A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the 1966 black-and-white film version of Edward Albee's Tony-winning 1962 tragicomedy, plays like a big, nasty marital brawl, covering infidelity, alcoholism, abortion, premarital sex, and other raw topics that are generally thought of as inappropriate for kids. Older teens may understand the subtler sexual references but the psychological brutality, bordering on sado-masochism, will be challenging for all but the most mature. It was the first film Warner Bros. ever released for adults only. Warner's contracts with distributors prohibited viewers under the age of 18. While standards regarding appropriateness may have changed since 1966, this movie still packs a wallop of unpleasantness and dysfunctional behavior. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink great quantities of alcohol. Expect to hear "crap," "bastard," "bitch, "boobs," and "lunkhead."
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What's the story?
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? invites us into the lives of bored history professor George (Richard Burton) and his dissatisfied wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) at two in the morning after a faculty party hosted by her father, the university's president. We observe their long, chronically dysfunctional, alcohol-soaked marriage now based largely on a combination of mutual contempt, abuse, and sado-masochistic role-playing. Every sentence serves as a derisive reference to old wounds and grievances, or as an opportunity to re-engage in such longstanding conflict. She offhandedly calls him a cluck, a simp, a swamp, and a sourpuss. He calls her a subhuman monster. In short order, as the animosity rises and the level of discourse sinks, one can't help but agree with them both. All of this unpleasant harpooning is a sampling of the couple's private game, a game that maintains their marriage, both foundering and steady as a rock, deadly and alive at the same time. The private game has private rules and when one breaks a rule, all the previous vileness pales in comparison to what is unleashed next. The mixture thickens as a smug new biology professor (George Segal) and his seemingly clueless wife (Sandy Dennis) stop by and are immediately infected by the foul atmosphere, the alcohol, and the sexual subtext. Does the older couple have a mysterious 16-year-old son or is he a fiction representing unfulfilled dreams? Is their relationship truth or an illusion? Stay tuned.
Is it any good?
This dark tale is a classic for a reason, but it's still a tough film to watch. The pairing of the famously real-life battling, hard-drinking, glamorous couple -- the Burtons -- in Albee's shattering comic drama may have exposed the talented couple's tendencies toward overacting. But that is a minor gripe. For 1966, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was an unusually raw, earthy, and carnival-like exposition on what can go wrong in human intercourse. We are instructed, in no uncertain terms, that really smart people, university professors no less, are as apt as anyone to mess up their lives by marrying the wrong people, by thinking that money can solve their problems, or by assuming that lots of alcohol can lubricate squeaky relationships. Sometimes the performances border on kitsch to the degree that the movie feels like a horror movie about marriage. The open hostility that makes the central marriage run, the raised voices, the disrespectful speech, and nonstop drinking and cigarette smoking in and of themselves make this more than iffy for kids. So much innuendo and so many references to buried and complex slights and disappointments will probably go over the heads of most young viewers, and it's doubtful that kids will be the least bit interested. Taylor and Dennis won Best Actress and Best Supporting actress Oscars, respectively.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the different ways in which people like the characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? cope with their disappointments. Do you think it can be useful to live in fictional fantasies if they ease people's pain?
Why do you think the young couple did not leave when things turned nasty? Did alcohol play a role? Did flirting play a role? Did egomania and self-regard play roles?
If you could remake this movie, how would you do it and who would you cast?
Are the movie's themes still relevant? Why or why not?
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