Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf form 1966 with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf answers the never-asked-by-anyone question: what would a kitchen-sink drama look like with an overlay of pseudo college intellectualism?
It's answered, though, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf's two-plus hours of history professor Richard Burton and his wife, the college president's daughter, Elizabeth Taylor, emotionally tearing into each other relentlessly, mercilessly and spitefully all in one looooooong drunken night from hell.
Along for the ride, and collateral damage, are young and new-to-the-college biology professor George Segal and his waif-like wife Sandy Dennis who "stop by'' for an introductory drink (welcome to the college guys). Why this couple didn't immediately take stock of the situation in that house from hell and say their thank you and goodbyes quickly is the real mystery of this movie.
Burton and Taylor's twenty-plus-year marriage has more than its share of emotional baggage and grievances: his career hasn't measured up to her and her father's expectations; his first (and only) book was selfishly kiboshed by her father; her father's money supports their lifestyle; their sex life is broken or non-existent and the core injury at the center of it all is the mysterious fate of their "son."
Fueled by a double-digit consumption of cocktails, Burton and Taylor rip into each other's psychological scar tissue, push every one of their emotional buttons and rehash every marital slight in round after round of battles that cycle through passive aggression, open hostility and, sometimes, physical violence.
Burton and Taylor expertly and with bad intent draw Segal and Dennis into this dysfunctional angerfest. As the night drags on, we eventually learn the younger couple has its own, and often similar, challenges: a marriage based on a lie, emasculating money issues (sound familiar), alcoholism (sound familiar) and sexual problems (sound familiar). And this is the up-and-coming couple with promise.
Taking place mainly in Taylor and Burton's clutter, unkempt and run-down Victorian (symbolism anyone) and with only four main characters, the movie feels very much like the Edward Albee play it is based on, which, for a movie, requires a lot of the actors.
The actors bring it. Taylor, Burton, Segal and Dennis are up for this demanding effort with each delivering an impressive performance including a vicious scene of Segal and Taylor cheating with Burton and Dennis left to furtively watch and listen (it's brutal).
By the time director Mike Nichols (who handles family dysfunction with a little more humor and hope in The Graduate) brings us to the big reveal about Burton and Taylor's son, there's so little left in anyone's emotional tank that it feels anticlimactic.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is smart, well acted, skillfully directed and emotionally impactful. Still, your experience with this movie comes down to whether or not you want to see lives torn open with all their emotional baggage exposed, analyzed, mocked and left raw.
N.B., Taylor and Burton, as the older couple, are supposed to be about fifteen or so years older than Dennis and Segal and they easily look it. But proving how hard she lived her real life, Taylor, in actuality, is all of two years older than Segal.