RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK
One of only two films – the other being ‘Cimarron’ (1931) – to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards, including Oscar nomination for all main actors in it, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (1966) was faithfully based on the 1962 scandalous play of the same name by the American playwright, Edward Albee. The highly successful play won both the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play as well as the 1962–63 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, and is frequently revived on the modern stage.
The play examining the complexities of the marriage of a middle-aged couple – Martha and George – was adapted to screen by the legendary screenwriter, Ernest Lehman. The play, in fact was replete with dialogue that violated the standard moral guidelines for movies of the time. It opened on Broadway during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and audiences who went to see it to forget the threat of nuclear war were shocked by the provocative language and situations they had not seen before outside of experimental theatre. No one actually knew how much of the play could be adapted to screen with the existence of the Production Code. Lehman decided that in bringing the play to the screen, he would not change the dialogue that had shocked the audiences of the play, and despite serious opposition to this decision, refused to bow down.
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ marked the film directing debut for Mike Nichols, one of cinema’s greatest Academy Award-winning talents, who had already made a substantial career for himself in comedy and the theatre, and went on to direct notable films including ‘The Graduate’ (1967).
When the head of Warner Bros, Jack L Warner approached Albee for buying the film rights for the play, he told the playwright that he wanted to cast Bette Davis and James Mason in the roles of Martha and George. Albee was delighted by this cast, stating that “James Mason seemed absolutely right… and to watch Bette Davis do that Bette Davis imitation in that first scene, that would have been so wonderful.” In the script, there’s a scene in which the character of Martha references Bette Davis and quotes her famous “What a dump!” line from the film, ‘Beyond the Forest’ (1949).
When the casting began, fearing that the talky, character-driven story would land with a resounding thud, and that audiences would grow weary of watching two hours of screaming between a harridan and a wimp, Nichols and Lehman finally cast stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in these roles. Albee was surprised by the casting decision, but later stated that Taylor was quite good and Burton was incredible. In the end though, he still maintained, “with Mason and Davis you would have had a less flashy and ultimately deeper film.”
The choice of Elizabeth Taylor – at the time regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world – to play the frumpy, fiftyish Martha surprised many, even though the actress gained 30 pounds for the role and belted out a stunning performance.
As filming began, the Catholic Legion of Motion Pictures – formerly the Catholic Legion of Decency – issued a preliminary report that, if what they heard was true, they might have to slap ‘Virginia Woolf ‘ with the once-dreaded “condemned” rating, although they promised to wait to see the film. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) followed with an even stronger statement, warning the studio – without promising to wait for a screening – that if it were really thinking of leaving the Broadway play’s language intact, they could forget about getting a Seal of Approval.
Most of the exteriors of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ were shot on location at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. Nichols insisted on this for verisimilitude, but later stated that he had been misguided, that it added nothing artistically, and that these scenes could as well have been shot on any sound stage.
The film’s original motion picture score was composed by Alex North. At the time of the film’s release, a gatefold two-LP record soundtrack album set, which included the entire film dialogue, was released by ‘Warner Bros Records’ as the ‘Deluxe Edition Two-Record Set’. This was one of the only cases in which a film studio released an album of a film’s vocals in its entirety, as the film – at that time – could never be shown in reruns on network television. The only piece of music heard throughout the entire album is a song titled “Virginia Woolf Rock” that plays while Martha and Nick are dancing, but plays a little differently than it does in the film.
When Warner Bros studio executives sat down to look at a rough cut, without music, a ‘Life’ magazine reporter was present on the occasion. He printed the following quote from one of the studio chiefs: “My God! We’ve got a seven million dollar dirty movie on our hands!”
The film was considered groundbreaking for having a level of profanity and sexual implication unheard of at that time. Jack Valenti, who had just then become president of the MPAA, had abolished the old Production Code. In order for the film to be released with MPAA approval, Warner Bros agreed to minor deletions of certain profanities and to have a special warning placed on all advertisements for the film, indicating adult content. In addition, all contracts with theatres exhibiting the film included a clause to prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from admittance without adult supervision. It is also said that Jack L Warner chose to pay a fine of $5,000 in order to remain as faithful to the play – with its profanity – as possible.
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ premiered on June 21, 1966, at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, California and went on to become a financial success, earning $40 million at the Box Office, as against its budget of $7.5 million. It was well received by critics as well as audiences, besides receiving record 13 Academy Award nominations.
Since 2001, a remake of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ is being contemplated having actors namely Michael Caine, Glenn Close, Bette Midler and John Lithgow in it, with this new version to be also loosely based on the 1990 Danish film, ‘Memories of a Marriage’.