This has been an extremely difficult review to sit down and write, largely because this film elicited such strong and conflicting reactions from me both while viewing it, and thinking back on it afterwards. I have never felt so in turmoil about a film, even while in the midst of watching it, my thoughts and emotions swirling back and forth even within the same scene. Loving it, hating it, sympathizing, being repulsed, being moved, understanding, feeling detached, exasperated, annoyed, intrigued, heartbroken, unresolved. Of course, maybe that’s utterly appropriate, given that the film is about a couple constantly at each other’s throats, except when they’re in each other’s arms, who drag a younger couple along with them on a night of “fun and games.” But what is the game, and what are the rules, and who’s having fun? The answers to those questions shift as often as my emotions did, and with as little warning or explanation.
George and Martha are a middle-aged academic couple, respectively a professor in history and the daughter of the university’s long-time president. As the film opens, they’re wending their way home after a university party, chatting quietly while lovely and calm background music plays. But even at this most peaceful point in the movie, they quickly fall into a rhythm of argument, clearly their default mode of interacting with each other. As they return home, Martha quotes one of Bette Davis’s campiest characters, proclaiming “What a dump,” then hounding George to tell what movie it’s from. At this point, the movie was already grating on me pretty badly, and it’s only getting started!
Soon a young couple comes over to continue the party, but they don’t know what they’re getting into any more than I did. The night wears on, Martha goading George continuously and flirting with the young man, while his wife gets more and more inebriated. But George, though far wearier and less vulgar, can give as good as he gets from Martha, his barbs carrying an air of intellectualism that makes them cut even deeper. Meanwhile, the younger couple aren’t innocents, either, but have their own skeletons in the closet. The film is almost a one-room drama (as the original Edward Albee play was), focusing on the four characters’ ongoing conversation and interactions. Most of it is very antagonistic, quite mean-spirited, and rather stagey and histrionic.
And yet. And yet. I can’t simply write the film off, and not only because I know how highly regarded it is. Somewhere about halfway through it started getting under my skin, and I’ve found it often popping up in the back of my mind since I finished it. As more details start to come out about George and Martha’s past and the “games” they play with each other (as George says, “we’re not ‘at’ each other, we’re just exercising what little of our wits is left”), I found myself more and more intrigued both by these people and by the structure of the film itself. It lets us in only slowly, at first only showing us George and Martha as they are now, a bitter couple who have grown almost complacent in their antagonism. But there’s more to them than this, a depth that soon becomes apparent in Burton’s weary eyes, his sighs as he accepts or counters yet another of Martha’s hurls.
Really, if it hadn’t been for Burton, I doubt I would’ve made it through the entire film. Taylor’s performance is often praised (and she won an Oscar for it), but except for one or two times when she quieted down and revealed some of the pain behind her own animosity, her performance largely tends toward shrill and histrionic, and I rarely if ever believed her. Burton, though, I believed all the time. All his emotional beats worked completely for me, and I felt every catch in his voice, every callback to old pain revisited. I will say that Taylor came very close to redeeming herself for me in the final scene, by which time the film had put me through such a confusing emotional wringer that I was as drained as she and Burton (the kids are there mostly as audience surrogates and something for George and Martha to play off of; they have their own stuff going on, but it’s relatively insignificant in comparison).
So by the end, the film’s power had definitely gotten to me, but I still don’t know if I could rewatch it any time soon. And yet…I do want to rewatch it. I want to study why it had the effect on me that it did. Very rarely am I this confused about my reaction to a film, and on the one hand, I know the film is powerful for affecting me the way it did, and the last act is pretty devastating however you slice it. Meanwhile, the first act is viciously funny (it worked better for me after I opted to think of it as a comedy – until somewhere in the second act, that becomes impossible). Also, I credit Mike Nichols and cinematography Haskell Wexler for some greatly affecting lighting and camerawork, which did a whole lot to balance out the theatricality of the dialogue. Even when I was recoiling from the characters and the mean-spiritedness on screen, I was still usually fascinated by the way it was shot. Even so, I can’t in good conscience say I think everything in it worked. Sandy Dennis also won an Oscar for her role, which I don’t understand, because she’s largely just acting a silly drunk girl the whole time, and she’s almost more annoying (if more innocuous) than Martha. Taylor I can’t get behind totally, and the young man is pretty dull.
And one thing about the ending. Vague spoilers follow.
The ending depends on the revelation that something George and Martha have been talking about the entire night is actually an elaborate fantasy, the breaking of which fantasy because reduces Martha to nothing. Now, I have in my life indulged in an awful lot of elaborate fantasy, which has, at certain times in my life, been very real to me. But despite the undeniable sincerity with which Burton and Taylor treat this aspect of the film, it stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to believe that two well-educated adults had kept up a fantasy just between the two of them that has this kind of power over them. It’s one of those things that worked while I was watching the film because Burton and Taylor put it over, but five minutes after the film was over, I was going “wait, really?!”
The “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” is an academic variation on “who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” and in this case, apparently, the big bad wolf is a life free from illusions, free from facades – a life that Martha in particular fears to face. But I got that from a Wikipedia article, not from the film, at least not on a first viewing. And even with that, I’m not sure WHY she fears it so much, and why George, who seems better adjusted, would help her keep up such a strange and elaborate fantasy for so long, and then finally break it that night. Those are questions that will have to wait until I get to another viewing. But returning to the world of George and Martha will be exhausting, and I’m not sure when I’ll be ready for it. At this point, I’m inclined to rate it highly simply because I think the extremely unsettled feeling I had both while watching it and thinking back over it is intentional. On the other hand, I’m still not sure I like that, and while certain scenes worked like gangbusters, as a whole I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. But not every film is made to be enjoyed. So I end up where I started – conflicted.