Chuck Ross

Elizabeth Taylor and the Unlikely Alignment of the Hollywood Gods That Produced a Truly Great American Movie

Apr 10, 2011

With the recent death of Elizabeth Taylor, there is renewed interest in her movies.

She made some fine movies and one great one, the latter which TCM presented–uncut and with no commercials, as usual–on Sunday night, April 10, 2011. Even if you missed that screening, the movie is a must rent or buy on DVD.

I’m speaking of the film version of one of the greatest American stage dramas, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

The film is amazing in a number of ways.

First, it’s a film that no one thought could be brought to the screen when it debuted on Broadway in 1962. The play takes place in a single evening and is the story of a knock-down, no-holds-barred relationship–set in the wee hours of the morning–between a middle-aged couple, George, a college professor, and Martha, his wife. Another, younger couple, Nick and Honey, is also in on the festivities.

This description is cursory and does not do justice to this stunning drama, but I don’t really want to say too much more for those who have not seen it.

The reason that no one thought it could be brought to the screen was that the language is very raw.

No one, that is, but Jack Warner, who bought the play in 1964 and told Albee that it would star Bette Davis and James Mason, who would have been 58 years old and 57 years old, respectively, when cameras were scheduled to roll in 1965. (The film came out in 1966.)

Davis especially could have been tremendous as Martha. And how much fun it would have been to have seen her perform the opening scene in the movie, in which Martha imitates Davis.

But the pairing of Davis and Mason was not to be. Instead Warner and producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman chose Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who had married in March 1964.

Lehman later said that Taylor was his first choice to play Martha. What’s so odd about it, of course, is that at the time of the filming in 1965 she was just 33, and looked quite the opposite of a frumpy middle-aged housewife. She gained weight for the part and makeup helped with the rest.

The decision to use Taylor, made up to look much older, factored into another big decision that was made about the movie–that it would be filmed in black and white.

Here’s Lehman talking about that decision, from George Stevens Jr.’s indispensable 2006 book, "Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute":

“We felt that the dialogue would read differently in color, that the characters themselves would read differently emotionally in color. We had a chance to see how right we were, because at the time, ABC was shooting a documentary special on [‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ director] Mike Nichols, which was never released. They were shooting it in color while we were shooting in black and white. I got a chance to see Elizabeth Taylor, as Martha, in color, and everything changed completely. We knew that all our efforts with wig and makeup to make her look older than she was –she was 33 and we wanted her to look about 48–would go right down the drain in color. Inasmuch as the movie played totally at night, black and white seemed right for the emotional tone.”

That decision to film the movie in glorious black and white also partly led to the firing of the cinematographer originally hired to shoot the movie, the famous–and famously talented–Harry Stradling Sr., who was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won two of them. At the time he had just won his second Oscar for photographing “My Fair Lady.”

Stradling and Nichols did not get along, and Nichols said the final straw came when Stradling said the way to shoot “Woolf” was to shoot it in color but process it in black and white.

So at the last minute another talented cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, came in to shoot the movie. Wexler’s work on “Woolf” was remarkable–not only did the he win an Oscar for his work on the film, it’s truly a stunningly photographed movie.

Another fortuitous decision was the hiring of Nichols. Just three months older than Taylor, he actually had first developed a friendship with Burton, back in 1961 when they were both playing on Broadway, though in separate shows. When Burton hooked up with Taylor, Nichols became very friendly with her as well, Nichols has said.

“Woolf” was Nichols’ first time directing a movie, and perhaps his greatest contribution was his insistence that Lehman write a script that contained almost all of Albee’s biting dialogue. Said Lehman in the “Conversations” book, “I think the result on screen is mighty powerful. The movie knocks me out every time I see it. Nichols managed to get me to give up almost everything I introduced into the screenplay that wasn’t in the play–for example [additional] lines of dialogue or moving about of scenes.”

And Nichols was an odd choice to direct “Woolf.” His background was mostly sharp, urban comedy. And yes, that’s the flipside to drama and tragedy, but still, not an obvious choice. He had appeared on Broadway–and records–in a comic partnership with Elaine May. Then he turned to directing of stage plays, most recently, at the time, of Neil Simon’s comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” starring Robert Redford.

But when Taylor told Nichols of her interest in doing “Woolf” on the screen, Nichols told her that he had seen the show and really, really understood it in a deep way and felt he could direct it on screen. (All of the Nichols comments in this piece come from his movie-length commentary of “Woolf” on the DVD version.)

An interesting side note: Lehman and Nichols asked Redford to play the supporting role of Nick in the film. Knowing that it was not a sympathetic part, Redford turned it down, and the role went to George Segal.

Nichols’ direction of “Woolf” is exemplary. It’s without the stylization he would use in his next film, “The Graduate,” and “Woolf” is far better for not having those kinds of stylized flourishes.

Nichols has said of “Woolf” that it was the only time when making a movie that he knew exactly what he wanted to do beforehand for just about every scene, and was highly confident that his choices were right.

Another factor that makes “Woolf” extraordinary as a film is its score, by Alex North. Nichols has said that Albee told him he didn’t like the music added to the play for the film. Albee is wrong.

North’s score is masterful. Interestingly, North’s initial reaction when asked to score the film is one most of us would have had: “The picture was so intense and so filled with brilliant dialogue that a film musical score at first seem unneeded.”

But like the score Elmer Bernstein created for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” North’s quiet background music, used sparingly, enhances “Woolf” luminously.

So how lucky for us. The gods really did smile down on this production. Besides Wexler’s Oscar, "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" pulled in Academy Awards for Sandy Dennis for supporting actress, Richard Sylbert for his meticulous art direction and Irene Sharaff for her "just right" costumes. Burton was nominated but didn’t win. Lehman has said that Burton "was just great in [the] role. I think it was the best non-Oscar-winning performance I’ve ever seen." (Burton lost to Paul Scofield in "A Man for All Seasons.") And Taylor won her second Oscar for her performance in "Woolf."  

Taylor is dazzling, hitting all of the right notes in her portrayal of Martha.

As Nichols noted, here was Taylor, who had literally been in movies
since she was a little girl, working with four outstanding stage veterans–Nichols, Burton, Segal and Dennis–on one of the most demanding of stage pieces.

Yet it was Taylor, Nichols said, who taught so much to all of them about what film acting was all about. He said they’d do a scene and he’d think that she hadn’t nailed it, but then, watching the dailies the next day, realize she was outperforming everyone else.#

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