Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Mike Nichols

Who would want to spend time with these people? They're so busy zeroing in on everyone else's defects in character they can't notice the gaping issues in their own lives, the clutter on their floor. If one of them approached me at the bus stop, or more likely in a bar, I'd know in two minutes I wasn't interested in any further conversation. Some people lack the ability to at least cover their digged up dirt. What is it that's sometimes said about first impressions being the only impression? It's a good thing everyone in Virginia Woolf already has a job, because they're all too calloused at this point to even remember the days of prepping for an interview.

Liz Taylor won a second Oscar for her restless role as malcontented Martha in this adapted theater production, a perfect post-VD* hangover film. It's a story that makes you want to forget rather than remember the significant other in your life; makes you want to stay single, break your engagement, call off the family vacation or get divorced before you get old and fall into relational zombification: drunk and distant unless hungry and ready to consume the human you live with.

Plot summary: George and Martha invite a couple over for the night. Everyone has too much to drink, and yes, once the liquid party begins all bets are off, and it is off to the races. The film takes place over a five or six hour period on a Saturday night, the get-together at George and Martha's actually being a post-party party beginning at 2 am. Though at one point they make a pot of coffee, no one sobers up, ever, and we're enveloped in the onslaught of discontented lives.

Martha gets mean when she drinks, but at certain points everyone has their moment; if they're not downright mean, they're still certainly ugly. So we have over one hundred thirty minutes of drunks who mock the cruelty they dish out while simultaneously trying to make sense of their existence through a stupor and a haze. They all thoroughly inhabit the crawlspace of their own humanity.

Does it go without saying at this point that I didn't enjoy the film?

One might respond that enjoying it isn't the point, but then again, what would said point be? That alcoholism is a bad idea? Or that staying married to the wrong person and living a lie is just as bad? Common sense tells us enough about this already, and any film that tackles the subjects should do more than stand in and represent. As far as the better films on the subjects go, see: Alcoholism: Tender Mercies; Bad Marriage: Revolutionary Road.

To give an idea of how much the film hates any mix of Cupid's arrow or sobriety in general, below are some of the great words of dialogue offered in only the first fifteen minutes of the film, even before the guests arrive at George and Martha's house. It only seems fair to list the quotes, as yesterday I listed quotes to illustrate the romantic tension between the spaces in Notorious. In Virginia Woolf, the words are searing, full of contempt, always bitter, always condescending. They're a poking of a finger in the spouse's open eye.

"What a cluck you are."


"Fix me a drink."

"You make me puke."

"You are such a simp."

"You pig."

"Fix me another drink, lover."

"There isn't an abomination award that you haven't won."

"I swear if you existed, I'd divorce you... I can't even see you. I haven't been able to see you for years. You're a blank, a cipher, a zero."

"No more sickening sight than you drunk and your skirt over your head. Your heads, I should say."

"...subhuman monster..."

"Goddamn you!"

It's at this moment that the guests walk in.

One would think that when the guests arrive, George and Martha might straighten up. If there are guests in the home you might want to stuff it and at least give the appearance of being cordial for the sake of the guests' serenity. Not so here. Alcohol is constantly poured, and I'm sure that plays a part for the rest of the wretched night, but the truth is that George and Martha are so wound up in their world of spite and spitting that they're past the stage of social manners or even a form of suburban plasticity. After years of forming their relationship into an alliance of animosity, turning the house they live in into a war zone with only allegiance to themselves, they simply don't give a shit what happens at home anymore, whether isolated together or with guests in the house; they don't care who they shit on or show their shit to. They're addicted to their shit, and like an addict who has bottomed out, their shit is on display. It's with them everywhere they go, a stench to anyone they encounter.

There are plenty of reasons to hate the characters and thus, hate the film, too. There's an argument made that catharsis is reached in the final chapter of the story. I don't buy that argument. Even a death in the family wouldn't change the hearts of these worn out and hollowed out characters. If anything, it would amplify their hideous hearts of vile and venom.

* Yesterday was Valentine's Day, and I took that opportunity to blog on the romance between the spaces in Notorious.


  1. This is a disaster film, plain and simple, only instead of depicting an earthquake, meteor strike or towering inferno, it depicts a dysfunctional marriage. Unlike the aforementioned natural disasters I listed, a towering inferno is avoidable for the most part. So to is a marriage like George and Martha's. That's the object lesson here. Nothing uplifting, no redeeming moment reaffirming the union, except maybe the realization that they probably deserves each other. They probably created one another, or at least cultivated the worst in each other's nature. Like I said, a situation to be avoided. Its a portal into a very ugly relationship, or its a mirror.

    I liked the movie. The acting is as superb as it is informed by the level of disfunction that may have already defended into the off camera lives of Burton and Taylor. The direction is as superb as it is transparent, letting the dialog be the star and not letting one actor chew through scenes.

  2. In the second paragraph, the word "defended" should have been "descended" - Todd


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