Are you afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By: Julie Medina
Image: TMDB

About This Quiz

You are invited to an evening of fun and games at George and Martha’s house - although it isn’t exactly fun, and the game is seeing how much dirty laundry can be aired in one evening. Recall why the film was a huge Academy Award winner with this trivia quiz.

Who played the vicious and taunting Martha, the daughter of the college president?

Elizabeth Taylor portrayed the volatile and vicious daughter of the college president. Elizabeth Taylor starred in and won Academy Awards for numerous films. However, biographer Hollis Alpert described Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as "the summit of both Richard's and Elizabeth's careers." Did you know that, in 1999, the American Film Institute named Elizabeth Taylor the seventh greatest female screen legend?

Who played George, an associate history professor?

Richard Burton portrayed George, an associate history professor who lives with his wife at a small New England college. Richard Burton was the real life (fifth) husband of Elizabeth Taylor. So immersed had the Burtons become in the roles of George and Martha over the months of shooting that, after it was wrapped up, he and Taylor found it difficult not to be George and Martha. Later the couple would state that the film took its toll on their relationship and that Taylor was "tired of playing Martha" in real life.

Who portrayed Nick, a biology professor who is just starting to teach classes at the small New England college?

George Segal portrayed Nick, who stops by Martha and George’s house with his wife for a nightcap. The young couple are embarrassed at first by the older couple’s verbally abusive arguments, then they get emotionally invested. George Segal, besides winning numerous nominations in theater, television, and film, won the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year (The New Interns) and for Best Actor (Touch of Class).

Who played Nick’s wife, Honey?

Sandy Dennis played the young, naive wife of Nick. The daughter of a man of God (who spent God's money and kept his own), Honey doesn’t drink much but vomits a lot. Sandy Dennis was an American theater and film actress. At the height of her career in the 1960s she won two Tony Awards, as well as an Oscar for her performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

What does the title of the movie refer to?

Virginia Woolf was a writer, famous for her stream-of-consciousness style. Woolf tried to show the emotional truths churning behind the eyes of her characters. In the case of this film, the characters actually speak those emotional truths to each other.

What cruel pet name does Martha have for George?

Martha is always reminding George that he is a failure, "bogged down in the history department," calling him, "Old Swampy." Elizabeth Taylor was only 33 at the time, while Martha, her character, is supposed to be 52. Elizabeth Taylor gained nearly 30 pounds to play the role of a middle-aged wife just for this film.

Many of the lines were memorable - which of these is from the film?

All of the above. George remarks, "blood under the bridge," about an incident, summing up the married life he has endured and fostered. George also conveys his distrust of Nick as one of those scientists who is going to "rearrange all the chromosomes" to produce a perfect race. Martha is revolted by herself as she recounts how she fell in love with George. You may notice that, as a tribute to Virginia Woolf, a copy of To the Lighthouse can be seen on the bookshelf above the liquor bottles.

Many of the lines were also controversial at that time, in 1966. Which of these lines was removed?

The MPAA insisted on the removal of the term "screw you" from the film, where it was replaced with the term "God damn you," but allowed the terms "screw" and "hump the hostess" to remain in the film. This was also the first film in which the BBFC allowed the use of the word "bugger" in its dialogue.

In the final climatic scene, Martha tells about the birth and life of her son. What is George doing in the background?

In the final climactic scene, as Martha tells about their son, George in the background intones the Dies Irae, the mass for the dead. It is a heart-rending performance -- viewers are both appalled and at the edge of their seats.

Who says this? “I dance like the wind.”

As the two couples approach a roadhouse, Honey suggests they stop to dance. She twirls on the dance floor, repeating, “I dance like the wind.” After that, while Honey and George watch, Nick suggestively dances with Martha, who continues to mock and criticize George. This bar scene is not as funny as the on-set antics. According to cinematographer Haskell Wexler, Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis had on-set competitions to see who could belch the loudest. Dennis would always win.

How does Martha clean up the house for guests?

Martha cleans by putting dishes in a drawer of the nightstand, hiding clothes underneath the bed covers, and throwing trash in the fireplace. Richard Sylbert's production design creates a home for George and Martha as demented and cluttered as their minds. Set decoration by George James Hopkins is appropriate, down to the glassware favored in the George and Martha household: old jelly glasses.

What issue has Honey been wrestling with since she dated Nick?

