Everybody has shown up to a party and immediately thought, “Maybe we should go.”
50 years ago today, in movie theaters, Nick and Honey wondered the same thing. Nick and Honey are nice young couple who are new at the university, so when the president of school’s daughter and her professor husband invited them to attend an after hours party, they jump at the chance. But upon entering the pair see their hosts George and Martha arguing, they wonder if they made a bad choice. And so begins the cocktail party from hell that has been inspiring movie-watchers for five decades to think twice about late-night invitations.
I watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf a few days ago in preparation for the season 2 premiere of Sloshed Cinema. My podcast “that talks about movies that talk about drinking, drugs and getting sober” has had the film on its list for quite some time. A writer friend of mine,who is not an alcoholic, argued recently that the film and the play it’s based on aren’t really about alcoholism and certainly not about recovery. While I agree on the last thought, I have to disagree that it isn’t about alcoholism. Sure, it’s about A LOT of stuff and alcohol is certainly the lubricant for gnarly topics to come up. But George and Martha don’t drink like people in search of good time. They drink like people who want to forget. They drink like a couple who wants a way out. Edward Albee, the author of the play, from all accounts certainly grew up around alcoholism and is an alcoholic himself. After a bout of really bad behavior at a dinner party, Albee wrote,”By nature, I am a gentle, responsible, useful person, with a few special insights and gifts. With liquor, I am insane.” Sounds like me and every alcoholic I’ve ever known. Certainly sounds like George and Martha.
George and Martha(played with pitch perfect acidity by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton)are bubbling volcanos of emotions who the run gamut between deep marital love and total disgust with one another even before their guests show up. Their house is messy and ramshackled. Martha does that half-assed version of drunken cleaning we alcoholics know so well. Dirty dishes shoved in a drawer, rumpled clothes shoved under the blankets before the bed is made and generally trying to make something presentable that hasn’t been so in a while. This goes double for their marriage. But the effort there is even less inspiring.
From moment one George and Martha set out to, in their words, “get the guests” meaning everything vicious, uncomfortable and unpresentable is now on display and at times gleefully so. In true alcoholic fashion, Martha takes particular delight in tearing George down in public and George can go toe-to-toe with Martha all without spilling a drop of his drink. The writing in those first scenes is solid gold. There’s no wonder the play is performed almost daily on stages of all sizes around the globe. Alcohol, in my mind, is almost the fifth character in the film. It makes George and Martha go wild. It pushes poor Honey to the point of vomiting. And it loosens Nick’s lips and clouds his judgement. The whole charade and destructive dance is familiar to anyone who has ever been in an alcoholic relationship. Sure, in the film you could walk away with the idea that this was a one time thing but for those of us who’ve been there, we assume this is just another Saturday night for George and Martha. There came a point in my drinking that I wasn’t fun to be around. That me and my significant other at the time were toxic and not a couple you wanted to drink with. George and Martha are at that point. There’s something that happens with alcoholics who drink together. They live with lie after lie and pour alcohol on these lies in hopes of having them vanish. Yet at the same time they really want to tell it like it is and let their version for the truth shoot out of their mouths. It’s vital. A lot of this happens in the film. George and Martha want these virtual strangers to know their truths or their lies and they both want to be seen and heard. Albee himself said the title means “who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, which means who’s afraid of living life without delusions?” I’m probably not alone when I say fear and delusion were huge parts of my drinking.
As a sober person, I found myself cringing a lot when I watched this movie again. I’d seen it dozens of times, mostly when I was drinking and caught it a few years ago on stage. It struck me how sharp Albee’s language is 50 years later, how breathtaking the performances are and how Albee, whether he set out to or not, perfectly painted a marriage destroyed by regret, anger and yes, alcohol. I, myself hosted or participated in more than one cringe worthy cocktail function or as the B52-s called them a “party gone out of bounds”. My intention, I thought anyway, was simply to have a good time. But now I’m not so sure. It’s pretty clear what Martha’s intention is which I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it. I didn’t want to feel my life and I wasn’t having a good time. Like ever. Liquor never made it all go away. It made me crazier, sad and terrible to be around. Just like our hosts. I think it deserves a place in the conversation about movies that talk about drinking because it nails the insanity that a couple who drinks together feels on a regular basis.
Yet there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to this film. Some fantastic trivia, Liz and Dick alone could eat up 2,000 words and all of the crazy ass symbolism in the text has been chewed over by drama nerds for decades. So it’s a good thing that Sloshed Cinema is back! There’s so much to gab about with this film, I’ve even invited my buddy Amy along to the party. Join us, why dontcha? I promise you won’t regret it.