Sunday, April 3, 2011

You Might Be Surprised By What They ARE Afraid Of

            I love movies that are based on plays. Using a story that is intentionally fashioned for a presentation where flamboyant effects are limited not only by budget but by reality and is instead forced to place all its cards on the quality of actors and dialogue is a wonderfully sneaky yet effective way to create a movie boiled down to the essence of what great theatrical entertainment is all about. When it doesn’t get overly Hollywood-ized in the process… that is.
            “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is structurally about as simple as it gets: four actors, very little music, and most of the scenes are set inside one room of one house. The complexity lies in the characters mentality and is expressed in their dialogue, originally penned by playwright Edward Albee.
            The plot, at least on the exterior, is simple as well: A young professor and his wife (George Segal and Sandy Dennis, respectively) meet the daughter of the college president (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband, an associate prof. of history (Richard Burton) at a cocktail party and are invited to the older couple’s on-campus home for drinks at an hour that straddles both “late at night” and “early in the morning”. Little do Honey (Dennis) and Nick (Segal) know of the marital warfare that rages in the home of Martha (Taylor) and George (Burton).
            All attempts at friendly small talk are quickly muffled by the virtual machine gun spray of dialogue that George and Martha ceaselessly pelt each other with. As the foursome grows drunker and drunker, the two guests become sucked into the combat as well and round and round they all go, ripping each other down verbally until we no longer know what to believe and who to trust.
            It’s movies like this that thrill me to no end. The dialogue is the driving force that pushes the movie forward, only to whip the characters back with such great momentum, they need to take a minute to catch their breath. Elizabeth Taylor’s role in the film has become the stuff of legend- and rightly so- but upstaging even her was the brilliant performance delivered by Sandy Dennis. While the other three incessantly reload their guns with ammo of alcohol and secrets, the mousy blonde Honey is the one who bears the brunt of the situation, as it is she who ultimately discovers that her husband does not love her. It is one of those performances so unique and bizarre, it is impossible to keep our eyes off her even with Elizabeth Taylor just feet away.
            “Virginia Woolf” is a merciless movie. There is not an emotional or psychological stone that is left unturned, not a flaw that goes unscrutinized, not a gun that doesn’t go off; and in the end, we are surprised by our own shock at who can best withstand the blow. But it is also a deeply metaphorical movie that is not afraid of the surreal.
One might argue the same about long-term marriage.


  1. i loved this movie! burton and taylor were perfectly teamed and sandy dennis was wonderful. all in one room and for two sets of strangers to spend such a weird evening together- captivating to keep the audiences attention! our local theater performed it last year and did a good job.

  2. ahem, don't forget about fight club ;D

  3. L- Did they really? I would have loved to have seen it!

    R- I promise I won't!

  4. I'm embarrassed to admit I've never watched this film.

    [adds to Netflix queue]