George: Now, I think we’ve been having a real good evening, all things considered. We sat around, we’ve got to know each other, and we’ve had fun and games. Curl up on the Floor, for example. The tiles. Snap the Dragon.
Honey: Peel the Label!
George: Peel… Peel the What?
Martha: Label. Peel the Label.
Honey: [holds up a bottle] I peel labels.
George: We all peel labels, sweetie.
R: No, and knew next to nothing about it.
R: I feel like this is going to be a tricky one with just one viewing! The script is dense with a lot of layers of meaning, isn’t it?
F: The script is probably the real star of the show here.
R: I think the play is usually three hours long, but they cram it into just over two here. It can be exhausting at times!
F: I’m sure there are many things I missed but there are some great extended monologues. I get the feeling that George and Martha are two parts actors/actresses really want to play and get their teeth into.
R: Oh yes, they are deep complex characters, but they also get to do some great insult slinging. Must be great fun to play. Should I feel guilty that in spite of how horrible they are, I quite like George and Martha?
F: No they’re very charismatic! And the best scenes in the film are between the two of them. That said, I do prefer her to him. Whenever she wasn’t on screen I spent the time wanting her to be there! That’s partly down to the character but I think mainly due to Elizabeth Taylor’s performance. It may be my favourite performance in the list so far!
R: Remind me to check when we get to the end of the list how many times you’ve said that! But yes Elizabeth Taylor is pretty extraordinary in this. Feels like sometimes she spins seven different emotions into a single sentence, but in a way that’s totally believable. Richard Burton is strong too, but would you agree it’s a slightly more stagey performance?
F: I’d say that’s fair. To be honest sometimes the overall feel was a bit stagey but I think that’s because I had the fact that it’s a play in the back of my mind. Of course we also need to mention the Taylor/Burton pairing. Just about the most famous Hollywood couple of all time. It’s fun to speculate that this is what their relationship was really like!
R: It’s a sign of how good the performances are that it is very easy to believe that. But who knows? For me the more interesting question is what the film is trying to tell us about all couples. Every long term relationship has its little on-going battles, potentially unhealthy habits, and bubbling resentments. Do the young couple here – so easily sucked into George and Martha’s destructive world – serve as a warning? Is ultimately the point, “you have the power to harm each other more than anyone else – be careful”? Or is that too reductive?
F: I think there are issues the young couple don’t talk about which all come out in this one evening. Maybe George and Martha do them favour. Or maybe it’s all the alcohol they drink! A lot of whiskey is consumed in this.
R: Yes they make us look moderate! I think there’s also a bit of critique of how asinine middle-class entertaining can be – with tedious parlour games and conversation where the aim is to be as uncontroversial as possible. George and Martha are certainly not dull. And their games are high stakes…
F: Yes, certainly makes our parties seem uneventful! I do feel that George is the one who is rude to the guests. Martha just belittles George! I can’t recall a moment where she actually says anything nasty to Nick or Honey. Are you tempted to see the play on the stage? It’s currently on in London with Imelda Staunton.
R: I might need a little more recovery time from this viewing first! But with a strong cast I bet this would be electric in the theatre. Do you think it might be most effective on stage?
F: Yes it was written for the stage and I can see it really working. The (almost) single location would mean that the focus would be on the script and the performances. As it is in the film I must say!
Is our worthy of the top 100?
R: Big performances. Weighty script. Massively influential. Was a bit on the fence but I’m going for yes.
F: I want to see it again to really make up my mind so for now it’s – only just – a no (maybe number 101!)