Sunday, January 12, 2014

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Who's Afraid of Sadomasochism?

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was released in summer 1966, its coarse language (several “goddamns,” at least one “Up yours,” and a lot of other words and phrases thought too profane for the movies) made Warner Bros. designate it for “Adults Only,” three years before the MPAA introduced the first edition of its rating system: G (general audiences), M (mature), R (restricted), and X (no one under 17 admitted).

The film was still controversial when it had its television premiere on The CBS Thursday Night Movies in February 1973. In that pre-home video and cable era, a major movie’s TV debut was a big event, but many of the network’s affiliates refused to carry the prime-time broadcast, choosing to air it instead following the 11 o’ clock news.

Based on Edward Albee’s play, considered by many the finest theatrical piece of the 1960s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf gave Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton their finest hour on screen as a couple. It remains powerful, but the big revelation at the end – George and Martha are childless and their profound disappointment leads them into the sick games of verbal abuse that their two young guests are drawn into – is not convincing. The playwright had to tie things up at the end, to explain “motivation,” but the couple’s failure to go forth and multiply was merely a safe and acceptable denouement for audiences that would likely have been appalled at the true nature of George and Martha’s relationship.

This is a marriage built on sadomasochism. Martha is the dominant (or “top”) dishing out abuse to George, the self-loathing but appreciative submissive (“bottom”) who derives sexual satisfaction from humiliation. In the ‘60s, some of the more daring and perceptive critics, aware that Albee is gay, saw George and Martha as symbolizing a homosexual couple at a time before Gay Liberation when such a thing was considered shockingly perverse. One doesn’t have to bring homosexuality into the equation, however, since sadomasochism is neither gay nor straight, and is also practiced by heterosexuals. Some of these relationships are strictly professional with the submissive paying the dominatrix to disparage his manhood and humiliate him sexually, as Martha humiliates George, calling him a “flop” and cuckolding him with his younger more athletic colleague.

Ignore the phony conclusion, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is still powerful drama.

Although he was initially considered miscast as George, the diffident associate professor of History at a New England college, Burton may have been telling the truth when he told director Mike Nichols, “I am George.” As his recently published diaries attest, Burton was a frustrated scholar whose first love was not acting (or drinking and sex), but “a book with lovely words in it.”

© 2014 Brian W. Fairbanks