As noted last week, I followed up Josh’s presentation of Blow-Up, one of two films most widely regarded as taking down the Hays Code, with the other one: Mike Nichols’ directorial debut, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Since it’s a bit over two hours I decided to skip the short – and given that my DVD was apparently defective from the start (thanks, Amazon!), that gave me enough time to find a way to rent the movie online (thanks, Amazon!)

It’s not a terribly plot-driven movie, so the write-up might be a bit short. But here goes:

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Martha, in my mind you’re buried in cement right up to the neck.  No, up to the nose, it’s much quieter.

This is George. George is an assistant professor in the History department of a New England liberal arts college. As the movie begins, George and his wife have just returned from a Saturday night faculty mixer, and he’s looking forward to hitting the sack.

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I swear, if you existed I’d divorce you.

This is Martha. She’s not only George’s wife, she’s also the daughter of the president of the college, and she has thwarted George’s plans to get some sleep by inviting a brand new Biology professor and his wife over to the house for the Most Interesting Man In The World’s preferred party.

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So, where are these people, this good-looking young professor and his slim-hipped wife?  What did they do?  Go home and get some sleep first?

It should be noted that the tension in the Maybe-They’re-The-Washingtons’ household is pretty palpable. George is an unambitious 50-something who is still an assistant professor, while Martha married him because she figured he’d be head of the department some day. It appears that they get their kicks out of yelling at each other over any topic.

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All I said was that our son, the apple of our three eyes, Martha being a cyclops, our son is a beanbag, and you get testy!

However, an especially sore topic is “the kid”, whose 16th birthday is apparently tomorrow, but who is a proscribed topic of conversation according to George – only escalating the argument. In fact, the two of them are arguing as they open the door to their guests. It’s not an auspicious start to the end of the evening.

Nothing. My dad thought it up while he was shaving.

And I’ll bet your wife has the broadest, most inviting avenue of the whole damn campus.

This is Nick. Nick is the young and ambitious biology professor. How ambitious? Well, in an unguarded moment encouraged by his own fair share of liquid lubrication, Nick admits to George that he expects he’ll end up sleeping with several college wives in his efforts to move up the ladder. George is pretty sure that Martha (daughter of the president and saucy tart!) would probably be an ideal target.

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Never mix, never worry!

This is Honey. Honey peels labels when she gets drunk and apparently fakes pregnancies in order to get young and ambitious biology professors to marry her. She also doesn’t really hold her liquor very well.

As the after party winds down (largely due to the scrapping that George and Martha are trying to drag their guests into, some of which involves Martha bringing up their verboten son) George decides to give the couple a ride home. However, as they drive by a very late-night dance club, Honey drunkenly decides that she absolutely has to go dancing, and the ride home is diverted. Honey doesn’t dance very well, but Martha and Nick do their best impression of either “Lambada” or “The Forbidden Dance” (don’t ask me – I didn’t watch either one), prompting George to accuse Nick of trying to play “Hump The Hostess” among revealing other hurtful things about Honey that Nick had mentioned to him earlier. This — finally — is the last straw and Mick and Honey insist on walking home.

But unsurprisingly George and Martha argue in the dance hall parking lot, and Martha responds by drunkenly getting behind the wheel and heading off to pick up the young couple while leaving George behind to walk home. When he finally arrives, Honey is passed out in the backseat of the car and Martha and Nick are clearly seen in silhouette making out in the bedroom window. Quick work, Nick!

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“Truth or illusion George, you don’t know the difference.”  “No, but we must carry on as though we did.”

While it’s unclear whether the adultery was consummated (Nick apparently had “performance issues” due to the quantity of alcohol he had consumed), George sets out to get his revenge. How does he do it? By announcing that he has received a telegram informing him that their son has been killed while Martha and Nick were dilly-dallying upstairs.

Yes, it’s ludicrous. At 5 AM? Yet Martha is devastated, and it eventually becomes apparent that their son wasn’t a flesh-and-blood son, he was a role-playing substitute for a bitter, barren couple. Martha broke the rules and mentioned him to Honey, George got her back (the only time that she truly was hurt, no matter what hurtful things he had previously said) by killing him off and ending the game. It now being dawn, Nick and Honey are shuffled off, and George and Martha might — just might — embark on the road to recovery. The end.

This is a great, great film.  It’s almost completely dialogue-driven, with wonderful insults sent back and forth, and the clever way in which George and Martha try to insinuate Nick and Honey into their arguments – it’s just plain delicious.  For as little fun as actually having to listen to real people bicker is, watching fake people bicker in a movie can be pretty cathartic.

Still, it’s almost incomprehensible to me why this film of all films was a focal point of the fight over the Hays Code.  I mean, there’s “Hump the Hostess” along with some hints of possible adultery, but other than that even the language is pretty tame.  I think the one thing that I get most out of the pair of 1966 movies that pushed the envelope until it broke is that 50 years later we approve this kind of stuff for thirteen-year-olds to watch.  And while that’s somewhat amusing, it does give me pause – I mean, in another fifty years are snuff films going to be PG-13?

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