Monday, October 31, 2011


"'Tis the refuge we take when the unreality of the world sits too heavy on our tiny heads."

The above statement, spoken half in jest (and in a Barry Fitzgerald accent) by a subdued, down-cycle, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) in a brief moment of introspective lucidity, is proffered as a response/admission as to why she and husband George (Richard Burton) seem only to relate to one another through cruelly sadistic games of "truth and illusion." 

This surprisingly self-aware avowal of the role illusion and willful self-deception play in tent-posting lives of disappointment and regret not only sums up the plot of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but, especially noting the ironic use of the word "unreality" in the quote, could also serve as an explanation for my own lifelong fascination with, and attraction to, film. 

Edward Albee's provocative, 1962 Tony Award-winning stage play was adapted into a censorship-shattering motion picture in 1966 by Broadway wunderkind Mike Nichols. Of course, back then the big attraction wasn't the male half of the famous comedy team of Mike Nichols & Elaine May making his film directing debut. It was the casting of Hollywood's number one power-couple—Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton— and the unlikelihood that one of the most beautiful women in the world could be convincingly transformed into the dowdy, middle-aged harridan of Albee's play.
Elizabeth Taylor as Martha
Richard Burton as George
George Segal as Nick
Sandy Dennis as Honey
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a 2 hour-plus acid bath of personality assassinations and psychological manipulation trussed-up as a cocktail party, was just one of the many age-inappropriate films I saw on Saturday afternoons with my sisters at the local movie house when I was growing up. The year was 1967, it was summer, and after having played all the first-run theaters, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was starting to make the rounds at the neighborhood and downtown double-feature theaters. We lived in San Francisco at the time and I think we saw it at The Embassy Theater on Market Street.

Back in those pre-shopping mall days, I suspect the only peace our recently-divorced mom ever got was when she could ship us all off to the movies on Saturday afternoons, not caring a whit about what was playing, just so long as it kept us out of the house and off the streets until she came for us at 4pm. On the occasion of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, my eldest sister (16 to my 10 years) was apparently all the "mature adult" accompaniment the theater required to grant us access to a film none of us had any chance in hell of understanding. 

Well, I did understand one part. The yelling.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is about one enormously volatile evening in, by all appearances, the ceaselessly volatile lives of George and Martha. George, an associate professor of history at a small New England college, and Martha, the college president's daughter, have been persuaded this night to play night-cap host to the college's newest arrivals: Nick, the newly appointed biology teacher, and his constitutionally delicate wife, Honey. George and Martha, who are 20 years senior to their unsuspecting guests, share a complex relationship of dispiriting affection poisoned by years of acrimony and self-loathing. As a kind of coping mechanism and walking postmortem of their marriage, the elder couple engage their guests in an intricate game of personal attacks and verbal assaults designed to keep real feelings at bay and to mask the real unpleasantness of their existence.
George Segal, an actor amazingly adept at comedic and serious roles, and the brilliant Sandy Dennis, the only actress outside of Elizabeth Hartman who could have made this underwritten role so memorable
As an adult, my partner and I have spent more than our share of squirmy evenings playing Nick and Honey to some sparring couple's George and Martha, but as a kid, the only thing I could relate to in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the yelling. As my parents' preferred mode of communication with one another prior to their divorce, it was familiar enough to me to at least make the characters in the film recognizable. But beyond that, I can tell you I really had no idea of what was going on.

Nor should I have, at that age. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is pretty sophisticated stuff for even adults to wrap their minds around.
Dashed hopes and good intentions
I remember the slight disappointment I felt on discovering that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was not, as I had hoped, a horror film along the lines of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? An easy enough conclusion to jump to given the sound-alike title and the scary-looking poster art that carried the (ineffectual) warning: No one under the age of 18 will be admitted unless accompanied by a parent.

When, in later years, I came to revisit Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it was as though I was watching the film for the first time. Just a little bit of life experience helped to bring all of Edward Albee's agonizingly perceptive observations into sharp relief. I not only got it, but felt so moved by the daringly theatrical means by which Albee dramatized this simple truth: to live one's life free of illusions is perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.

It would be difficult to overstate the qualities that Wexler's expressive black-and-white cinematography brings to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In these days of HD, it's even more breathtaking than ever. What an amazing array of gray tones and shadings!

