“A drowning man takes down those nearest.”
I meant to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf months ago due to the passing of Edward Albee, a terrific playwright who devised the original story and whose plays I have seen and often enjoyed. I never managed to find the time for this movie, however, and it’s slipped my mind until I finally sat down and gave it a viewing this week. If you’ve also been meaning to watch the film for four months and have been putting off doing so, or if you’ve never even heard of the film but want to see a really cool movie, I’d recommend giving it a watch. It definitely feels like something meant for the stage, but that doesn’t stop director Mike Nichols and an electric cast from doing this story some serious justice on the big screen.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who were married while shooting the film) portray George and Martha, a middle-aged couple in the midst of a failing marriage. George is an associate history professor at the local university, and Martha is the daughter of the dean. After a particularly heated exchange one night, Martha invites a younger married couple into their home: Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis). As the night progresses, the flaws in both marriages become more obvious as characters begin to turn against each other. It’s a heated, emotional, compelling story which explores not only the nature of relationships but also themes of change, reality, and society.
I’ve often written about how this type of film is right up my alley in terms of its concept. Pitch me a story with few characters, minimal setting, and rich dialogue and I am there. This is often the neat thing about adapting film from theater; it exposes audiences to a different kind of story. The dialogue is masterfully written and well acted by the film’s leads. Elizabeth Taylor displays a convincing range of emotions, and her spite towards her husband feels justified while also being delightful to watch. She’s not an easy character to humanize, but Taylor at least makes her seem genuine in every moment. Burton is a terrific match to Taylor as well. He’s more calculated, and he chooses his battles more carefully, but his descent into a carefree frenzy allows Burton to show off some sharp talent opposite his wife.
The original play takes place entirely in George and Martha’s home, while the film allows the couples to travel from place to place as the evening progresses. If you didn’t know that this was originally a work of theater, it becomes fairly obvious once you watch the film. Not only do the location changes seem tacked on and fairly unnecessary, but the dialogue simply feels theatrical. Characters speak in a far more polished, articulate manner which characterizes them in a more distinct way than you would find in most films. None of this really detracts from the movie, and I have no problem with this story being preserved through cinema, but it does make you wonder whether this is a narrative better suited for the medium in which it was first written.
The film plays out over an exciting two-hour period which doesn’t take much time to get going. I like how you get just a brief time to see George and Martha alone before we bring observers into the film. A lesser movie would have made these observers fairly normal characters themselves, serving as the voice of the audience so we can watch the two zany characters have it out and judge them from afar. However, the film is far more clever, putting forward four deeply flawed characters instead. The story is a fun shifting of alliances as new information is revealed, resulting in a dynamic evening ripe with powerful moments. The ending is also astounding, something that took me completely by surprise but felt absolutely appropriate for these characters.
While I think Mike Nichols brought a far stronger vision to The Graduate, this is a movie that plays out with energy and passion, guided by forceful performances, and it’s well worth a watch if it seems like your type of film. It’s a simple story about four genuine characters, but it’s the type of film that digs incredibly deep, demonstrating how complex a couple of real people can be, making it an American classic that won’t soon be forgotten.
Films Left to Watch: 897