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.