Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A Personal Best review by Dwight Garner.

Topics: Movies,

for those of us who grew up in polite, suburban, nicey-nice families — in mine, there were no raised voices, no verbal jousting — there’s nothing more transfixing than being around people who can really let fly, who leap into arguments as if things (people, ideas, art) matter. The sound of hot dispute, weirdly enough, can begin to seem like the sound of love. There’s zero love lost, on the surface anyway, between George and Martha, the mightily warring couple in Edward Albee’s Tony Award-winning 1962 play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” They go at it like King Kong and Godzilla right from the start, clubbing each other over the head with gleeful scorn, and leaving huge patches of scorched earth. (Martha is furious that George, an academic, hasn’t advanced at the college where her father is president; George coolly observes Martha’s slide into various forms of debauchery.) “If you existed, I’d divorce you,” she spits at him. “Martha, rubbing alcohol for you?” he asks in retort, fixing drinks for guests.

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A few clunky attempts to “broaden” “Woolf” for the screen aside, Mike Nichols, directing his first film, has the right instincts — he keeps close to the abrasive immediacy of Albee’s language. Even better, he coaxes nearly miraculous performances out of Elizabeth Taylor (who won an Oscar for this) and Richard Burton. They both ooze a riveting amount of shabby-genteel, gone-to-hell glamour. That’s not blood running through their veins — it’s booze, spite, nicotine and fear. Taylor and Burton seem turned on by each other’s performances, and that fact not only puts wind in the film’s sails but helps undergird some essential truths about their relationship. “Martha and I are merely exercising,” George says to a hapless young couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) who drop by for a nightcap and are sucked into the whirlpool of George-and-Martha agonistes. “We’re walking what’s left of our wits.” In other words, George and Martha’s intellects are all they have left. They rejoice in their can-you-top-this ability to mind-fuck each other.

Albee’s play has some problems that the screen version can’t avoid, notably the way Albee lards his theme about “truth and illusion” with some overly broad (and overly Oedipal) speechifying. But there is still something wildly entertaining about watching Taylor and Burton, two actors at the top of their craft, wickedly knock the crap out of each other — particularly now, when so many young filmmakers’ idea of snappy, intelligent, “adult” dialogue is sub-Tarantino riffs on the relative merits of, say, Doritos and Cheese Doodles. George and Martha may torment each other, but “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is never torture to watch. “You have ugly talents,” George says, almost admiringly, to Martha. So does this movie.

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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