By Trylon volunteer Dave Berglund
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? begins with a middle-aged couple returning home after a long, formal evening of social drinking. With tongues loosened by a good, healthy buzz, it is immediately evident that George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) do not have the happiest of marriages. Thus, when Martha announces she has invited a nice young couple over for some post-party drinks, her motivation is immediately suspect. Indeed, the stage is set for a bumpy and revealing night.
Telling the story of a single liquor-soaked night, the plot moves with a drunken sensibility and contains volatile emotional turns, taking viewers through a series of unpredictable, yet instructive conversational loops. Using his camera to heighten the source material, Mike Nichols filmed in frantic pans to follow the frenzied pacing of his subjects, capturing the claustrophobic setting with forceful close-ups and low angles. There are few, if any, cinematic experiences that so effectively capture the dizzying effects of alcohol.
In this context, it would seem truth would flow freely. Yet, George and Martha both seem more concerned with bringing to light each other’s flaws than baring their own souls. Indeed, they guard their personal insecurities and fears while at the same time sacrificing their dignity in the face of their young, naïve guests. Truth is revealed in short, veiled spurts and the viewer is left to decipher clues to who George and Martha are, and what their motivations may be. Clearly they wish to use their guests as weapons to attack each other, but why is this so?
Nick and Honey, the film’s unfortunate young couple, who are comparative novices in the art of inebriation, aid viewers in their search for answers and serve as a flawed voice of reason. This makes the film an uncomfortable experience, as their inexperienced voices are outdueled by the boisterous and sardonic cynicism of their hard-drinking counterparts. They are, in the end, left discarded and confused.
Yet, their exhausted and faltering efforts to attain truth are revealed to have an impact in a moment of honest clarity found in the film’s conclusion, and a strange form of catharsis is reached. With it’s poignant final twist, the story’s conclusion offers up important insight while also raising more questions, hinting that this night has been no different than many others. Unsuspecting pawns such as Nick and Honey are needed to keep demons at bay, and there will be more young couples to be tested and broken in George and Martha’s parlor.