I was never much of a fan of Elizabeth Taylor in my younger years. Her unavoidable presence on the cover of every movie magazine (recounting marital problems, movie-star extravagances, and countless trips to the hospital) soured my impression of her as any kind of serious actress. I never thought of her as much of a beauty, either, as she always reminded me more of a less frumpy Ethel Mertz than one of the most beautiful women in the world. The turning point in my attitude towards Taylor came in 1989 when I had the opportunity to see Glenda Jackson (an actress I absolutely idolized) in a Los Angeles production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by Edward Albee himself. Fond of the film version, I was not exactly persuaded by Taylor's performance. Now was a chance to see what a "real" actress would do with this marvelous character.
Well, to put it bluntly, Ms. Jackson was terrible. She just seemed to miss everything that was vulnerable about Albee's Martha, and (surprising to me) was unable to muster much passion behind her tirades. As the evening wore on, Elizabeth Taylor's performance began to loom largely and impressively in my memory, and by the time the curtain came down, I was convinced that I had given Elizabeth Taylor a bum rap all those years. 
Elizabeth Taylor's monologue in this sequence is some of the finest acting of her career
I've seen a great many Elizabeth Taylor films since then, and not only do I now consider her to have been truly one of the great beauties of the screen, but I feel that her looks and off-screen exploits have clouded many a fair assessment of her talent. I like her a great deal now, and when I look over some of the films I'd once dismissed, I recognize that Taylor was one of the rare ones: a movie star who was also a compelling actress. Her choice of roles that I once regarded as spotty, now seem rather daring in her never pandering to the sort of "safe" casting usually associated with stars of her caliber. She's something the likes of which we're not apt to see again, EVER.

It must have been quite a voyeuristic thrill for fans of Taylor and Burton to see the famously hard-drinking, combative couple, playing a hard-drinking, combative couple onscreen. And indeed, there is something about their easy rapport and effortless chemistry here that is never duplicated in another film. I particularly like those small moments where George & Martha reveal their deep affection for one another, and how they lapse into familiar patterns of easy cohabitation between the shouting matches. Perhaps all we're seeing is the dysfunctional mutual appreciation of two people who've found in each other, a worthy adversary, someone who can keep up with the game, but it's a layer added to the characters that serve to soften the pain of their near non-stop body blows. That neither Taylor nor Burton plays their roles "one-note" - allowing for flashes of tenderness between the bursts of vitriol - is what makes this film such a standout for me.
Liz and Dick: Probably the only real-life couple ever to display any real chemistry onscreen
besides Gracie Allen & George Burns
The grace of all art is its ability to find poetry in the ordinary and prosaic. As I stated earlier, I grew up around a lot of yelling in my family, and along with lacking anything resembling a poetic thrust, it lacked a sense of danger to me. I was used to it and I thought that was how all people who loved each other communicated. Growing up, I identified with comedies and dramas of familial discord to a disturbing degree. (I was a big fan of Tennessee Williams and those "Eunice" segments of the old Carol Burnett variety show. It was only in later years that I came to recognize that that WAS my family.)
As it turns out, my partner of 16 years was raised in a household where his parents talked and discussed things and never allowed him to see them yelling at one another. So, as you might guess, our first viewing of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? together was almost traumatic for him. Even to this day he really can't take the endless shouting and mean-spiritedness, so this is one film I love that I usually enjoy alone (all the better, because I'm often crying like a baby at the finale).
"Total war?"
What's wonderful is that in our years together, my partner has helped me to see that yelling is not the way that healthy people express love, and I've since learned to appreciate histrionic drama where it belongs, on the screen and on the stage, but not in my life.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may not be everyone's taste, but it's a beautiful film. Mike Nichols and everyone involved did a marvelous job. If you have the stomach for it, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a deeply affecting look at explosive emotions that you get to view from a relatively safe distance.
"Just us?"
It's Elizabeth Taylor at her absolute best in this, the most heartbreaking sequence in the film.
Reduces me to waterworks unfailingly.

