For Better or For Worse
Two classics of American cinema that illuminate the darker corners of marriage and family life
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and A Woman Under the Influence
(1974) are remarkable films that pushed boundaries in their time and
have retained their power to emotionally connect with an audience. Both
films are centred in the domestic sphere and show couples at war with
each other — both needing and hating simultaneously. In these films,
both men and women struggle with the roles society has imposed — but it
is the women, with fewer choices available to them, who suffer the most.
Martha, from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is
the very clever, college-educated daughter of the president of the
school at which her husband is an associate professor. In a time when it
was very rare for women to have careers of their own, all Martha’s
hopes and dreams, her very identity, centre on her husband – and he has
proved a great disappointment to her. Mabel, from A Woman Under the Influence,
also looks to her husband for her identity, asking him to tell her
“what” to be, insisting she’ll “be anything” he wants. Unsure of her
abilities as a wife or mother, Mabel tries to enforce a scenario of
happiness — one that is as paper-thin as her sense of self. As the
couples in these two films come together and fall apart, we are left
with a new appreciation of the depths to which love can take us.
Series directed by Dr. Harry Karlinsky, Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia. Programmed by Caroline Coutts, film curator, filmmaker and programmer at Knowledge, B.C.’s public educational broadcaster.