First, the viewer learns about Honey’s hysterical pregnancy. Then, when she is drunk and rolls around on the grass babbling, George begins to suspect that her pregnancy was, in fact, real, and that she secretly had an abortion. Then, as Martha describes what the birth of their baby boy was like, Honey says she wants a baby right now. What is so heartbreaking is that during the filming of this movie, Sandy Dennis, who portrayed Honey, was pregnant and suffered a miscarriage on the set.

Who says this? “Why Martha! Your Sunday chapel dress!”

Martha decides to “get more comfortable” and changes into an embarrassingly tight and revealing outfit. It’s the first step in her seduction of Nick - a seduction that is sure to outrage her husband. This outrage allows her to “win” this battle. The choice of Elizabeth Taylor—at the time regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world—to play the frumpy, fifty-ish Martha surprised many, but her performance was ultimately praised.

Who says this? “Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism??“

Always correcting the grammar of others, George takes particular enjoyment in poking fun of how Honey uses euphemisms for the ladies’ room. The constant corrections are George’s way to gain a bit of superiority over others. This was the fourth of eleven films that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in together.

In the Roadhouse parking lot, George tells his wife he cannot stand the way she constantly humiliates him. How does she respond?

When George tells Martha he cannot stand the way she constantly humiliates him, she tauntingly accuses him of having married her for just that reason. In that scene, George violently pushes Martha into the side of the car in his rage. Richard Burton actually pushed Elizabeth Taylor too hard, and the sound of her head hitting the hood of the car can be heard. Taylor gasped and raised her hand instinctively to the back of her head. Taylor carried on with the scene in character, with a noticeable rattle in her voice, as she tried to prevent herself from crying in pain. Because of this, Mike Nichols chose to keep this scene instead of re-shooting.

What happens when the wives come back from the bathroom and touring the house?

Martha shows Honey where the bathroom is and then shows her the rest of the house. Upon their return, Honey reveals that Martha has told her about the couple's son, adding that she understands that the following day (Sunday) will mark his sixteenth birthday. George is visibly angry that Martha has divulged this information.

What are the first lines of the film?

“What a dump,” said with disgust, initiates a tiresome conversation on the name of the actress, the name of the movie, why the line is said and how it is delivered. It shows all the bickering that can be contained in a simple conversation. According to Edward Albee, he envisioned Bette Davis and James Mason as Martha and George, rather than Taylor and Burton. If Davis had been cast, she would have ended up parodying a line from one of her old films ("What a dump!") in the opening scene.

What story is Martha telling when George searches for a rifle?

As Martha tells her story about punching George in the jaw in front of her father to Nick and Honey, George goes searching for a “play” rifle. He tries to scare his wife into silence, but he definitely scares his guests. Burton, who was used to playing dashing and heroic characters, was profoundly uncomfortable playing a wimp, but he used that discomfort to add to the character's self-loathing. "He's not me, that moon-faced chap beaten down by a woman," Burton said.

When George and Nick go outside, what does George learn about Nick?

Martha goes to the kitchen to make coffee, and George and Nick go outside. The younger man confesses he was attracted to Honey more for her family's money than passion, and he married her only because he mistakenly believed she was pregnant. He also says she vomits a lot and he does not like it. George Segal, who portrayed Nick, is the last surviving member of the cast.

What was George’s first novel about?

George tells Nick a story about a boy he grew up with who had accidentally killed his mother and, years later, his father, and ended up living out his days in a mental hospital. Martha alludes to the fact George may have murdered his parents like the protagonist in his unpublished non-fiction novel. Later George says his second novel is about a young couple from the Midwest, a good-looking teacher and his timid wife, who marry because of her hysterical pregnancy and money, then settle in a small college town.

What shoots out of the play rifle?

A small colorful umbrella shoots out of the end of the rifle when George pulls the trigger. You can’t really see if the umbrella is colorful, as it is filmed in black and white, but you can tell the sections of the umbrella are different shades of color. Nichols, the director, felt color would make the film too literal, too real-world. He wanted it to be stylized and somewhat abstract.

What really happened to the son?

Martha and George had never been able to have children. The imaginary son is precious to both George and Martha because it's one of the few things they share. They created him together in order to escape from their "sick nights, and pathetic, stupid days.” By declaring their son dead, accordingly, George has "killed" him. George explains that their one mutually-agreed-upon rule was to never mention the "existence" of their son to anyone else, and that he "killed" him because Martha broke that rule by mentioning him to Honey.

In the film, how does George describe the death of his son?

George says he has received a telegram with bad news—their son has been killed in a car accident. According to director Mike Nichols, producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman had written a different ending for the film where George and Martha's son had hanged himself in the closet years before. Nichols refused to shoot it.