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2011


  1. OK, I’ll get an account eventually; it’s Argyle from 1970's South Carolina again, and you are ringing all the bells. I’ve always loved “Who’s Afraid...” I’m not sure I can say why, other than that it creates such a complete world, which is maybe as close as I can get to a definition of a work of art. I’ve never understood what happened to Mike Nichols: “Working Girl,” “The Bird Cage,” even “Silkwood.” But “Who’s Afraid...” and “The Graduate” are plenty. My parents never argued or fought in front of us or anybody that I know of, but I understood these characters and was thrilled by them. Maybe it’s something about the stifling academic setting that I immediately get. The expectations, the falling short, the excuses, the getting by. I love it. And yet, there’s never a corny campus scene or a superfluous “reference character” that I can remember. It’s all suggested by the greys of the photography and the house and the clothing. It’s seamless. And yes, Eunice and Mama. And for me, the moral somberness of “The Andy Griffith Show” which I can hardly watch. But George and Martha (and Edward Albee) animate things just enough to pull you through to the other side. It’s gorgeous. Beautiful and terrifying like spoiling fruit. But then, as best I can remember, they survive and the sun comes up. Thank you!

  2. Hello Argyle Sweater
    Thanks for another thoughtful comment! I too look at this film andwonder how it could have possibly been done by the same man who gave us "The Bird Cage." I like that you relate to films emotionally and allow yourself to become engaged rather than just entertained. Indeed "WAOVW" is like a complete, perfectly realized world on film, with each frame rendering a reality both authentic and stylized. I especially liked your description of the film as being beautiful and terrifying and likening it to spoiled fruit. I always get a kick hearing about how films effect people, and your post is very illuminating. Thank you!

  3. Without question, my favourite George & Martha scene is their clash outside the roadhouse. That one scene is virtually the essence of the entire film. I've always been a sucker for one-on-one confrontations between characters, and I've never seen it done any better.

    One thing that's always bothered me is how Nick's and Honey's names are never spoken; not in introductions and not in conversations where you'd naturally expect it. The theatrical reasoning behind it was lost on me.

    I'm also maybe somewhat morbidly intrigued when actors who've since died do scenes where death is mentioned, contemplated, perhaps even wished for. Burton and Sandy Dennis share another superbly crafted scene ultimately about 'the bells' and 'the message', 'and the message was...' George and Martha's son was dead.

    The talent level behind this film is something to behold. Whatever its moments of disconnect with me, it cuts the human condition to the quick, and makes a remarkable show of it.

  4. You're the first person to call my attention to the name issue in "WAOVW." I can't say I've ever noticed the lack of utterance of their names in all the times I've watched the film. I remember the brief rhyming-teasing thing George engages in with the drunk Honey("Honey bunny funny" or some such thing), but i seriously don't recall Nick's name ever being spoken. As as you say, what could be the dramatic relevance of it? As Arte Johnson used to say, "Veeeery interesting!"

    I too enjoy one on one encounters between characters, and the sequences you mention are stellar. It really is a terrific examination of the human condition, and your observations are keen enough to inspire another re-visit to the film for me. Thanks!

    1. If I ever knew that "Honey" was a name here and not just a term of endearment, I'd forgotten. Nick actually says it a handful of times. But I'm reasonably certain his own name is never said by anyone.

      My disconnect has to do with George and Martha's son. I've never quite known what to make of that ( little bugger). Consequently, I can't exactly make sense of Martha's wrenching despair at the end; despair because (my impression) George had determined their son had to be dead. I get impatient with the length of that scene because I don't know if there ever was a son.

    2. Just on a cursory re-review of the film, there are several moments when the name "Honey" is said, but (perhaps tellingly)one can just as easily assume it to be a name or term of endearment as you indicate.
      Per the issue of the child, I've read many theories and essays on the subject over the years (even Albee's own intention on the subject), but I am a firm believer - in most instances - that films don't need to adhere to a single explanation or interpretation; so I'm throwing mine out here...valueless perhaps to anyone except me since it explains only what the film means to me. Not to limit or define it in any way.
      I've never felt the child was ever real, that it was just an "illusion" if you will that George and Martha kept between themselves to mask the pain of the emptiness of their lives together. George tells Nick that Martha could never have children and one gets the feeling that, out of that pain and lack, the two erected a "pretend" offspring known just to them...not to be spoken of to others.
      People erect lots of illusions about themselves just to get through the day, and I think Albee makes a largely symbolic (metaphoric?) case for what happens when we are forced to drop our illusions and face life as it is. That's why Martha is so broken up at the end and asks, so touchingly, "Just us?"
      She is "afraid" (the title and the question George asks her at the end) to face a life with no illusions. That's an explanation of what the film means to me. Please don't assume I'm saying all that I recounted is in fact the film's intention. Just my interpretation. Wow. All this makes certain I'll be watching this film again. Much appreciated, Rennieboy!

