Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Written by Edward Albee & Ernest Lehman
Directed by Mike Nichols
I can’t imagine how shocked audiences were when they saw this movie in 1966. It doesn’t have gratuitous nudity or sex, barely any profanity, no violence or gore. However, it features such bitter, hateful characters that this is a complicated picture to get through even by today’s standards. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that married couples on television would be shown. However, film and theater have always been ahead of the curve in pushing content boundaries. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a couple like this before. The rancor that is already overflowing when the movie begins just explodes. We’re given some moments of reprieve, but they fade quickly when the ceasefire ends, and the games begin again.
George and Martha (Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor, respectively) are a middle-aged couple living in a small New England college town. He’s an associate professor of history, and she is the university president’s daughter. It sounds like a good match on paper, but somewhere along the way, everything soured and began rotting. They come home tipsy from a party around 2am on a weekend night. Martha announces she’s invited over Nick, a new biology professor (George Segal), and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) for more drinks in the middle of the night. While things are tense, they go over the edge when Martha casually mentions that their son will be having his sixteenth birthday the next day. Throughout the rest of the night, George and Martha engage in a psychological war making this young couple their witnesses.
The crux of the story is how married couples often project false images of themselves to the public while hiding more complex notions of intimacy and trust in private. Author Edward Albee seems most interested in the idea that most of what we show in public is entirely phony, that the truth of a couple can only be found in the quiet twilight hours when they believe they are safe from prying eyes. However, George and Martha go so far beyond this, inventing false images of each other and their lives that they speak about as truth in private. We eventually learn that Nick and Honey also have engaged in lies between each other, though nowhere nearly as intense as the older couple. By seeing this possible future, the younger couple seems to break in a way, pointing at uncertainty to come.
Albee upends the entirety of the East Coast academic middle class he was able to examine up close. Impotence is another central theme, not just sexually but also regarding George’s career as a professor. We learn that he’s floundered when it comes to moving up the ladder, and Martha jabs at this, knowing it is a point of pain for her husband. Nick represents those early days when George still had ambition which only serves to stab deeper into the old man as he goes through this night, coming to terms with his failure. Martha was limited because of the social mores of the time, where she would be seen as properly-staying at home or at most lunching with friends during a weekday. George’s inability to garner greater success hinders her as well. It doesn’t matter what Martha’s personal ambitions are; she was merely defined by her husband’s career, which had bottomed out.
This leads to conversations about children and the theme of parenthood. Martha’s most significant accomplishment as a woman in America at this time would be to be a mother. It’s clear from the ever-present tension throughout the night that George and Martha’s son is a point of contention. Martha brings up the child and sets off George; by the end of the night, he has her weeping on the floor, telling her how their son is never coming home. There’s a revelation about Nick and Honey’s marriage and its ties to an unexpected pregnancy which further highlights how wounding all of this is for the couples. Albee asks us if we think these people are fit to be parents? His personal view is that they certainly are not.
The film’s title is derived from the Disney cartoon The Three Little Pigs, a tune introduced into the zeitgeist 33 years earlier when all these characters would have been young people or even children. Their behavior throughout the night doesn’t support the argument of sophisticated academic elites but petty, hateful brats. These adult children are so miserable with what their lives have been. It’s hinted that George and Martha’s marriage was done at the behest of her father, a move that should have helped George ascend the ranks of the History department and cemented Martha as a respected professor’s wife. We never see them interact with anyone outside this young couple, but we could surmise that people who have known them longer find social interactions difficult and awkward.
Being successful in your job and having children was a big part of American life at this time and still is today. As someone in my 40s who has chosen not to have children, people have a variety of reactions to that choice. For the most part, the responses I’ve seen are people who say they understand entirely and a few who good-naturedly chide that one day it’ll happen. I’ve been lucky that I’ve never crossed paths with a George and Martha. Once they suss out Nick and Honey, they seem to intend to infect this couple with their own awfulness and basically succeed by the end of the movie. Seeds of doubt are planted, and the rot has begun in another couple.