The 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, begins with a long, pan-out camera shot during the initial credits. The scene is quiet and serene as a middle-aged couple walks home in the dark. The credits fade and the film blends genres to resemble a play as the couple flicks the light switch of their living room to represent the beginning of a scene. However, this aspect of a play is present within a movie, so the lens takes the viewer right into the scene. Martha's throaty voice yells, "What a dump!" and the viewer is thrust into a two hour long emotional tug-of-war.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play Martha and George, a married couple who host a small get together that pushes everyone involved to the brink of a break down when paired with psychological games and endless rounds of drinks. Kathleen's blog provides an excellent and thorough synopsis of the film so I'll try to stay away from summary to present a commentary.
Filmed in black- and-white, director Mike Nichols uses a camera technique that gives the sense of an amateur home video or a mock documentary (think of the extreme close ups of Michael's face as he makes a desperate announcement in The Office). This blurring between Hollywood film and a home video mirrors the the blurring between truth and lies, as well as objective and subjective reality within the movie. Martha and George declare something only to contradict themselves a moment later. While I don't want to give away any spoilers, I must admit that I enjoyed realizing that nothing is what it seems in this film and discovering that the viewer is yet another player in Martha and George's game.
The movie left me with numerous questions since I found it surprisingly complex. Is Martha a miserable person while George simply enjoys being miserable, or are they both rotten, miserable people? Does this movie document the moment that Martha and George "snap" or is this just a typical night with its typical scenes that occur regardless of who is present? Can Martha or George triumph over one another when they view reality as a malleable thing, or as a game with an endless supply of "Make Your Own Rule" cards?
The film showcases excellent performances by its leading couple. Taylor thoroughly dedicated herself to the role; the wikipedia gods informed me that she gained 30 pounds to become Martha, who is described as "frumpy" and "thick-hipped" throughout the movie. Though Taylor would be more successful at looking frumpy if she took up the role now, her transformation is drastic when compared to how she looked in Cleopatra or even The Sandpiper, which Taylor and Burton starred in only a year prior to the release of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Both actors adapted gestures and mannerisms that enhance their characters; Taylor's yelling and wild eyes make Martha seem vulgar while Burton's slumped shoulders and side glances reflect George's sense of personal failure.
I can't imagine many actors pulling off the complex and intimate relationship of Martha and George besides a pair that has worked together in previous roles. The dynamic between Taylor and Burton's Martha and George is impressively realistic. For instance, Martha accusingly asks George why he didn't put any ice into her drink when the couple is laying on their bed during the first scene. After he mumbles that she always eats her ice, Martha rolls over George, reaches into his drink, and drops the retrieved ice cubes into her own glass with a hand now dripping with alcohol. This moment is executed so flawlessly that, paired with the intimate camera technique, the viewer feels that Martha and George have been together for years and, though their marriage is dysfunctional, they share a deep emotional bond. Of course, it might help that Taylor and Burton were actually married off-screen. Twice.
As for the reference to Virginia Woolf, I have to admit that I don't get it. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is an alteration of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf." I see that the this movie makes a jab at academics who view themselves as intellectually superior though they might be more ruthless and primitive than the average person, but I doubt whether this joke actually contributes anything to the film. I found more connection between the characters' inability to name and know anything with T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," rather than finding a connection between the film and any of Woolf's works. Perhaps Woolf was regarded in a negative light during the '60s due to her association with stigmatized feminism. Perhaps this "joke" is simply in the same vein as describing something as "kafka-esque." Regardless, I found that the three times that this joke was forcibly brought up were the only moments of the film that I disliked.
Overall, I recommend this film with much enthusiasm but advise viewers not to distract themselves by attempting to find a connection between the movie and Virginia Woolf.