After one wild night of drinking, the dysfunctional relationship of the old couple George and Martha is disintegrating under its own baggage of venom, and they threaten to take two young people down with them in the crossfire.
Meet the most dysfunctional couple in cinematic history. George and Martha. In the first of the film’s three acts, we meet them as they walk back home at night. They come from an evening party and are still tipsy, and are at each other’s throats. For the next 45 minutes or so, their passive aggressive bickering at each other is beyond all proportion. What’s worse, they have guests, a young couple that just moved in and came over from the same party. It doesn’t take long before the poor guests are all tangled up in the malicious games of hatred that George and Martha play.
This is how the night starts. The film moves fast, with quick successions of insults that are thrown across the room. The whole film only has four characters, and all actors are almost constantly on the screen with the camera moving one way and the other. This is really expertly done. There are close-ups when George and Martha yell at each other, and nice compositions where Martha for example criticizes George in front of the guests and George observes it from the background. There are only three locations: the house, the garden and a bar. The whole setup has such a minimalistic focus on a few actors, snappy dialogue and location because it is a direct adaptation of a theatre play. And it shows, but it isn’t negative, no, it makes the film tight and intense.
It is frequently hilarious. George and Martha are played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and there’s something you should know here. They were married at least twice in real life, and played in many films together as a couple. Publicly, they played this game of sharing all their marital issues with the press. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a direct continuation of that game, and they perfectly knew how to insult each other and play the messed up couple (if it was a play). I almost can’t call this acting anymore because it is so lifelike. It is like the director simply turned on the cameras, and just watched the actors go at it.
No wonder that all four actors were nominated for the Oscar of best male and female actors (Taylor won, Burton didn’t) and supporting actors. In total, the film was nominated for a whopping 13 Oscars, and took home five. Although, I don’t understand why Sandy Dennis, who played Honey, won that Oscar because I thought her impression of a young drunken wife was not good at all. Director Mike Nichols was declared “the next Orson Welles” and went on to direct another successful movie the next year: The Graduate (1967).
During the course of the movie, you start to lose track whether they are actually upset and angry at each other, or are just playing games to break through each other’s armor. They are dysfunctional and need each other, while putting each other down at the same time. What’s real and what’s an illusion about their stories becomes hazy, and the poor hapless couple Nick and Honey are drawn into temporary alliances across the battlefield and end up lost themselves. It slowly dawns, though, that George and Martha are living a lie. In their fights, they are turning around a central unnamed lie, like a tornado around an untouched eye, and Nick and Honey have the misfortune that they touch certain nerves with George and Martha that connect directly to that lie.
In the second and third act of the film, they declare total war on each other. Fueled by alcohol and desperate attempts to get at each other, they circle closer and closer to that one unacknowledged lie that they both didn’t dare touch, and what generated their need for each other in the first place. In the theatre play, the third and final act is called “the exorcism” and all the illusions are peeled down. And as the sun comes up at the end of that wild night, the new light is as a new start. The old worn steps have disappeared, poof! They are like a new couple.
This really is an undisputed classic and is still very impressive. It feels a bit lengthy near the end because the film is so heavy on dialogue and takes some concentration, but it is wonderful in how it’s just spellbinding to see these four people interact. It has some of the best acting and best lines in movie history.