I’ve starred in a production of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
That’s right. I’ve played Martha, the heavy-drinking and dissatisfied wife of a burned-out English professor named George. Yes, I’ve played the same role for which Uta Hagen won a Tony and Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar. Among the other actresses that have played Martha on stage: Colleen Dewhurst, Meg Tilly, Diana Rigg, and Kathleen Turner. And, of course, me.
Now, I should admit that I was only 16 when I played Martha so I was perhaps a bit too young for the role. Fortunately, my friend Erik — who played George — was only a year and a half older so he was just as miscast as I was. (It was, at one point, suggested that I should try to put some gray in my hair but I pointed out that, as a redhead, I would never have to worry about that.) On Broadway and film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs for over two hours. The production in which I starred only had a running time of 13 minutes. Also, the version in which I starred did not feature the characters for Honey and Nick. I mean, who needed them when you could just watch Erik and me yell at each other for ten minutes straight.
And that’s pretty much what we did. When we told our drama teacher that we would be doing a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for our “Dramatic Duet,” I’m pretty sure that I saw her roll her eyes. I imagine that’s because she knew that both of us had a tendency towards the dramatic and that the main we picked the play was so we could compete to see who could be the first to go hoarse from yelling. She was right, of course. There was no nuance to our performance, largely because neither one of us really understood what the play was about. We just thought it was funny that some of our classmates covered their ears while we were loudly insulting and taunting each other. (For the record, I went hoarse before Erik did and I spent the next two days receiving compliments about my new sexy voice.)
Now that I’ve grown up a little, I think I have a better understanding of what Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is actually about. At the very least, I now understand that the story is about more than just two burn-outs yelling at each other while a younger couple awkwardly watches. I now understand that the game that George and Martha play over the course of the night is not a game of hate but instead a game of a very dysfunctional but also rather deep love. If anything, I now have more sympathy for George and Martha and far less for the play’s judgmental younger couple, Nick and Honey.
Of course, it helps that I’ve seen the 1966 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Directed (in his directorial debut) by Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? features Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as George and Martha and George Segal and Sandy Dennis and Nick and Honey. All four of them were Oscar-nominated for their roles, making Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? one of the few films to see its entire cast nominated. Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis both won in in their categories but it really is Richard Burton (who lost to Paul Scofield) who dominates the film.
Burton was a performer who could be shameless in his overacting. (Just watch his performance in The Exorcist II if you need proof.) And really, one would expect that the role of George would appeal to all of his worst instincts. Instead, Burton gives a surprisingly subtle performance. He growls when you expect him to yell and he delivers the majority of his lines not with fury but instead with a resigned and rather sardonic self-loathing. He’s actually less showy than Elizabeth Taylor, who gives an overall good performance but still sometimes comes across like she’s trying too hard to convince the audience that she’s a 50 year-old drunk and not one of the world’s most glamorous film stars. Throughout the film, Burton seems to be digging down deep and exposing his true self to the audience and, watching the action unfold, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Everyone in the cast does a good job with their roles but Burton is the one who keeps the film moving. Just as George is ultimately revealed to be stronger than he originally appears, Burton also reveals himself to be a far more compelling actor than you might think if you just knew him from his lesser roles (and performances).
Admittedly, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not my favorite of the many films that have been nominated for best picture over the last 90 years. Even when the characters are inhabited by skilled performers, a little bit of George and Martha goes a long way. That said, this is a historically important film. The film’s language may seem tame today but it was considered to be shockingly profane in 1966. The fact that the National Legion of Decency declined to condemn the film despite the language was considered to be a major step forward in the maturation of American cinema. In fact, it can be argued that the MPAA rating system started as a way to tell audiences that a film like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? was not morally objectionable but that it was still meant for adults.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? received thirteen Academy Awards nominations. It was nominated in every category for which it was eligible. It won 5 awards but ultimately lost Best Picture to rather more sedate theatrical adaptation, A Man For All Seasons.