Screen Gems

A gay icon. A gay playwright. The greatest sparring match in movie history?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Stabbing: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Director Mike Nichols–one of the best directors in history–made one hell of a debut back in 1966 with his film adaptation of Edward Albee’s seminal play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The movie would go on to score Oscar nominations in every acting category (to this day a major feat), winning two: Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis, and Best Actress for Elizabeth Taylor.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? follows two married couples on a night of booze-fueled antics. George and Martha (Richard Burton and Taylor), a university professor and his wife, invite another younger couple, Nick and Honey (George Segal and Dennis) over for one last drink following a faculty party. A rip-roaring fight between George and Martha ensues, with Nick and Honey first horrified by the couple’s cruelty to one another…then drawn in by it. Tensions boil even hotter when Martha mentions she and George’s 16-year-old son, and George reacts in horror. Over the course of the evening, alliances shift, secrets get exposed, and booze flows as their tragic double date builds to a tragic conclusion.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? presents marital dysfunction at its most cruel, and alcoholism at its most explosive. Albee’s dialogue guts as deep and hard as any barb in the history of the movies…or just about anywhere else. Perhaps for that reason, all four actors give terrific performances, with real life couple (at the time, anyway) Burton and Taylor burning down the screen with every jab. Critics and audiences have often speculated that the two couples entangled in Virginia Woolf are meant to be coded same-sex couples. Edward Albee, who never hid his own homosexuality, always blasted that theory, and denied requests to stage the play with an all-male cast. For Albee, who based George and Martha on a real-life straight couple he knew, the play commented more on self-delusion in the face of disappointment and had nothing to do with homosexuality.

Indeed, we theorize that the film version of Virginia Woolf endures thanks to the outstanding performances of its cast, Nichols’ innovative direction, and the text’s underlying statement that addiction and life disappointment work like poison. George and Martha desperately love one another, but a life of regret, misfortune, and defeat have fueled their addictions, causing the couple’s affections to turn to toxic rage. Nick and Honey might suffer a similar fate, as could any other couple, gay, straight or otherwise. In that regard, count us among those afraid of Virginia Woolf.

We have a feeling you will be too.

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