Martha: Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.
Adapted from the play with the same name, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has the tagline “You are cordially invited to George and Martha's for an evening of fun and games.”
Within the first five minutes, the tagline starts to feel ominous. George (Burton) and Martha (Taylor) bring an atmosphere that can be best described as chilling with a creeping sense of dread. An atmosphere in which nameless things are present but just out of sight.
The masterful thing about the movie is that this atmosphere keeps growing throughout, slowly, almost playfully in the beginning, reaching a deafening crescendo near the end and ending with an exhausted quiet – like a perfect symphony
George, a middle aged college professor and Martha, his wife, come back from a gathering and its already two in the morning. George realizes that Martha has called a young couple from the gathering over to the house for a few more drinks. Nick, the athletic good looking instructor, recently joined and Honey, his mousey wife. George voices his displeasure at which Martha launches into an angry tirade, giving us the first glimpse that everything is not quite right with the couple
From the minute that Nick and Honey enter the house, they and the viewer realize that they are mere pawns in a verbal and emotional duel between George and Martha. A duel that we realize is very old and has a devastating deep buried history.
And what an epic duel it is. If there was ever a movie that exemplifies masterful verbal dueling of the most violent kind, this has to be the one. Laced generously with expletives that seem somewhat tame by today’s comparison but which was scandalous for the time, the sparring between Martha and George is like watching an Ali-Frazer to the death. Martha is the termagant who lashes out with her tongue and body, George is menacing and pure acid. And oh the words! Who needs computer generated action when mere words can have the same effect? The dialogue can be so searing and the delivery can be so devastating that at times you have to fight the urge to close your eyes! If nothing else, a still image of Martha and George having a go at each other, mouth spewing venom, eyes wild and faces distorted will remain with you for a long time…
When two people have been married for a long time, they know enough about each other to know what will cause a deep emotional gash in the other. Martha and George know exactly what will hurt each other. And the level to which they are willing to hurt each other keeps going up. They are at each other’s throat throughout and quite suddenly you realize that they are doing it out of pure habit, as if its something that they have done many time before and they know their way around the fight ring. The decibel level just went up because of the presence of the young couple caught in the middle
And that’s where it gets interesting. Nick and Honey are not the straight arrow couple that we have been led to believe in the beginning. As the evening gets more and more ‘interesting’, dark secrets start tumbling out, a dribble at first, then a torrent. And by the time the end comes, when everything is one roaring pit of hell, it all comes to a full brim. But the end is well, the end. More on that later…
So the stage is set for a heady cocktail. Four people, each with their own demons and hidden mysteries. Each with quite distinct personalities. And none of whom are willing to let go. Its like watching a spiral unfolding in front of your eyes. A spiral of destruction that just keeps getting deeper and just when you thought it cant go on much further, the four people caught in the middle springs a surprise! Just four people in the whole film and what destruction they can cause…
Taylor and Burton as Martha and George are truly a force of nature. Watching them is like watching two masters at work. Its increadible how both had changed their appearances for getting into the skin of the role. Burton with his middle aged paunch and the hangdog expression and Taylor who put on thirty pounds for the role. Anybody who watches the pair in ‘Cleopatra’ before watching this will be in for a shock of their life.
A special mention for the contribution of Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis). Without their understated but layered acting, the environment would have been punctured. The bewildered and unwilling pair, who, as the movie progresses become almost willing accomplices in the unfolding drama are a critical, though often overlooked, part of the whole structure. Starting off as plaything of Martha and George, the toys bring their own game into the drama.
And it all comes together at the end. When everything has fallen apart, when Nick and Honey go back to pick pieces of their shattered life, when George has delivered the final blow to Martha, everything makes sense in retrospect. Lot of things are left unsaid, lot of things are left unexplained. Which is the best way to end. Watching the end is like seeing the world after a violent blinding storm.
Saying anything more or anything specific will be a spoiler. This is a film that is best experienced, preferably alone! Leaving you with the very last line in which Martha answers the title question with
“I am, George, I am”