Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
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The Story (continued)

Martha screeches away in their station wagon without George, picking up Nick and Honey on her way home. Honey is left in a sickened state in the back seat of the car. When George forces his way through the latched front door of his own house after walking home, he knocks into the hanging doorbells inside the hallway, causing them to chime. On the stairs, he finds Nick's discarded jacket. He picks it up and realizes that Martha has taken Nick up to her bedroom. His laughter at the thought soon mixes into painful tears as he morosely walks out the front door. From the front yard below, he looks up pathetically and sees their love-making-in-shadow through the bedroom window.

Honey is in a delirious dreamworld reverie, denying knowledge of anything going on around her and screaming: "I DON'T WANT ANY CHILDREN! I'm afraid, I don't want to be hurt." George realizes she privately denies and represses everything related to her own barrenness and her husband's impotency, as she tells her own tale of marital woe. She is terrified of bearing children - a symbol of her own inauthentic and illusory relationship with Nick:

Does he know that? Does that stud you're married to know about that, huh?...How do you make your secret little murders? Pills? Pills? You got a secret supply of pills? Or what? Apple jelly? Will Power?

Honey still wants to know about the bells she heard ringing: "What were the bells? Who rang?" An idea suddenly springs into George's mind - a new illusory fact to ultimately destroy Martha. Like Honey, Martha also dredged up and confessed a private, intimate, and painful secret from their past. George is prepared to destroy their imaginary, fantasy son because of it:

...the bells rang and it was a message, and it was about our son and the message was, and the message was, our son is DEAD!...And Martha doesn't know, I haven't told Martha...(Very softly in a whisper) Martha? Martha? I have some terrible news. It's about our son. He's dead. Do you hear me Martha? Our boy is dead.

Even later in the evening, Martha stumbles out of the house after replenishing her drink, mumbling to herself and asking where everybody has gone. The ice in her glass jiggles and clinks loudly, and she repeats the noise several times: "CLINK! CLINK!" Nick joins her on the front porch steps, thinking everyone's "gone crazy" - his wife is curled up on the tile floor in the bathroom with a liquor bottle, whispering: "nobody knows I'm here." To his wincing surprise, Martha thinks Nick is inadequate sexually and "certainly a flop in some departments." He explains his impotency by blaming his ten hours of drinking:

To you, everybody's a flop. Your husband's a flop, I'm a flop.

Martha divulges the way she has habitually attacked George's weak spots in their tortured relationship. In a remarkable moment of self-revelation, she acknowledges her deep, authentic, triumphant love and bond with her soulmate:

You're all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops. (To herself) I disgust me. You know, there's only been one man in my whole life who's ever made me happy. Do you know that?...George, my husband...George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me - whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy. Yes, I do wish to be happy. George and Martha: Sad, sad, sad...Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: yes, this will do; who has made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me and must be punished for it. George and Martha: Sad, sad, sad...Some day, hah! Some night, some stupid, liquor-ridden night, I will go too far and I'll either break the man's back or I'll push him off for good which is what I deserve.

Martha insists that Nick be reduced to a "houseboy" or "gigolo" by answering the doorbell, knowing his opportunistic, "ambitious" nature by sleeping his way up the University ladder:

You're ambitious, aren't you? I mean, you didn't come back here with me out of mad-driven passion, did you now? You were thinking a little bit about your career, weren't you?...Go on, git!...You show old Martha there's something you can do. Huh? Atta boy.

When he opens the door, a bouquet of snapdragons are thrust into his face, and George, using a falsetto voice, speaks from behind the flowers:

Flores. Flores para los muertos. Flores. ["Flowers. Flowers for the dead. Flowers." Note the reference to a similar scene in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), another film with a morbid tone and subject matter about pregnancy and a struggling couple]... (To Nick) Why Sonny, you came home for your birthday at last!

Nick is kept guessing about more illusory matters and he is exasperated at his peculiar, unfathomable hosts:

Nick: Hell, I don't know when you people are lying or what.
Martha: You're damned right.
George: You're not supposed to.
Martha: Right.