    3. I have no quarrel at all with your interpretation/explanation, Ken. It makes sense. I may well be under the illusion that a comparison to Elwood Dowd and Harvey applies, but that's who comes to mind. Different in many respects, I know, but take Harvey away from Dowd and he's back, as you say, having to face life as it is. He already made the choice once to be pleasant rather than smart.

      If George and Martha chose to 'have' their son, well, relationships are work. The belief that you found your perfect match can prove illusory. It's hard enough, as you suggested, for real people to keep themselves afloat, never mind a secret security blanket.

  5. The reference to "Harvey" is one of the best allusions to what occurs in "Who's Afraid..." I've ever heard. I think, in its way, Elwood's need of an imaginary buffer for the pain of his life has always been what I've thought to be so moving about that film. It never once occurred to me that the devises in these two films hare that one element.

    As I stated in a previous post, were I teaching a film class, observations like this would move you to the head of the class.

  6. A Polemical Drama about the Meaning of American Dream Will American Future Be A Continuation of Fight For Power and Wealth Or An Alternative To Such Fight? “Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf” by M. Nichols – 1966 (Based on Edward Albee’s Play) is about a very rare capability of a person in a position of a spouse to help his/her beloved to overcome internal psychological problem that permanently disrupts the emotional balance of their relationship inside marriage. The film is also about a disturbance many marriages suffer from – when intimacy between husband and wife is in a process of being undermined by their unconscious ontological rivalry. Thirdly, the film addresses the issue of the essence of American dream. Is it mainly about our social, professional and financial achievements, about social success, or is it rather about our psychological and moral growth, about the very development of human humanistic intelligence? The central focus of “Who is afraid…” is the conflict between George (Associate Professor of History) and his wife Martha (Albee’s sweeping analogy here with George Washington and his wife Martha - makes a personal story historically and culturally meaningful and of interest to any married couple). The conflict between the spouses is inflated by Martha’s dream of having a perfect (not less than perfect) son (made even more morbid by her infertility). This dream is tied to Martha’s disappointment in her husband’s failure to achieve an exceptional career and become financially more successful. Albee analyzes the psychological and the social aspects of Martha’s dream based on what can be called her “perfect progeny complex” – the expectation from a child to boost his mother‘s self-image. Through several rhetorical devices Albee masterfully creates a psychodrama with the viewers who, while observing George and Martha‘s psychological maneuvers, experience a catharsis of their own emotional complexes resonating with Martha’s psychological predicament. The film culminates in a unique scene in American film history, when George uses sophisticated psychotherapeutic tactics of pseudo-exorcism to banish the idolatrous energies of his wife’s complex of perfect progeny. Richard Burton and Elisabeth Taylor triumphantly outstrip themselves as George and Martha in an exceptionally intense and intellectually articulate performance. Albee’s text is sharp, witty and full of versatile cultural allusions.
    By Victor Enyutin

  7. Great Flick! Never saw Liz prettier.

  8. Loved everything about this post and almost all of the comments until.....

    Wow! The self-fascination of Victor Enyutin's endless blather, to the exclusion of bothering with the correct spelling of a performers name, tells me much about him.

    1. Hi Felix! (If I can be so familiar)
      Have to say from the start that I absolutely love your Felix in Hollywood blog. Such terrific Hollywood history!
      Anyhow, thank you very much for stopping by and giving this post a read. Happy you enjoyed it and pleased you left a comment. As to your latter comment, I'm in accord but better stay mum on the topic and be a gentleman. Much appreciated!

  9. Beautifully written treatment of one of my favorite films (and plays) of all time. I've just about worn out my dvd watching this so many times, and the VHS tape before that. Onstage I had the opportunity to see Elizabeth Ashley as Martha and Anjelica Torn (Rip Torn & Geraldine Page's daughter) as Honey at the now-defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. I believe Robert Converse played George. A great production, but Nichols' film version with the Burtons, Sandy Dennis and George Segal is in my opinion the ultimate version of Albee's chilling psychodrama.

    How funny that you should mention exactly where you first saw this film. I enjoyed my very first trip to San Francisco in 2011 and was on the corner of Market and Castro, about to go into the Twin Peaks bar for a drink. My friend pointed down the street to the famed Castro Theatre and had me look at the marquee. What was playing? Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf! So that is the only time I have ever seen the film on the big screen...the same place you saw it first.