What does Nick confess to George about Martha?

George encourage Nick, “Now that's it! You can take over a few classes from the older men, but until you start plowing pertinent wives, you really aren't working. The broad, inviting avenue to a man's job is through his wife, and don't you forget it.” Nick mentions that George's wife may be a good place to start. George describes his own marriage as one of never-ending accommodation and adjustment, then admits he considers Nick a threat.

Once Martha sleeps with Nick, what does she accuse Nick of?

George sees Martha and Nick together through the bedroom window. When Martha accuses Nick of being sexually inadequate, he blames his impotence on all the liquor he has consumed. She then starts acting toward Nick as if he is her “house boy,” telling him to answer the door and bring the ice bucket into the next room.

What are the last lines of the film?

The last lines come full circle to the name of the film. When George starts singing the song Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Martha responds, "I am, George, I am." Have you ever wondered about the melody when either George or Martha sings that song? Although the title was obviously inspired by the song Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? (sung in Walt Disney's Three Little Pigs), Warner Bros. was unable to negotiate with Disney for the use of tune, so when characters sing the title phrase it is illogically set to the melody of the public domain folk song "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush."

Who is talking? “Hi, sexy. You wanna dance, angel boobs?”

George, who is always correcting people’s grammar or not paying attention to the speaker, is the person asking Honey if she wants to dance. It is interesting that George’s first novel was about accidentally killing his mother, then years later accidentally killing his father. Richard Burton, who portrayed George, didn’t have much of a relationship with his parents. His mother died while he was a toddler and his father abandoned the family, leaving him to be raised by his sister Cecilia and her husband Elfred.

Who is conversing? [holds up a wine bottle] "I peel labels.” “We all peel labels, sweetie...”

Martha is the one who explains what Honey is saying, she holds up the wine bottle and says “I peel labels.” Then George responds, bringing the core of the movie down to a single sentence. “We all peel labels, sweetie...” This argumentative couple strip down each other's defenses and know how to expose each other's vulnerability.

Who says this? “I'm loud and I'm vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house because somebody's got to, but I am not a monster. I'm not."

Martha says this to her husband, emasculating him with insults. Nick catches on later to her personality and says to Martha, “To you, everybody's a flop. Your husband's a flop, I'm a flop.” She agrees. Another reason that Mike Nicholas thought it was important to film in black and white was that the makeup used to add 15 years to Elizabeth Taylor's age showed up better in black and white. Also, Taylor and Burton both looked wearier and more haggard in gray tones than in Technicolor.

Where was this movie filmed?

Most of the film's exteriors were shot on location at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. Although Nichols insisted on this for realism, he later noted it could have been shot on any sound stage. According to cinematographer Haskell Wexler, after the Warner Bros. crew left the New England location used for the exteriors of George and Martha's house, the studio was sued by a group of nearby farmers who claimed that all the bright lighting had "upset" their cows to where they no longer gave as much milk as before.

What did the critics think of the film?

The critics loved it so much that the movie is one of only two films (the other being Cimarron) to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards. Each of the four actors was nominated for an Oscar. Also, it has been ranked as number 67 on the American Film Institute's Greatest Movies of All Time. It is also included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die," edited by Steven Schneider.

What did the fans think of the film?

With the censorship issues, plus both stars having extramarital affairs during the filming, the pre-publicity was going to make this one of the most watched films. But that didn’t matter, because once the film was released, the audience loved it. On a budget of $7.5 million, it made $40 million in box office sales.

How many Academy Awards did this film win?

Elizabeth Taylor won an Academy Award for Best Actress and Sandy Dennis won for Best Supporting Actress. The film also won Oscars for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume in the Black and White Category. As noted, the film was nominated in every category.

Why was this the most expensive black and white film made in the U.S.?

Costing $7.5 million, Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf was the most expensive black and white movie yet made in the U.S. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Edward Albee's combined salaries/fees were (not including percentages): $2,350,000. The breakdown was $1,100,000 for Taylor, $750,000 for Burton, and $500,000 for Albee.

What is one reason why it took so long for the film to be completed?

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had it in their contracts that they didn't have to be on the set until 10:00 A.M., even though most other productions began at dawn. After they arrived on set, it would take two hours of makeup, hair, and wardrobe to get them ready for shooting, and, by the time they were camera ready, it was lunch time. Taylor and Burton would often go off for lengthy cocktail-filled lunches, often with friends, and then return late in the afternoon to finally begin shooting. They also had in their contracts that they couldn't work past 6:00 P.M.

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