We watched “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” last night, thus ending my 57-year streak of not watching it. When someone else grabs the remote, you sometimes end up viewing stuff you might not choose alone.
Here’s the IMDb synopsis: “A bitter, aging couple, with the help of alcohol, use their young houseguests to fuel anguish and emotional pain towards each other over the course of a distressing night.”
Sounds fun! But it turns out that watching people lacerate each other for most of the film’s 2:11 running time is not the laff riot you might expect. These people have some serious issues. As George keeps pouring the booze with much too free a hand, it soon emerges that the younger couple has some anguish of their own.
So, not exactly “When Harry Met Sally.” Not exactly my cup of tea. But I have to admit it’s an impressive piece of work. I probably should have seen it before now. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are at the height of their powers here. I’m not super familiar with the filmographies of either, but their performances in “Virginia Woolf” are way better than in, say, “Cleopatra.”
My wife is reading the 2021 biography of director Mike Nichols, aptly titled Mike Nichols. She notes that both Burton and Taylor were enthusiastic alcoholics during filming, which may help account for the verisimilitude of their performances. It was Nichols’ first film and it went on to win five Oscars in 1967. Shockingly (to me), it also was enormously popular, one of the top-grossing films of the year.
Pretty sure that in 1966, I would have been more interested in stuff like “Fantastic Voyage” or “Gambit.” But the Academy will be pleased to learn that I now concur with their views. The film deserves its place in the pantheon of American movies that are not about Marvel superheroes.
I found it a compelling film, but not particularly entertaining. Critics say that it is not the purpose of art to entertain. I say, why the hell not?
One small nitpick: I carefully observed the number of drinks poured and consumed, and calculated that in real life, that much booze would result in a blood-alcohol level of roughly 98 percent. Which would leave George and Martha quite dead, and thus unable to deliver their somewhat redemptive closing lines.