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One Hour Mark: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Andreas

“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.

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Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson

I think you are filth! I think you are scum! You are a degenerate!

Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) has a right to be pissed off. Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), the maladjusted title character of The Graduate (1967), has ruined his marriage and now has his eyes on Elaine, his daughter. Yet when Mr. Robinson confronts Ben about all of this, he doesn’t come off as an outraged man rightfully defending his home and family. He comes off as a clown. He’s the buffoonish, cigar-clenching symbol of an uncool generation that’s had its chance to rule the world; now it’s 1967, and all bets are off. “Is it something I’ve said that’s caused this contempt,” he asks, “or is it just things I stand for that you despise?”

This showdown could’ve easily been played for straight drama, with Mr. Robinson as our tragic hero. In the hands of director Mike Nichols (as well as screenwriters Buck Henry and Calder Willingham), it’s a masterpiece of awkward comedy, as Mr. Robinson overreacts to Ben’s every gesture, misinterprets his every olive branch, and plays into every stereotype about gruff, overprotective fathers. During their argument, Ben tactlessly compares sex with Mrs. Robinson to “shaking hands”; as Mr. Robinson’s leaving, he haltingly barks at Ben, “You’ll pardon me if I don’t shake hands with you.” Every one of Mr. Robinson’s lines drips with cluelessness and seething rage, an unfortunate but hilarious combination.

This climaxes with his last few words to Ben, as transcribed above. To be honest, these insults are pretty accurate: Ben’s behavior throughout the film has been filthy, scummy, and degenerate; he doesn’t seem to have a moral compass or any sense of his effect on other people. But with Dustin Hoffman just standing innocuously in his apartment, it’s hard to take these slurs seriously. He’s completely justified, sure, but his anger and volume feel over-the-top. It’s a brilliant scene, if morally shifty, aligning us even further with Ben’s psychosis through the cartoonish, hysterical counterexample of Mr. Robinson. Nichols’ direction and Hamilton’s unforgettable performance mesh for a sly piece of comic trickery.

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