“My father-in-law was a man of the lord,” says Nick. “And he was very rich.” Boys and girls, it’s story time. 1:00:00 into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Nick—played by the emphatically handsome George Segal—is getting very, very drunk on bourbon. Needled by his playmate George (Richard Burton), a history professor who’s been marinating for decades in alcohol and resentment, Nick’s reluctantly exposing the cracks in his storybook marriage to the young, beautiful Honey. Sprawled out on George’s lawn, he’s making himself vulnerable. And George is getting ready to pounce.
This may look superficially like a friendly late-night chat, but no: it’s a high-stakes game of betrayal, emasculation, and sexual jealousy. It’s part of the “Fun and Games” that titles Virginia Woolf‘s first act, with George playing the Socratic teacher as he draws out Nick’s secrets with leading questions. You can see him hovering right behind Nick, eagerly absorbing every word of his story while tracing out the seams in his youth and physical prowess. He’s subtly turning Nick’s confessional impulse into a weapon of mass self-destruction.
George demonstrates such emotional savvy as he toys with Nick. I guess you just get that way after twenty years of bitter, predatory marriage. His cruel gamesmanship might be cunningly planned out in advance, or it might just be second nature by now to barb any new relationship with quiet antagonism. All of these layers are concealed in this two-shot, which is sustained throughout Nick’s story. It’s a toxic, one-sided mind game masquerading as a liquor-fueled bull session.
So many of these dualities are brought out visually through Haskell Wexler’s stark photography. The nocturnal chiaroscuro, with the meager light offsetting shadows and the dull gray of the men’s suits, makes the scene feel dead serious. But this impression is instantly contradicted by George’s loose posture and the boyish smugness in Nick’s face. It’s as if an earnest, adult-oriented drama had descended into silliness and self-parody.
Just look at these men: lying around in the front yard, telling stories and playing games. Are these really mature, full-grown college professors? Or are they actually children play-acting as adults? (And don’t forget the swing hanging there, which George was riding on moments earlier.) I suspect that Edward Albee would debate whether there’s even a difference between the two.