A Night of Truth and Illusion…
In the wee small hours, after a faculty party, a college professor’s wife invites her husband’s new colleague and his wife over and they continue to drink.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Official Trailer – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton Movie HD, Movieclips Classic Trailers
Regular readers will know that Welsh actor, Richard Burton always gets my full attention in a movie. Especially if he is given a script where his mesmerising acting and his baritone voice is heard in poetic but caustic passionate speeches. Here he excels in this attribute in the perfect script. This as he demonstrates this part of his always powerful acting in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Burton stars in this film adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 stage play with his then off-screen wife, Elizabeth Taylor. She who plays his on-screen wife. Mental Floss describes how Albee chose the name of the play after seeing it written on a bar bathroom mirror, and that…
In an interview with The Paris Review, he said the message—which he called a “typical university, intellectual joke” about being afraid of “living life without false illusions”—later popped into his mind while drafting the play.
They shared the credits with then relative Hollywood newcomers, George Segal and Sandy Dennis in this small cast. Interestingly originally this cast was to include the fifty-somethings, James Mason, as George and Bette Davis as Martha.
The then married Burtons both won Best Actor and Actress in Leading Role nominations and Segal and Dennis had nominations in those Supporting roles at the Oscars. Both the actresses won in their respective categories.
This film tells of an embittered Associate Professor of history at a New England college, George (Burton) who is unhappily married to his venomous harridan of a wife, Martha (Taylor). She is the daughter of the college president, and in the opening credits, the pair have just left a faculty party. The credits show a full moon, then we see and hear them staggering home at two in the morning, and she’s obviously more than a wee bit tipsy.
He tells her to be quiet after she cackles, which reminds me of Taylor’s role in X, Y and Z / Zee and Co (1972). Taylor also cackled in the opening credits with her on-screen husband Michael Caine in this film. The full moon however is not a symbol of romance like Moonstruck (1987), as it’s quite obvious from the start that this particular married couple, Martha and George are not love’s
young middle-aged dream and definitely out of their “honeymoon” phase.
On their return home, on seeing their chaotic home, she drags on a cigarette and quotes a film saying “What a dump!”. But she’s so drunk she can’t remember which Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten film she’s quoting. As she harps on and on about it, she asks him to name the movie with her vivid description, he only half listens to her and gets stuck into his crossword.
They talk about the party and he complains about her “braying” and she hates that that he doesn’t mix with the others. She then drops the bombshell that she’s invited the new “good looking and well built” new maths professor Nick and his “mousy” wife Honey over for drinks. They are expected to arrive any minute… When he complains about the timing of this, Martha then tells him that her daddy told her to be nice to this couple.
He then goes to lie down, as she seems to tidy around him (ie putting dirty dishes in drawers, as you do). Her constant prattling and niggling leads to a vicious fight where she accuses him of sulking. She straddles him in bed taunting him, singing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. After more needling with each other, George seems weary and keen to go to bed.
Martha’s livid when he laughs with her but doesn’t kiss her. George and Martha start to pick on each other again and are in mid-argument when the doorbell rings. He advises her not to talk about their child.
Nick (Segal) and Honey (Dennis) are invited in and they seem in two minds about joining this bickering pair. The conversation starts around small talk and awkward silences and fake laughing. George warns his braying loud drunk wife not to “shoot her mouth off about you know what”, this was believed to refer to their kid.
The night goes from bad to worse, after Martha shows Honey where the toilet is. This leads to some awkward small talk between the men. George discovers more about Nick and checks out his build by asking direct questions about this, he seems to be checking out if he is a threat to his marriage. George learns that Nick is in fact teaching biology and talks of his concerns of biologists “rearranging the chromosomes.”
They discuss children and Nick says he and Honey don’t have kids yet and are waiting till they’ve settled in.. and George enigmatically says “For me to know and you to find out.” George seems to be quite cutting and sarcastic when he talks about his wife, and it is clear he has little affection for her.
As Martha is changing her outfit, Honey returns and then asks George about their teenage son who is returning the next day to celebrate his birthday. This innocent comment obviously annoys George who has heard to mutter that his wife is “damned destructive”.
Then Martha returns wearing a vampy low cut top and tighter trousers. She sits next to Nick and Martha is openly flirty with him and makes loud snidey and spiteful comments about her husband. As she mockingly tells the guests about his apparently lowly career. She is equally quite obnoxious and insults her husband. She unfairly compares him to her father.
