AFI film school #17: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — Not me


Sometimes I come into these analyses with a huge understanding of the films, having seen them multiple times, spouting off information I’ve learned over the years. And then some other films I’m seeing them for the first time and can instead offer my first impression of what I personally learned from it.

This is one of those latter occasions

In fact, up until I hit “watch” on Netflix, I thought I was about to see a biopic on some of the racier moments of Virginia Woolf’s life. Instead, I get a wild engaging ride, following two very f*cked-up couples, fighting through a night of drinks. 

Not what I expected at all, but a very fun experience.

So I’m offering my first impression analysis of another AFI top 100 movie, following loosely along with the podcast that’s not afraid of Virginia Woolf or anyone for that matter, Unspooled. Here we are with 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, written by Ernest Lehman and directed by Mike Nichols.

Fated to pretend


Here’s where I offer up the overall theme of each film, and quality usually becoming apparent by midway through the movie, but man with this one and the rollercoaster ride it provides I had no idea until the end. Around the same time it dawned on Nick and Honey what was happening, I realized this film’s theme is “it’s better to live in reality than in fantasy.”

A lesson that can help us all when we don’t take action because it’s sometimes easier to live with hope than to face reality or the potential for failure.

George and Martha are unhappy with their lives, and we discover that a big piece of this is because they’re sad about not having a child. They’ve entered a fantasy where they do have one. However, when Martha tells other people about their “son,” George realizes that it’s gone too far and he has to get rid of the child the only way he can: by killing it with another fantasy.

At least that’s what he tells Martha. We also earlier see him determined to get revenge on her, so it’s hard to tell. There’s a lot of things we’ll never know for sure as an audience. Did George kill his parents? If so was it an accident? Or was it really his friend? Was there really a friend? Was there ever really a novel he wrote? Or a porcupine? Or someone calling bourbon “bergin?”

This theme of characters living in fantasy to their own detriment appears many times throughout.

  • Martha and George making Nick pretend to be a houseboy

  • Martha pretending that George is a math professor

  • Honey pretending the abortion was never a pregnancy

  • George pretending his umbrella gun is a real weapon

  • Nick pretending he married his wife because he loves her

Virginia Woolf is a writer and essayist known for her stark truth. She paints things real and oftentimes depicts the sadness of reality (even when she’s talking about a moth). So when George sings “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” and Martha confesses that she is, suddenly the title makes so much more sense.

Good, better, best, bested


Despite the movie taking place in one location for most of the runtime and only featuring really four characters, I found it GRIPPING. Much like 12 Angry Men, a movie I can’t wait to get to, I found myself at the edge of my seat like I was watching a thriller.

I kept wondering how this was accomplished. How a movie with such a big limitation was so tense. And I Sherlocked a few ways it did so.

Real time

Like with the movie Rope--a Hitchcock one that if you haven’t seen yet, you should DEFINITELY see now--the movie mainly takes place in real time. In other words with just a couple exceptions we we never cut forward, we are seeing everything play out in the time the characters do

Unlike Rope, there are cuts, but still witness everything, and it feels very voyeuristic.

Because we never go forward in time it doesn’t feel like a director and editor are manipulating our vision. It feels like we are in the house, the car and the bar with the four of them. And it builds some serious tension. 

This real-time feeling doesn’t allow us or the characters to ever escape, which is pretty damn exhilarating.

A little tipsy

When writing, there’s often a problem we encounter with getting into characters heads: if we have them say exactly what they’re thinking, it would be unrealistic, as most people are more polite than that, and if we don’t have them speak the truth, we’re going to be missing a lot.

The script solves the problem by having all the characters wasted, thus allowing them to speak exactly what’s on their minds.

More intrigue is added when we do realize that these brutal truths are mixed in with manipulative lying, creating investment on our parts trying to discover what exactly is fact.

Cameras rolling

Since this is based on a play, it would be easy to film it like that, setting up the camera in one place, and then letting the dialogue and acting carry all the weight.

Mike Nichols does not do this.

Instead he has lots of interesting camera movements and close-ups, allowing us to be more intimate with the characters than a stage could ever let us be. His choice to make it in black and white too also gives it a distinctive movie feeling, and it also reinforces the theme a B&W tends to be more glamorous and aligned with fantasy.


It’s fitting that George happens to be a history professor, someone who’s ideally aiming at uncovering the truth. And even more fitting that he’s not doing well at his job.

Nick and Honey fighting with each other just like how George and Martha do seems to be a case of history repeating itself. But maybe with the truth being unveiled at the end, they’ll all be able to learn from it.

Once again the AFI list proves itself to be full of a lot of great surprises for me, like how a movie from 1966 can still feel new and speak to current themes. 

And yeah ok, maybe from time to time Virginia Woolf scares the bejesus out of me.

Thanks for reading!

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