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Saturday Afternoon Movie: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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June 14, 2014

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St. Agnes Library

"You are cordially invited to George and Martha's for an evening of fun and games." Thus read the ad copy for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which in 1966 went farther than any previous big-studio film in its use of profanity and sexual implication. George (Richard Burton) is an alcoholic college professor; Martha (Oscar-winner Elizabeth Taylor) is his virago of a wife. George and Martha know just how to push each other's buttons, with George having a special advantage: he need only mention the couple's son to send Martha into orbit. This evening, the couple's guests are Nick (George Segal), a junior professor, and Honey (Sandy Dennis), Nick's child-like wife. After an evening of sadistic (and sometimes perversely hilarious) "fun and games," the truth about George and Martha's son comes to light. First staged on Broadway in 1962 with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, Edward Albee's play was adapted for the screen by Ernest Lehman, who managed to retain virtually all of Albee's scatological epithets (this was the first American film to feature the expletive "goddamn"). Lehman opened up the play by staging one of George's speeches in the backyard, and by relocating the film's second act to a roadside inn (he also added four lines--"all bad," according to Albee). Thanks to the box-office clout of stars Taylor and Burton, not to mention the titilation factor of hearing all those naughty words on the big screen, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was a hit, and it won 5 Oscars, including awards for Taylor and Dennis, though it lost Best Picture to A Man for All Seasons. First-time director Mike Nichols lost the Oscar, but this movie gave him a perfect transition from his stage work and established him as a hot young Hollywood director, leading to his acclaimed (and Oscar-winning) work on his next movie, The Graduate. Author: Hal Erickson

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