    What a coinki-dink, eh?

    1. hi Chris!
      Ha! That IS quite the coincidence! And such a nice one too.
      The Castro was my neighborhood theater growing up (back when Castro was more a hippie hangout), and virtually every film I saw between 1967 and 1969 was at that theater.
      What a terrific place to see "...Virginia Woolf" on screen for the first time!

      Another coincidence is that we both agree on Mike Nichols' version being superior to any live version we've seen (although I would have loved to see Elizabeth Ashley).
      I'm glad you enjoyed the post and happier that you shared your own history and fondness with this great film!

  10. I had an experience similar to yours. I watched "Who's afraid..." as a kid and couldn't really get through it. And then I watched it again recently and was BLOWN AWAY. Sandy Dennis basically saved my life and I couldn't believe how amazing she was at the end.
    We discussed "Starting Over" earlier and I was thinking about how some of romantic comedies and drama plots turned into a genre-formula that the industry repeats until today, making older movies come across bland and predictable to new audiences. "Who's afraid...", however, is still the only one and there was never another movie like it. (Nichols did "Closer" wich I love and has this "2 broken couples interacting" again but it turned out great for different reasons). The subtlety in acting and writing (the screaming hurts so much as the whispers), the cast is amazing (some say George Segal doesn't do much for the film but I disagree wholeheartedly), and the character building is amazing. I'm so enthusiastic about it cause I feel it reaches a human spot that goes overlooked in most screenplays. It's just so real I love all the characters and at the same time want to slap them all. They feel like family to me even tough they're the worst.
    I'm so used to see characters struggling to leave a mark on earth and being the best version of themselves (I'm talking to you, Millenials) that it was confusing at first to see how much they suffered for being (or feeling they were) bad wives, bad husbands. A kid played a great role in defining happiness for a couple back then and it was shocking to end the movie seeing how much both couples were enslaved and depressed by the obligation (to some degree) of parenthood in order to feel "whole". (Not that we are free nowadays, it's just that our "perfect happiness guide steps" changed a lot.)

    I also love Glenda Jackson (she's just unreal) and read somewhere that Albee said she WAS Martha on reherseals but begun to distance herself from the character as the opening night got closer. I wonder what happened.

    1. Many thoughtful, observant insights in your comment! You're smart to note the influences of time an place can have on the content of (and one's personal response to) a film.
      I too think that that there are some films so honest in their approach and message that they don't really "date" themselves. They seem as powerful now as when first released.
      I agree that "Woolf" is among those that still has something valid to say about the human condition. I am a big fan of Mike Nichols and "Closer" and I like your observation "2 broken couples interacting" as well as noting in "Woolf" 'the screaming hurts as much as the whispers.'

      It's also interesting hearing your take on the rather intimate conflicts of this film. I'm not sure a film today would feel comfortable building an entire film on the ways humans delude themselves in order not to feel the pain of regret and loneliness, but I'm glad a film like this endures so that we don't need more.

      Your enthusiasm for and interest in film is obvious in the way your comments convey you have learned to really "watch" a film, not just see it.
      Nice to hear you are a fan of Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson, and that you appreciate George Segal's underrated performance in this. Thanks for reading the blog and especially thanks for the food for thought!

    2. Hi, Ken!
      I really respect your reviews and your way of "reading" movies, so I'm truly glad I can somehow contribute to this discussion (considering I'm not a movie student or an industry insider).

      Actually I'm an aspiring book writer and comic book artist, so in order to create fleshed-out characters I try to analize movies the best way I can, to see if they succeed in making me feel what they wanted me to, and try to understand how they accomplish that (or why they couldn't). I also try to do the same to animation, books and television so I can absorb the best of storytelling. It's an amazing experience.

      In Hitchcock's "Vertigo" there's this scene when James Stewart's character saves Kim Novak's character from drowning. Then he takes her home, and you see her coat and her purse hanging on the door (or was it her dress drying also hanging on the door?), and I was amazed because it's economic without rushing, with jut 5 seconds he graciously told everything that happend in almost one hour.
      There's also this forgotten 80s movie, "Crimes of the Heart" where the camera shows two or three rooms at once, and they can show the three sisters (each one in their respective room) interacting. Three rooms in the same scene. This is so beautiful.

