Okay, so here’s the thing, I studied physical education at university. I know, right? Weird choice for someone deeply obsessed with film. After two years of studying the wrong thing, I abruptly quit physical education and studied film and media instead. And excitingly, after making that decision, I was then allowed in the film archive section of the university library. This was all before Netflix, when we still had DVDs.
On the days that I wasn’t drinking studying, I would go to the top floor and slowly make my way through all of the classic films. It didn’t matter if they had anything to do with my film classes, I watched as many as I could. That’s when I stumbled upon Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and I absolutely lost my mind.
What a masterpiece! And because I believe it is so brilliant, I need to focus on only a couple of its best features, otherwise, I will totally blow out my word count.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was originally a play written by Edward Albee in 1965. It was then adapted into a film, directed by Mike Nichols and it stars the real life married couple Elizabeth Taylor (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Richard Burton (Cleopatra). Burton plays George, an associate professor of history, and Taylor plays Martha, his wife and the daughter of the president of the university.
After a party one night, Martha invites an attractive young couple back to their house for drinks because “daddy said we should be nice to them”. From there, the night unfolds from inner to exterior turmoil for the four featured characters. I felt like I was being dragged kicking and screaming into a fight and I felt super fucken uncomfortable about the whole thing.
Out of all four characters, it was Martha that captured my attention from beginning to devastating end. I credit Elizabeth Taylor for not only making Martha unforgettable but making her one of the most fascinatingly unlikeable and misunderstood characters ever to grace the silver screen.
Taylor was 32 years old at the time and with prosthetics, an added 30 pounds of weight, and a deepened voice, she encapsulated a 52 year old Martha. It was such a transformation from being one of the most beautiful women in the world.
I remember thinking that even though she was caked in makeup and prosthetics, she couldn’t hide her famous eyes. And as much as I wanted to lose Elizabeth Taylor in her character, it was impossible to completely forget her. This truthfully added a layer of authenticity to the character of Martha because, in reality, Elizabeth Taylor was an alcoholic who often fought with her husband and co-star.
So out of all the inspiring women-protagonists in the world, why do I love a drunken, verbally abusive, manipulative woman? Because simply, she was a woman in pain. We can all relate to pain. The difference is how we react to it.
Martha chose a path of bitterness and regret, and she took it out on her husband, as he did with her. And not to give away too much, it is the pain that comforted her. This “thing” became the one good thing in her life that helped her to continue living.
So even though I detested her character, I couldn’t really judge her choices. I can’t judge someone on how they deal with their pain. But I can learn from it. I can learn who I don’t want to become. And so this character of Martha is truly inspirational in the best way. She makes me not want to be like her.
Elizabeth Taylor won a second Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And she said that her performance as Martha was the best of her career. Not all women-protagonists have to be heroines for us to connect with them. They can be the misfits and anti-heroes of the stories as well. They can be the forgotten house-wives in an unhappy marriage. Those are the characters that can shake you and dishevel whatever safe place you have inside you.
For me, Martha is one of the most brilliantly written characters I have read and seen. One of my favorite lines in the film is said by Martha, “I am George, I am”. It will make absolutely no sense for someone who hasn’t seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but when you do watch it, I want you to focus on the weight those words have for Martha. Just feel how everything in the two and half hours of sheer debauchery, verbal and physical abuse led to these words having so much resonance and how brilliantly Taylor delivers them.