Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

(On Cable TV, January 2018) Whew. Some movies are entertainment, some are a spectacle, but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? feels like a roller derby of emotional destruction. Set among the world of northeastern academics, what first feels like a quasi-parody of mainstream drama quickly turns ugly as a middle-aged history teacher and his wife start arguing, then bring in another younger couple in the clash for “fun and games.”  Nobody escapes unscathed, especially the audience. A solid drama (with streaks of dark but undeniable comedy) becomes something special by virtue of its actors—Not only do Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play the lead couple viciously squabbling, but they were married to each other at the time. Neither Taylor nor Burton have done anything better in their career—Burton, in particular, progressively shrugs off a meek drink-holding character to best his co-star in merciless put-downs. As for Taylor, it’s still impressive to see how she’d transform herself from a sex symbol to a frumpy shrewish housewife for the purposes of the film. (Not that it’s completely successful—even overweight and made-up with aging lines, Taylor-being-Taylor still looks better than anyone else.)  The film was shocking then for its frank language, but it’s still somewhat disturbing today due to its pure harshness: the film’s four characters constantly tear themselves down in the worst possible ways, and score hits on bystanders even when attacking each other. It’s as good as dialogue-driven drama gets, and it’s still remarkably effective today (albeit maybe a touch too long). As a capstone to the Taylor-Burton relationship, though, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? carries a weight that goes simply beyond a great movie.

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