Watching, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” I incessantly looked for reasons for its alluding title. All the while, stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fought ferociously, insulting each other cunningly as husband and wife, George and Martha. They are a captivating couple, whom, disregard manners or politeness and expose their destructive marriage to their unsuspecting guests and film viewers.
One review claims both characters are, from the start, equally malicious towards each other, while I found myself sympathizing with the brooding Burton, who, though desperately trying to ignore his wife’s awful stabs, eventually gives into and becomes quite engaged in her harmful games and mockery. He is an associate professor of history, a title that shames poor Martha, for she is the daughter of the president of the university he works at; she and her father were both expecting much more from George, but just look at the lazy slouch he’s become!
Walking into their cramped, cluttered home, inebriated Martha complains immediately. “What a dump!” she says, forcing George to tell her which movie that line is from. “I don’t know, Martha”, he says, but she yells and demands, as they make their way upstairs. They’ll be having company soon, she says, and suddenly a young, well-built professor and his “mousy,” waiflike wife arrive—they begin drinking. “Mousy,” which she is soon deemed by George, orders Bourbons; she becomes more giddy as the night wears on—Martha becomes more flirtatious towards her blonde guest, naming George’s shortcomings with a raspy snarl. As I watched, I grew tired, as did the first reviewer-- for, where was this all going? I felt like “Mousy”, in a way, dizzied and exhausted-- spun around by Burton’s unpredictable character. I chose to pause the movie fifty minutes before the ending and to finish it the next day. I slept on it, if I may, anticipating greatly the ending of this very strange, but fiery film.
Taylor and Burton are an incredible pair, and this is not surprising; apparently, they’d married in 1964, two years before the release of the film. Yet, as, in reality, they were falling in love with each other—were, I assume, happy newlyweds, their portrayal of a failed marriage is shockingly poignant. I returned to the film the next night, and as their night continued before me, each character, with the encouragement of liquor, exposed their deepest, most shamed secrets. We learn that “Mousy” had a terminated pregnancy; soon after, as Martha talks of her own son with such engulfing love, “Mousy” screams and cries, “I want a baby!” And finally, Martha is broken down by George, who tells her their own son never was—shakes her from her comfortable denial, or insanity, which he sometimes shares. Was Martha’s pregnancy terminated as well? Nothing in this film is explicit, which, I believe, is the reason one can’t seem to free themselves from it afterwards. The jingle “Whose afraid of the big bad woolf?” was mistaken for “Whose afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—This is not only a funny coincidence. Martha, who sings this eerie tune at moments throughout the night, is dealing with her own insanity—which she acknowledges at times, saying, how could George love me? Virginia Woolf, as we know, had spouts of insanity-- at times heard voices, and was put in rest homes by worried friends and family. Woolf also grieved over her inability to have children; Martha grieves over her loss of a child, or the child that never really was. Perhaps, Martha really is afraid of Virginia Woolf, of becoming suicidal Woolf. While this is all unclear, there is, undoubtedly, a reason for the daunting mention of Woolf.