Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


After watching a few burps (The Sandpiper, The VIPs, Dr. Faustus), Richard Burton’s acting was never finer than in Albert Albee‘s vicious play set to the screen. It was Mike Nichol‘s directorial debut. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) received 13 Academy nominations. Although Richard Burton lost to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons, Elizabeth Taylor won her second Best Actress award (BUtterfield 8 was her first)  and Sandy Dennis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Other winners included Haskell Wexler‘s cinematography, Irene Sharaff’s costumes, and Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins‘ art direction. Richard Burton did receive the British Academy Award for his performance of George, the emasculated history professor who rises to the surface to sting his brass and bawdy wife, Martha.

From the sing-song chant of the title, one understands this is a play about games. An all-night party turns carnal as the young academic couple, Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) fall prey to the daughter of the college president, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband George (Richard Burton). The hosts have a lustful appetite for ripping and shredding the mental and emotional selves of their guests and themselves.

The young couple could very well be the future George and Martha. They watch with morbid curiosity. Illusions mask reality. Invention and the dubbing force of alcohol is the playground where George and Martha escape from their trapped lives. George’s dreams of creative authorship are denied by “Daddy”, the president of the college. Martha’s dream of livin’ la vida loca outside the boundaries of the conservative college and her boring husband is denied. Unable to conceive, she punishes herself and her countenance is as sour as her soul. So used to playing corrosive games to spice up their lives, they become dependent upon them and disintegrate.

When George speaks Latin like a priest presiding over the death of their invented son, Martha wails. Under the harsh light of dawn and stripped of their games, will Martha and George survive? The audience is left to speculate without much hope that they will.  “Martha and George,” she chants earlier in the play. “Sad, sad, sad.” Burton and Taylor are a tour de force. It’s exhausting. 4.5/5. 

This is one of my favorite scenes. Burton shows the complexity of frustration and rage.

22 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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  1. Such a powerful film. I only watched it once, in my late teens. I left the cinema feeling exhausted, and never wanting to marry anyone like Martha. And that despite always finding Taylor overwhelmingly good to look at, even when she was much older.
    You got to the heart of this one, Cindy. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete. x


    1. Hi Pete. Watching it last night reminded me of dark days of youth listening to various couples sounding a lot like George and Martha. When getting divorce was considered a scandal and couples saw themselves as “stuck” for death do they part, well, there were quite a few couples who existed in dysfunction.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A brilliant film, expertly directed by Mike Nichols, who also directed “The Graduate” and “Carnal Knowledge” in short order, as well as the cult film “Catch-22”, and then so many more for decades to come


      1. I’d LOVE for Richard E. Grant to win Supporting actor but it doesn’t seem in the cards…and Glenn Close is SO deserving this year – kind of shocking that she’s NEVER won!


  3. Hi. I never saw this movie. But I’ve always wondered about the quality of George Segal’s performance. Is he good in the role? I remember being surprised that he got the part. I don’t think he was known at the time as a great dramatic actor. Bye till next time —

    Neil Scheinin


  4. Such a strong cast, they all deserved Oscars for “Virginia”.
    What was it about Burton’s voice? He would no sooner open his mouth and it would seem he demanded attention. Such a presence!


      1. I think I was so impressed with Liz, so bloated, such a harridan but so multi faceted after being ‘the beauty’ in previous movies that I’d seen, she knocked it out the park for me, I’d known women like that!


  5. Great post 🙂 It most certainly ranks up there as one of Burton’s greatest performances no doubt. This is a very good film. What could have easily been little more than stagey is instead elevated by Ernest Lehman’s (North by Northwest) razor-sharp script. I mean the dialogue is just rich. Also, we have the performances of everyone involved. For me, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf may not be Mike Nichols best film (Carnal Knowledge is still hard to beat), but it is my second favorite of his films. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂


    1. Hi Keith. It’s hard to imagine these days anyone agreeing to stay in such a dysfunctional situation. How jaded and bitter and lost they were. All the performances were synched. It was disturbing but wonderful to see such fine acting.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I was shocked – and GLAD – to see Green Book win the Oscar. I haven’t everything that’s around, but this was the best movie I’d seen this year. Yet I thought it would be ignored. Bravo !


    1. I was happy, too. It was my vote for Best Film. Malek deserved the Best Acting Oscar. It was one of those rare treats to see him outshine the contenders. The dream script showing off his talents beautifully!


    1. There’s was such an adventure, such a surreal life it was impossible for either of them to find anyone else to compare. They truly loved each other, I believe. They both got in each other’s way due to vices. Neither would regret knowing or loving the other. Passionate appetites!

      Liked by 1 person

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