      I think art does not come without effort and I like seeing that there were efforts to bring the best to life.It inspires me and makes me happy to see so many smart and talented people in this world. :)

      Maybe that's why "Who's afraid..." get's me so easily. I never found something like this and I don't think I ever understood it in it's entirety. It intrigues me and seduces me, because it's this perfect combination between acting, writing and directing that you can't tell them apart. I don't kknow if the Martha I see is the Honey I see is the right one, or just one of the Honeys that live together in that body, or just the Honey her husband wants me to see. So I end uo always coming back to it.
      There's so much hard work in that movie, Elizabeth Taylor was just beyond words, and she would never accomplish that without giving her best. That's why I love her!
      They say we have to surround ourselves with those things that inspirate us, don't they?

      Have a nice week, Ken! I'll try to rewatch some movies I love (for instance "3 Women", "The Shining" and "Klute") so I'll discuss it with you on their own posts!
      See ya! :D

      PS. I also love funny and unpretentious movies, but I don't like that they seem to have taken over Hollywood these days.

  11. Hi Joao Paulo
    That's a wonderful idea to study and examine films to learn about character and story for your comic book work. It's one of those skills it never hurts to develop because it pays dividends in all aspects of your life (because it fosters the development of insight into the human condition).
    I can see how the economy of language in the visual vocabulary of movies could be valuable in writing and drawing comic books. Fascinating!
    I remember the scenes you reference in both "Vertigo" and "Crimes of the Heart." I love good dialog, but I too especially love when filmmakers convey a lot with images. You're a film student without knowing it.
    It's nice to read your appreciation of "Woolf" and I am glad you enjoy the blog so far. Like you, I think there is a time when brainless movies are fun, but not EVERY film should be as devoid of ideas as they make these days.

    Keep up the good work and I hope you enjoy the films you have lined up to revisit! Have a good week and I look forward to hearing from you again!

  12. Many conservative Christians in this country hate the Enlightenment, or about the last five hundred or so years of Modernity, with the white hot fury of a thousand suns. They are stockpiling weapons, and praying for the End Times, where they presumably will join the ancient Hebrew prophets in singing out joyfully to the heavens, Babylon has fallen! Rejoice! Rejoice!

    While I don't in the least bit agree with these Pharisees, who should probably give all their money away to the poor if they want me to take them seriously about how 'Christ-like' they are, I believe the Religious Right has something in common with The Existentialists, whose thinking was dominant during the period when Albee wrote this play. Namely, that something very fundamental is extremely out-of-wack in modern life, particularly in American society. A spiritual desolation, a towering ennui, which make the American suburbs, in particular, the perfect, plastic, antiseptic environment in which to lose your mind. Houses made of ticky-tacky, indeed. It's no coincidence that 1957 saw the emergence of Charles Starkweather, the first nihilistic mass shooter.

    All of which is to say that I find Albee's device of the imaginary child in Virginia Woolf an absolutely brilliant metaphor for this spiritual desolation, second only to the refrain in Chekhov's The Three Sisters. "To Moscow! To Moscow!" the sisters cry, longingly, endlessly. And they never get there. Case closed.

    In the sixty-odd years that have gone by since Albee first wrote this great play, we have seen Americans grow too obese to move, die by the hundreds of thousands from opioids and suicide, and a generation of young men who now find online porn more interesting than real women, or even real life, for that matter. Which is a way of saying that Albee, the Existentialists, had it right all along. Something IS very wrong, here, in this country, and has been all along. People are being driven out of their minds by what Paddy Chayefsky once called a "shrieking nothingness." Another words, by American life. As Paglia writes: "Freedom is the most overrated Modern idea. Perfect freedom would be to die by earth, air, fire and water."

    Thanks, Ken, for allowing me to bloviate so utterly shamelessly. God Bless.

    1. Hi Rick
      On the contrary! Because I see film as a living art, one that has the power to speak to us in different ways at different times in our lives, I appreciate reading about how you view VIRGINIA WOOLF through a prism that takes in the time it was made and the world we currently inhabit (by a thread).
      I think I understand your point in citing Albee and his work as representative of what our culture as a whole has been lacking for generations now. The spiritual desolation that has always been at the poisonous root of how our country came into existence (a land of the free built on human slavery and genocide) seems to have led to a society that's wounded and only knows how to "survive" through imaginary means. Which is where the Religious Right comes in for me. To me they're sole gift is finger-pointing and blame finding with nary a second devoted to where the trouble is to be found...self reflection and gazing into a mirror at what they've become.
      So I'm the one who should be thanking you for giving me a chance to revisit this post and have your words inspire a little food for thought on how we've come to being a culture who would now find the behavior of the loud, licentious, and vulgar Martha to be Presidential.
      Thank YOU, Rick!