Martha tells how she hoped George would be head of the department by now and take over from her father as the College President. George retaliates with scathing poetic comebacks. He then goes quietly into the hall and gets a shotgun from a cupboard, then he returns to the party where everyone is laughing and points it at Martha. Honey sees him and screams…
When you watch the rest of this film you will find as everyone gets drunker and drunker truths are revealed which will shatter those illusions about their marriages, children and childhoods.. these showing the guests and hosts that not everyone is as they first seem and that their marriages built on shocking secrets and lies.
I really enjoyed seeing Burton and Taylor paired up as a couple in this drama. Their powerfully strong performances in this compelling plot stayed with me way after the final credits. Their destructive name-calling relationship has you glued to the screen, but after watching it you feel like you’ve been punched in the face and the pain doesn’t go away for quite a while. It seemed the perfect movie to show off their talents, and both were credible and incredible in their roles as a warring couple.
In the rare scenes that this on-screen couple weren’t fighting, they had a nice camaraderie together. It seemed the glue to their relationship was their son. It also felt that underneath the bickering and constant arguments, they still had some feelings for each other.
Both the Burtons were made up looking older than their ages, Taylor as then only a woman in her mid-thirties was given a frightful greyish wig and her makeup made her look like a woman of her fifties. Taylor also put on weight for this character. Burton was greying at the temples and kinda tired looking.
This role was only the second film role from Sandy Dennis. She gave a memorable performance and her role as Nick’s wife, she seemed vulnerable, trusting and unable to keep up with the other’s drinking.
Her character appeared greatly at unease in the early scenes as her shy and nervous character often appeared to be laughing only to join in with the others. This made her look uncomfortable and out of her depth. However other more surprising sides to her character were revealed later in this film as she got drunker which contrasted with those early scenes.
George Segal’s Nick initially seemed charming with Martha but he seemed a bit touchy with George. Like the others, Nick’s true personality was seen as he got drunker. In later scenes where he confides with George about his relationship with Honey, he again is seen in a new light.
Nick was charming with Martha and seemed initially a bit touchy with George. However, the two men talk more in the second act and even confide with each other. However, Nick will be seen to regret having this conversation about the secrets and lies about his courtship with Honey and his motivations with George. George also confides with Nick about a school classmate, and this conversation also has strong repercussions later in the storyline.
I am now keen to see more of Burton and Taylor’s joint work and hopefully find a film where they both are a wee bit less vicious and spiteful with each other out of these remaining ten movies. I had only seen them in Anne of a Thousand Days (1969), with Burton as Henry VIII and where Elizabeth Taylor has a wee cameo. I’m also looking forward to reading his diaries, which sadly never made it to an audiobook read by the man himself.
Now a bit more on the much-mentioned character in this film, as it is mentioned (and denied) early on in the film that George and Martha have a 15 year old son. At first, George doesn’t want to talk about the boy and warns his wife not to talk about him with their guests. After it is clear that she has talked about him with Honey, he seems extremely angry with his wife. This seemed unusual behaviour towards his wife for her talking about her child.
Their son is mentioned again by the pair later in the film, where the mystery of this child thickens. They discuss when he is coming home, and then Martha adds spitefully that George believes he’s not his son. This comment upsets George who calls her a “wicked woman” and he is sure of his part “in the creation of our blond-eyed, blue-haired son.”
The boy’s description and life are often contradicted by this married couple, Martha believes he has green eyes, George disagrees saying they are blue. Later on in the film, Martha gives a tearful monologue about their son, describing her labour and his upbringing as a child…
If we had seen this child in this film, I believe that it would be only in scenes that support both his parents’ descriptions. As their 15 going on 16 years old son, I imagine him cast as the similarly aged Martin Stephens. Stephens was a child actor of the horror films Village of the Dammed (1960) and The Innocents (1961).
In the year of this reviewed film, Stephens starred in The Witches (1966) (aka The Devil’s Own). This then 17-year-old actor played roles, which he was lauded for in his performances as articulate and mature children. So who better for their son of the eloquent George and the horror-fic Martha? But maybe my description is just the result of a fertile imagination…
Weeper Rating: 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂/10
Hulk Rating: 0 /10
The Mystery Character Blogathon 2021 No 14
This review was added to Pure Entertainment Preservation Society’s Mystery Character Blogathon. Elizabeth Taylor stars in my book review of Elizabeth and Monty, The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship (2021) by Charles Casillo and X, Y and Zee / Zee & co. Richard Burton stars in Anne of the Thousand Days HERE in a short post and HERE in a more detailed one, Where Eagles Dare, The Medusa Touch, The Wild Geese and his blogathon HERE. Sandy Dennis stars in The Love Boat. George Segal stars in A Touch of Class and Alfred Hitchcock Hour.