Wednesday, March 25, 2015

AFI Top 100: #67 "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

I fear that I'm starting to get significantly behind in my AFI Top 100 journey (not the watching, just the reviewing), so I'm determined to play catch up in the coming weeks. How perfectly appropriate this past week, John and I sat down, just the two of us coming out of a trivial but nonetheless emotional argument, to endure two hours of one of the most traumatizing portrayals of a single relationship that has ever been written. Our #67 film was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, adapted by Ernest Lehman and directed by Mike Nichols, based on the stage play of the same name by Edward Albee. I think it's safe to say that there isn't another movie like this, anywhere. A film where the subtext is in fact staggering, not just trying to be, and the emotional roller-coaster is almost crippling.

George (Richard Burton), a dispassionate associate professor of History lives on the New Carthage University campus in a small, modest house with his wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor). On this night, following a school faculty function, the couple returns home around midnight, and Martha informs George that she's invited over guests that they must now reluctantly entertain. Nick (George Segal) and his wife (Sandy Dennis), who is never named, but he affectionately calls "Honey."

Martha is the daughter of the school's President, and shares in her father's disappointment in Georgeshe doesn't hesitate to remind him or point out his despondent apathy. As Nick and Honey arrive, it doesn't take long (or that many drinks) for them to be draggedcrying, kicking, and screaminginto the darkness that is George and Martha's marriage. This, more than anything I've ever seen, is a horror story of the 20th century marriage.

It's so rare in a film to get feverishly involved in the lives of the characters, to the point where all you want to do is scream to them: "Get out! Get out now, just walk away!" Nick and Honey, out of what seems to be obligation, or politeness, at first, get so sucked into the anger and frustration, it becomes impossible for them to escape it. Taylor is a maniacal wrecking ball, the antithesis of a dutiful wife. Inversely, George is meek and sinister, resolute to a point but unexpectedly conniving.

This film is nothing if not for its actors. A four-person story that takes place late in a single night, it is a true theatrical experience transferred to the screen. You'll never see more saliva or mucus in a performance than you will from Sandy Dennis as Honey. The characterizations of everybody else, the way they arc from having it all together (for the most part) to truly falling apart... none come as more of a shock than Dennis'. Martha and George are lost from the start. They hate each other with such vitriol, it's almost painful to endure. Their perverse, dependent interactions borderline on disgusting. Even Nick, the one with the most solid head on his shoulders and seemingly the least baggage, doesn't crumble the way that Honey does. For that, Dennis comes off as the biggest surprise of the bunch.

The cinematography is also unique. I could go on forever about the story, the script, how insane it is and how the subtext is compelling, frustrating, hysterical, and mysterious... but none of that would be as effective if it weren't for the way it's shot. Characters are locked into tightly confined frames (see below!), each expression by the actors intentionally highlightedor subtly hidden. Repetitive shots and choreography throughout the tiny apartment, or the nearby bar, as George makes drink after drink after drink, and everyone swills down their liquor as if trying to stomach every bitter pill their handed... It's simply brilliant.

Needless to say, by the end of this movie, I couldn't help but lean into John, clasp his hand, give him a kiss, and profusely apologize for anything and everything I may have ever done or said wrong. Nothing makes you want to make good with your partner like this traumatizing picture.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? stands out to me in a way no other film (so far) on this list does. It appears small and quiet and unassuming, and it is anything but. It takes you by surprise, Taylor's comedic rambling about Bette Davis saying "What a dump!" that opens the movie is delightful and funny, while George endures her silliness with a playful roll of the eyes. Then it just devolves into pure insanity fast enough to make your head spin. Really, what a fuckin' greatand weirdride of a movie.

Rating:  ★★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Warner Brothers]

Check back later this week for #66 on the list, Raiders of the Lost Ark — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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