  13. Well, on a lighter note, the drag queen Glennda Orgasm, also known as Glenn Belverio, once told an absolutely hilarious story about this movie.

    Apparently, for a mother, poor Glenn really did have that larger-than-life, histrionic and domineering mother that Freudian psychology once mistakenly believed was a necessary precondition for the development of male homosexuality. As Glenn put it in his own words to Camille Paglia, "Back in the 1960s and early '70s, my mother was a dead ringer for Jacqueline Susann! She had big black wigs, she wore outfits like her, she was very dramatic...One of my earliest memories is that when I was 7 years old, my mother woke me up in the middle of the night during a thunder and lightning storm-high drama, of course-it was 1 a.m., and she made me watch Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf on TV! When I was 7! She was just like Jacqueline Susann, this big, larger-than-life woman coming into my bedroom with her big black wig!"

    1. Oh my gosh, what a terrifically American memory that is! That story sounds like a David Sedaris family anecdote. I'm a softie for people's early exposure to movies. The crazier the better. This one is solid gold! Thanks, Rick

  14. I wonder if Elizabeth Hartman was even on Mike Nichols' radar when this movie was cast. (A PATCH OF BLUE didn't open until December of 1965.) I certainly think she would have been just as good as Sandy Dennis. It likely would have put her on a leading lady trajectory (as it did, briefly, with Dennis) which YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW and THE GROUP didn't do for her. Whether that would have been enough to change the sad course of her life, who knows?

    1. The way casting goes in LA, I wouldn't be surprised if Connie Stevens wasn't on a short list of those originally considered for the role of Honey!
      I think that, what with Hartman having made screen tests for both MGM and Warners (Wool's studio) before being cast in A PATCH OF BLUE, there was not some industry awareness of her, but I've not read much about the casting process of this movie.
      As a good actress, I think she would have been great as Honey, but hers would have been a different one, and I guess it's never possible to guess about what that would have meant to the chemistry.
      Still, as most often success never seems to suppress mental illness, had she not killed herself I suspect she would have had other Judy Garland/Patty Duke-like issues to contend with.

  15. Wow...the follow-up comments are just as terrific as your critique Ken.

    Myself, I first saw 'Virginia Woolf' as a precociously sophisticated brat flying quietly under the radar...I'd been reading Freud from about age 11. It was easy to believe that George and Martha were based on two men, as per the scuttlebutt about the play. And since genders tend to get a bit blurred by alcoholism's tendency to permit behavioral excesses like in-your-face coarseness and suspect displays of vulnerability, Taylor and Burton do a damned good job of bringing to the screen much of what's probably deluded metaphors for the sake of deluded metaphors struggling against the pall of barrenness in all its forms. As far as movies go it's near-flawless, and so harrowingly disturbing I'm most comfortable seeing it as the darkest of dark comedies.

    And its technical brilliance elevates it further. There's real magic in the photographic lenses and setup choices inasmuch as it's true to its stage origins without once evidencing the many pitfalls of filming a play. It all comes together as serendipitous - if the four stars or director Mike Nichols were ever any better I've yet to see it.

    1. Hi Rick - Another who saw this at a young age! Given everything surrounding it at the time and the countless ways it could have gone wrong (most jarringly...if Taylor failed to convince), I'm always impressed by what a risky gamble the whole enterprise was.
      The older I get the more I feel that your description of it as "near-flawless" is very much on the mark. Performances, certainly, but as you note, there's considerable virtuosity afoot in the way the film is shot. Certainly one of the least stagy screen adaptations of a stage play ever. I hope WOOLF has retained the power to be harrowingly disturbing to you after all this time. I still find it to be so moving, but Bruce says it gives him the jitters...he says it genuinely feels like being discomfitingly trapped in a room with the worst party hosts of all time.
      Thank you for reading this Rick, and I especially appreciate your making reference to the follow-up comments. The folks who write and comment here are so great and SO movie savvy (like yourself!)