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In the mid-1960s, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the most famous couple in the world. Their affair, which ignited in Rome on the set of Cleopatra (1963), was tabloid fodder. Both were married to others, and they were denounced in the halls of Congress and by the Vatican. Even after they were finally free to wed in 1964, matrimony did not quench the fascination with the eminently quotable and photogenic Burtons, who were as likely to engage in epic brawls as in public displays of affection. But while the public loved them, critics turned up their noses at the couple's subsequent films together, The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Sandpiper (1965).
Meanwhile, Edward Albee's tragicomedy about an embattled academic couple, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) had been a critical success on Broadway and had won a Tony as best play, but the profane language and searing subject matter made it unlikely that the play could ever be made into a film. The story takes place over one alcohol-soaked night. The long-married George and Martha invite Nick and Honey, a young couple new to the college, to their home after a faculty party. During the course of the evening, both marriages are dissected, painful truths are revealed, and long-established ways of coping are destroyed.
Producer-screenwriter Ernest Lehman thought a film version could and should be made, and Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner agreed. Warner paid Albee a then-unheard-of $500,000 for the film rights. After paying that kind of money, they needed box office names in the leading roles. Former Warner star Bette Davis begged Jack Warner to let her play Martha, with Henry Fonda as George. Both would have been wonderful, and they were the right age, but Davis was no longer a big star. In addition, the notion of Davis doing an imitation of herself in Beyond the Forest (1949), as Martha does in the play, would have been too surreal.
Thinking outside the box, Lehman approached Elizabeth Taylor about playing Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). She was intrigued, but hesitant. The character was in her early fifties; Taylor was fifteen years younger. Burton finally persuaded her to accept the role. Taylor gained weight, added padding, a messy gray wig, aging makeup, and dowdy clothes. All helped with her characterization. "When I got into my Martha suit, I forgot me," she said.
Taylor had approval of co-stars, director, hairdresser, and costume designer. At first, she approved Arthur Hill, who had played George on Broadway, as her co-star. Then she suggested Burton instead. Lehman liked the idea, but Burton wasn't so sure. Used to playing dashing and heroic characters, he was profoundly uncomfortable playing a wimp, but 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.
The couple suggested Mike Nichols to direct. A former actor turned theater director, Nichols had directed several Broadway hits, but never a film. He turned out to be an inspired choice. Nichols rehearsed his cast two weeks before beginning production, as if they were doing the play. By the time the first scene was shot, all four actors had explored their characters and honed their performances. Although the experience was emotionally intense, the Burtons told the press it was exhilarating. Exteriors were shot on the campus of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. When location shooting went over schedule due to weather, the Burtons were so committed to the film that they waived $175,000 they would have received in overtime fees. Taylor was paid $1.1 million, plus a percentage of the gross. Burton got $750,000. The final cost of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was $7.5 million, making it the most expensive black and white film to date.
Once the onscreen battles were complete, the off-screen battle with the censors began. Most of Albee's salty language had been retained for the film version, and Warner and Lehman had agreed not to shoot alternative takes for provocative scenes that might raise the eyebrows of the industry's self-censorship group, the Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code Review Board. The Catholic Church's censorship group had passed the film with a rating of "Morally unobjectionable for adults, with reservations." Yet at first, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was denied a Production Code Seal of Approval. Warner stood behind the film, saying "The play was undoubtedly a play for adults and we have gone ahead to make Virginia Woolf a film for adults. I don't believe a controversial, mature subject should be watered down so that it is palatable for children. When that is done, you get a picture which is not palatable for children or for anyone else." He then announced that all contracts with theaters would include a clause prohibiting anyone under 18 from seeing the film unless accompanied by an adult. It was the first time Warners had ever released a film for adults only. The film got the Seal. Four months after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened, the MPAA announced a less rigid Production Code.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s ad campaign tag line was "You are cordially invited to George and Martha's for an evening of fun and games..." and millions of filmgoers accepted the invitation, curious to see the world's biggest superstars in the performances of their careers, and even more curious to see if the film was as shocking as the publicity suggested. Neither the public nor the critics were disappointed.
Stanley Kauffman of the New York Times called it "one of the most scathingly honest American films ever made." Burton, he wrote, "is utterly convincing as a man with a great lake of nausea in him, on which he sails with regret and compulsive amusement." And Taylor "does the best work of her career, sustained and urgent." Newsweek hailed Burton's performance as "a marvel of disciplined compassion. With the self-contained authority of a great actor, he plays the part as if no one in the world had ever heard of Richard Burton." Life magazine praised "An honest, corrosive film of great power and final poignancy."
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? received 13 Academy Award® nominations. Taylor and Sandy Dennis won, as did Haskell Wexler's cinematography, Irene Sharaff's costumes, and Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins' art direction. The Burtons were in Europe making a film and didn't attend the ceremonies. Taylor was reportedly furious that Burton didn't win an Oscar®, but he did receive the British Academy Award.
Some Taylor biographers would later claim that she and Burton never stopped playing the roles of George and Martha, and that it ultimately destroyed their marriage. But the relationship had been combative and combustible from the start, and the reasons for their marital problems and eventual split were undoubtedly far more complex. Even after their divorce they maintained a lifelong connection.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would be the best film that Burton and Taylor ever made, as a couple or separately. And the film's legacy and influence was profound. As Douglas Brode wrote in The Films of the Sixties, "Virginia Woolf created a strong public outcry for more stringent censorship of film, simultaneously excited and upset various portions of the moviegoing public, and forever left behind the notion that American films could not deal with adult material."
Director: Mike Nichols
Producer: Ernest Lehman
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Edward Albee
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Costume Design: Irene Sharaff
Art Direction: Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins
Music: Alex North
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), Sandy Dennis (Honey).
by Margarita Landazuri