Oct 4, 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?




I just saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).  I knew that it was written by gay playwright Edward Albee, that it starred gay ally Elizabeth Taylor, and that some people said that her character, Martha, could be read as a drag queen living incognito with sullen college professor George (Richard Burton).

It actually works better with Martha and George both as bisexual, or rather sexual opportunists, willing to have sex with whomever will further their goals.

They invite a newly hired professor and his wife over, ostensibly "for drinks" at 2:00 am -- a little late even for the Swinging Sixties -- but with the real goal of seeing which one they can destroy first.  They'll do whatever it takes -- seduction, dredging up traumatic memories, revealing secrets.  Apparently they make a regular game of it.

The couple arrive -- tall, hunky Nick (George Segal), and his mousy wife Honey (Sandy Davis).

First Martha seduces Honey.

Honey needs to use the bathroom, so Martha escorts her upstairs.  She takes an extraordinarily long time, and returns with a dazed expression.  Other people use the downstairs bathroom, and are back in a few minutes.  What exactly was she doing up there?  "Oh...um, Martha gave me a tour of the house."  Where's Martha?  "Oh...um, she's changing clothes."

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what was going on up there.

Honey spends the rest of the evening drunk, barely aware of what's going on.



Meanwhile George starts on Nick.  He decides that the best tactic will be to convince Nick that he's gay, either through seduction or innuendo.  So he refers to Nick as handsome and muscular, puts his arm around him, puts his hand on Nick's knee, literally puts his hand on Nick's crotch.  Meanwhile he interrogates Nick about why they have no children -- could it be because he doesn't care for sex with women?  -- and why they married in the first place -- could it be because he needed a screen?

Later they go out into the back yard, and George tells a story about a beautiful, cherubic boy he knew 30 years ago, in the military -- obviously a confession of homoerotic desire meant to parallel George's real or pretend attraction to Nick.  After more implications that Nick has a "secret," they lie side by side, their faces so close that they are almost kissing, and confess that they don't care for their wives, they prefer the company of men.

But that's as far as it goes.  Nick goes back into the house, not quite convinced that he's gay.

The second half is tedious, overacted, and not nearly as much fun.  Seeing that George failed at his destruction attempt, Martha takes over -- seducing Nick in full view of his wife should do the trick!

Apparently this isn't in the rules.  Martha got to destroy Honey, so George should get Nick!  George is livid, and decides to change the game plan by destroying Martha.

They have a son, a beautiful boy, now a rowdy sixteen-year old.  Except he's fictional, make-believe, a folie-a-deux created out of their despair at not being able to have a child of their own (here Martha as drag queen makes sense).  So George "kills" the boy.  Martha is devastated.

Why didn't Nick and Honey just leave when things got weird?  Maybe on some level they were enjoying the game.  Maybe they wanted to be destroyed. They realize that they hate each other as they walk out into the daylight.

The game over, George and Martha go upstairs to bed.  

If it ended as Nick goes back into the house, it would be one of my favorite movies, a camp classic. As it is, you just get really tired of these people and their make-believe tragedies.