George and Martha again manipulatively remind Nick that he is an impotent houseboy:

George: Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference eh, toots? Eh houseboy?
Nick: I am not a houseboy.
George: Look, I know the game. You don't make it in the sack, you're a houseboy.
Nick: I AM NOT A HOUSEBOY!
George: Then you must have made it. Yes? Yes? Somebody's lying around here; somebody's not playing the game straight. Come on, come on; who's lying? Martha? Come on.
Nick: Tell him I'm not a houseboy.
Martha: No, you're not a houseboy.
George: So be it.
Martha: Truth and illusion, George. You don't know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.
Martha: Amen.

In the wee hours of the morning, George proposes one last really fun "game to play," although Martha is exhausted and pleads for no more games. It's called "Bringing Up Baby." George calmly insists: "One more Martha. One more game, and then beddie-bye. Everybody pack up his tools and baggage and stuff and go home. And you and me, well, we gonna climb them well-worn stairs."

When she moves her hand to touch him lovingly, he slaps it away, inciting her to get mad for "an equal battle" - in an escalated war to the death including an ultimately vicious and violent purging of her inner demons:

Don't you touch me. You keep your paws clean for the undergraduates. Now, you listen to me, Martha. (He grabs her hair, pulling her head back) You've had yourself an evening, you've had yourself quite a night, and you can't cut it out just whenever there's enough blood in your mouth. We are going on, and I'm going to have at you, and it's going to make your performance tonight look like an Easter pageant. Now I want you to get yourself a little alert. I want a little life in you...Pull yourself together. I want you on your feet and slugging, because I'm going to knock you around, and I want you up for it.

He rouses her fury to join in the game, a final dramatic battle to the death:

Martha: All right George. What do you want?
George: An equal battle, baby, that's all.
Martha: You'll get it.
George: I want you mad.
Martha: I'm mad.
George: I want you madder.
Martha: Don't worry about it.
George: Good girl. We play this one to the death.
Martha: Yours.
George: You'll be surprised.

After assembling everyone together, even Honey ("Honey funny bunny!"), George announces a "last game...a civilized game." He first reviews all the happenings earlier in the evening: "we sat around and we got to know each other and we've had fun and games, curl-up-on-the-floor, for example...the tiles...Snap the Dragon...peel the label..."

In this final game, George is again planning to peel the label - this time aiming for the marrow inside the bone, realizing that it may be the one thing needed to save their crippled marriage and lives:

...and when you get through the skin, all three layers and through the muscle, and slosh aside the organs...and get down to the bone, you know what you do then?...You haven't got all the way yet. There's something inside the bone, the marrow, and that's what you gotta get at.

He brings up the uncomfortable subject of their son, setting up for the ultimate purging of her unconscious fears and attachments which block her from accepting the death of their son: "You want to hear about our bouncey boy, don't you?"

He's a nice kid, really, in spite of his home life; I mean, most kid's would grow up neurotic, what with Martha here carrying on the way she does; sleeping 'til four in the PM, climbing all over the poor bastard, trying to break down the bathroom door to wash him in the tub when he's sixteen, dragging strangers into the house at all hours...

Martha fortifies herself with a drink and prepares to give what George refers to as a "recitation" (hinting it is a ceremonial rite), and somber recollections about their son - a decades-old illusion and fabrication which has devitalized their marriage. George offers additional quiet asides during her trance-like delivery of a clearly-remembered birth and childhood:

Our son was born in a September night, a night not unlike tonight, though tomorrow, and sixteen years ago...It was an easy birth, once it had been accepted, and I was young...and he was healthy, a red, bawling child...with slippery firm limbs and a full head of black, fine, fine hair which, oh, later, later, became blond as the sun, our son...And I had wanted a child...oh, I had wanted a child...And I had my child...Our child. And we raised him...and he had green eyes...and he loved the sun...and he was tan before and after everyone and in the sun his hair became fleece...beautiful, beautiful boy...So beautiful, so wise...Beautiful, wise, perfect.

Very significantly, George adds: "There's a real mother talking," and Honey suddenly and courageously in an epiphanic moment announces that she is ready to reassess the illusions of her own barren life and conceive a child with Nick:

I want a child....(more forcefully) I want a child!...I want a child. I want a baby.

In an emotionally climactic point in the film, Martha then makes an abrupt shift in her story, while George contrapuntally recites a Latin "Mass of the Dead" in a mock funeral service behind her words - emphasizing the theme of death once again:

Of course, his perfection could not last...not with George around....A drowning man takes down those nearest. And he tried, and oh God how I fought him...the one thing I tried to carry pure and unscathed in the sewer of our marriage, through the sick nights and the pathetic stupid days, through the derision and the laughter...God, the laughter, through one failure after another, each attempt more numbing, more sickening than the one before; the one thing, the one person I tried to protect, to raise above the mire of this vile, crushing marriage, the one light in all this hopeless darkness - OUR SON.

