As verbally vicious as it gets, which is just what playwright Edward Albee had in mind for a story that spoke for repressed, two-faced times and smartly chose the alcoholic pettiness of academe to channel it. Bottom-dwelling assistant professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife, president’s daughter Mary (Elizabeth Taylor), invite two campus youngsters over for drinks, instructor Nick (George Segal) and wife Honey (Sandy Dennis).
Mary is a poisoned-throated drunk and George her bitter lesser half, a fraction-of-a-degree of separation from the unstable Taylor-Burton reality. Marital warfare breaks out immediately, with bystanders Nick and Honey soon teased into mimicking the scar-happy veterans. Mention of Mary and George’s teenaged son explodes into recrimination about whose son he really is. Whether a son actually exists is another matter.
But the point, and director Mike Nichols gets it, is a snapshot of two smart people so disappointed in life that they humiliate one another and those around them to help pledge allegiance to the shattered. Anything in their way is nicked, bitten, snarled at, and finally swept aside. Meanness upon meanness stuns the young visitors but assuages the hosts, who know nothing else.
Albee sensed that American affluence was at impasse that only drink could bare. How much that has changed is a fair question. Certainly Hollywood is less tolerant of such dramatic challenges and fewer are the mad talents who can do what Burton and Taylor did when fully let loose to prowl the world. Taylor, then 32, gained 20 points to play fiftyish Mary.
The film was nominated for 13 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Mike Nichols. It remains only film ever to receive nominations in all acting categories: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. The women, Taylor and Dennis, won, but the Academy snubbed the movie (Fred Zinnemann’s “A Man for All Seasons” won), and all three men.