Just a year or two after getting married, I was judging my friends and family for their inferior relationships and giving them unsolicited advice.
Looking back, I am flat-out embarrassed by my behavior. I was childish and dumb.
First off, what the heck made me think I was such an expert on successful relationships? But more importantly, what the heck made me think I knew anything at all about another couple’s marriage?
The side of the relationship that a couple chooses to share in public may be very different than the way they interact with each other in private. And the interactions that seem weird and unkind to outsiders may just be the unique way a couple makes their relationship work.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” takes place in an unassuming house in a New England college town. Two married couples come back from a faculty party to try to keep the fun going late into the night. Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and George (Richard Burton) are middle aged and plainly loathe each other. Nick and Honey are in their 20s and seem to be a perfect couple.
During the course of an eventful few hours, they share copious amounts of hard liquor and several dirty secrets.
In 1966, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” was notorious for its use of profanity. 55 years later, the film still stands out for its unvarnished honesty about marriages.
Liz Taylor is a force of nature as Martha. For two uncomfortable hours, she becomes the living embodiment of angry disappointment. Martha would do anything to inspire her husband to get some ambition or grow a backbone. But all she can think to do is needle him, berate him, and humiliate him; and that just makes the problem worse.
The scenes where Martha flirts openly with Nick are brutally realistic. I do not know what is going on inside a relationship that leads a woman to flirt with other guys right in front of her man. But it definitely happens and it’s impressive that a mainstream American movie explores the phenomenon with such maturity. Richard Burton is surprisingly convincing as a loser nerd. George has no defense against Martha’s barrage of insults; he knows darn well that he’s a failure and a coward. All he has is his devious mind and he uses it to hurt everyone he comes across.
The MVP of the film is young Sandy Dennis, who plays Honey. First off, she plays a character who gets extremely drunk as the night goes on and Dennis looks genuinely plastered. I love how Honey naturally takes George’s side in every argument because she notices that Martha is flirting with her husband.
Sandy Dennis also shows us that angry marriages don’t begin angry. They begin with little seeds of resentment. Honey quietly resents the way Nick dismisses her intelligence. And she is getting increasingly frustrated with the way Nick tells her to calm down every time she wants to let loose and have a fun time.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” is a triumph of American cinema. It’s scintillating, insightful, and brutally honest at every turn.
The ending is understated and perfect. The film argues that these four adults who just spent the night insulting each other and betraying each other aren’t bad couples. They’re just couples. Like us.
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