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A new book looks at how movies have critiqued the institution of marriage

DON GONYEA, HOST:

The 1966 movie "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" is two tense hours of a middle-aged husband and wife trading barbs, downing drinks and playing power games, all while ostensibly entertaining a younger couple. It received 13 Oscar nominations and quickly became an American film classic. Philip Gefter argues in a new book, "Cocktails With George And Martha," that the movie isn't just about one marriage but the institution of marriage itself. Here's NPR's Andrew Limbong.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Watching "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" you get used to the sound of ice clinking around in glasses real fast. You know, you hear it when George and Martha are playfully ribbing each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")

RICHARD BURTON: (As George) You'll crack your big teeth.

LIMBONG: When George, a history professor, prepares drinks for their young guests - first the beautiful, if a bit mousy, Honey.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")

SANDY DENNIS: (As Honey) A little brandy maybe. Never mix. Never worry.

BURTON: (As George) Brandy. Just brandy. Simple, simple. What about you...

LIMBONG: Her husband's name is Nick. He's the new young biology teacher at the school. Later on, Martha will remark on how Nick used to play football and box and kept his body. But first, drinks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")

GEORGE SEGAL: (As Nick) Bourbon on the rocks, if you don't mind.

BURTON: (As George) Mind? I don't mind. Don't think I mind. Martha, rubbing alcohol for you?

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: (As Martha) Sure. Never mix. Never worry.

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: And a whole bottle comes into play when the barbs turn into a full-blown argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")

TAYLOR: (As Martha) You see, George didn't have much push. He wasn't particularly aggressive. In fact, he was sort of a flop - a great, big, fat flop.

BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can't afford to waste good liquor. Not on your salary, not on an associate professor's salary.

PHILIP GEFTER: Yes, they do drink a lot.

LIMBONG: That's Philip Gefter, who saw the movie when it first came out in theaters when he was 15.

GEFTER: I didn't fully understand it, but I recognized my parents in it, and I recognized parents of friends in it. And I knew at that moment that I am seeing reality reflected back to me in a way that I had never quite seen it before.

LIMBONG: The movie is adapted from the Edward Albee play of the same name, and it came out at a time when the social mores of the country were rapidly changing.

GEFTER: This movie punctured the hypocrisy of the presentation and display of marriage throughout the '50s.

LIMBONG: Coincidentally, we recorded this interview on February 14.

Happy Valentine's Day, by the way.

GEFTER: Happy Valentine's Day...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

GEFTER: ...To you and to every George and Martha on the planet.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

GEFTER: (Laughter).

LIMBONG: Is this a romantic movie?

GEFTER: Well, funny you should ask. I think so. I think it's a movie about love. I think underlying everything, you know, all of the games and contempt and revenge that comes out over the course of this late-night nightcap - its source is in love.

LIMBONG: There's one moment in particular, in the beginning, before the guests arrive. Martha and George are drinking and laughing in bed, and there's a second when they're just lying there together, not speaking. No barbs, no jokes, just them. And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")

TAYLOR: (As Martha) Hey, come on, give your mommy a big, sloppy kiss. I want a big, sloppy kiss.

BURTON: (As George) I don't want to kiss you right now, Martha.

LIMBONG: The moment's gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")

TAYLOR: (As Martha) Why didn't you want to kiss me? George?

LIMBONG: George has gone off to fix a drink. In Gefter's book, he calls this the opening salvo that sets the rest of the movie off.

GEFTER: She wants affection from him, and he rejects it. He just cuts her off and leaves the room. And at that moment, I think that's so true of so many marriages and so many relationships, that there are moments throughout the day or throughout the week or, like, over the course of a month when, you know, one spouse feels utterly, profoundly emotionally rejected and has to navigate that.

LIMBONG: George and Martha are played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were not just huge movie stars but a newly married Hollywood power couple themselves. It was a tumultuous relationship.

GEFTER: Well, for them, fighting was foreplay, and they brought their marriage into their roles. And it's stunning because it works.

LIMBONG: But the movie almost didn't work, in part because Burton and Taylor were difficult to work with, regularly taking three- to four-hour lunches, leaving the crew waiting. Reading Gefter's book, you get the sense that the film could have gone wrong in so many ways, but instead, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" eventually became a source text for all movies about marriages that came after. And the draw after all these years is that, sure, George and Martha might not be a perfect couple, but at least they never pretend to be. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.