And then George tells Martha that he has "a little surprise" for her about their "sunny-Jim." He drops the final bombshell in an ultimate exorcism, purging and demystification to cleanse her of her internal demon spirits. George tells her that a telegram was delivered with "bad news." Just as earlier in his own character's life, he had killed a parent in a car accident, George eliminates their "son" in a similar car accident:

Sweetheart, I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you, for both of us, I mean. Some rather sad news...I'm afraid our boy isn't coming home for his birthday...Our son is dead. He was killed late in the afternoon on a country road with his learner's permit in his pocket, and he swerved to avoid a porcupiine, and drove straight into a large tree...I thought you should know.

There are remarkable similarities between George's version of their son's death in a car accident and the past tragedies of his own life. Martha reacts with emotional and rigid fury and shock, and then moans, slumping to the floor, with tears running down her mascara-streaked face:

YOU CANNOT DO THAT. YOU CAN'T DECIDE THESE THINGS FOR YOURSELF! I WILL NOT LET YOU DO THAT!...I WILL NOT LET YOU DECIDE THESE THINGS... NOOOOOOooooo ...YOU CAN'T KILL HIM. YOU CAN'T LET HIM DIE.

George chants "Kyrie eleison" after Martha's cleansing, healing and rebirth.

And then in another fictional statement within the new illusion, George tells her that he just ate the telegram which brought news of their son's death.

After the long night in an epiphanic moment of comprehension paralleling Honey's, Nick insightfully says to himself repeatedly:

Oh my God. I think I understand this.

Nick realizes that George and Martha's child doesn't live at all and that they had filled the void in their marriage and existence with a pathological obsession and belief in a fantasy child ("And I had wanted a child...oh, I had wanted a child...And I had my child...Our child.") George explains why he has the right to restore sanity by killing their son and stripping away the conceived illusion governing their lives - Martha had revealed their most-private secret to Honey: "You broke our rule Martha. You mentioned him, you mentioned him to someone else."

As the sun rises and dawn approaches, George softly declares: "It's dawn. I think the party's over." Honey and Nick begin to depart. At the door and ready to leave, Nick begins a thought (or offer): "I'd like to...," but he and Honey are quietly, gently escorted out by George. [What possibly was Nick's thought or offer? Gratitude at the exorcism of his and Honey's illusion of childless happiness, apology for intruding into a critical moment of his and Martha's lives, reconciliation with George, sympathetic understanding of the older couple's trouble, or all of the above?]

There is an exhausted calm after the game playing is over and the guests leave - the weary hosts are physically and emotionally exhausted. George turns out the lights as the sun comes up.

Their final words on a Sunday morning are softly spoken in short, disjointed, monosyllabic phrases. Liberated after externalizing and crushing the once-comforting son-myth, they must both be reunited in communion to face life and its emptiness without fear or false illusions (to not fear 'the big bad wolf'). George gently touches his wife's shoulder during the final dialogue:

Martha: Did you, did you have to?
George: Yes.
Martha: ...You had to?
George: Yes.
Martha: I don't know.
George: It was time.
Martha: Was it?
George: Yes.
Martha: I'm cold.
George: It's late.
Martha: Yes.
George: It will be better.
Martha: I don't know.
George: It will be, maybe.
Martha: I'm not sure.
George: No.
Martha: Just us?
George: Yes.
Martha: You don't suppose, maybe...
George: No.
Martha: Yes. No.
George: All right?
Martha: Yes. No.
George (singing softly to her):

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf

Martha: I am George.
George: Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Martha: I am George, I am.

The camera zooms in on George's hand resting gently on her shoulder as Martha clasps her hand on top of his. It seems they may have found a new sense of compassion to each other's needs. [Martha's confession that she's "afraid of Virginia Woolf" is a realistic admission and confession that she is afraid of reality, but ready to face it honestly and openly from now on, without continuing to harbor an illusion about a non-existent son.]

The film is noted as one of the few films without end credits - it concludes with a placard "EXIT MUSIC" accompanied by soft mandolin music for a few minutes.


Also Worth Considering:
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)


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