|Leave it to Mad Magazine to sum up the stakes as to why Dick and Liz were chosen to play middle-aged academics George and Martha in the film version of Broadway shocker "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"|
Audiences eagerly accepted an invite for an evening of fun and games with those hosts from hell, George and Martha, on June 22, 1966, when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was unleashed. Public curiosity was at a peak, since its highly-publicized filming the summer before. Social media makes today’s moviegoers instantly in the know regarding behind the scenes film drama. Back then, columnists and critics mostly clucked about Edward Albee’s shocking play and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s unflattering film roles. Directed by novice Mike Nichols, filming went seemingly smooth, though a closed set helped insure that image. What was reported on the making of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been repeated so much that it is the stuff of myth—yet there are many less known facts that are equally fascinating.
A closer look 50 years after Virginia Woolf’s production, with most of the participants gone, the stakes for each read like the start of an Agatha Christie mystery. No corpses turned up on the set, but some egos suffered bodily harm. There’s been a subtle but sizable amount of myth-maintenance and real-life tensions before, during, and long after the shooting was over.
Some Goddamn Warner Brothers Epic
|Bette Davis circa the "Virginia Woolf" era.|
Studio head Jack Warner had just been raked over the coals for “box-office” casting, choosing A-list Audrey Hepburn for Eliza Doolittle over stage “Eliza” Julie Andrews, for the movie version of My Fair Lady. The movie mogul stuck his neck out again in casting the Burtons as the alcohol-fueled, acerbic academics. Warner paid Albee $500,000 for the film rights, a then-record for a Broadway non-musical.
According to Albee, Warner envisioned his former top star Bette Davis as Martha and James Mason as George. As Albee wrote Martha with Davis in mind, my guess is Warner merely placated the playwright while negotiating the movie sale. Davis had made a recent dramatic comeback in Warner’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane after a dozen years in cinema Siberia after All About Eve. And Mason did memorable work with Judy Garland a decade before in Warner’s epic A Star is Born. Albee was excited about this, but blinded by theatrical convention, where the stage was more forgiving about age. Mason was 56 at the time, 10 years older than George. Davis was 57 when Virginia Woolf was filmed, certainly closer to 52-year-old Martha than Taylor, then 33. But Davis liked her scotch and smokes, and without makeup wizard Gene Hibbs’ skin tapes and magic marker makeup, Bette looked a decade older. Had Bette been cast, would she have dropped the Davis drag? Her ‘60s films indicate no. Playwright pal Tennessee Williams must have bitched to Albee about Davis’ drag queen grandstanding as blowsy Maxine in Williams’ Night of the Iguana, which preceded Virginia Woolf on Broadway the year before. And how would audiences react to Baby Jane-era Bette rubbing up against a 30-ish campus stud? Virginia Woolf’s producer had another proposition. Studio head Warner was tough, but not afraid to listen.
Martha, Martha, Martha
Warner hired West Side Story screenwriter Ernest Lehman for his first time out as producer, who had a canny casting idea: Elizabeth Taylor as Martha. Lehman recalled: "I started getting very, very excited about the idea, which I kept a deep, dark secret, because everyone in town was playing the game of casting this picture."
|Studio head Jack Warner jokingly choking Liz!|
The names bandied for the prize role of movie Martha recalled the search for a silver screen Scarlett O’Hara—and some were the very same! Except the plum role wasn’t from a crowd pleaser like Gone with the Wind, so an actress with talent and box office clout was crucial to attract movie audiences to the bleak story. Quirky Geraldine Page blew her chance when she turned down Woolf on Broadway. Susan Hayward was now better suited to Valley of the Dolls’ Broadway battleaxe, Helen Lawson. Vivien Leigh might have repeated her success in A Streetcar Named Desire, but mental and health issues made her risky business. Patricia Neal was not really box-office, despite a recent Oscar win, plus a stroke sidelined her in 1965. Even Rosalind Russell was mentioned, though her criticized casting in Warner’s (again!) 1962’s screen version of Gypsy didn’t reap awards. Who else was on the Hollywood scene back then? Lauren Bacall? Great at playing comic bitches, but Bogie’s baby was now cast in supporting parts. After playing Bette Davis’ part in the film of Night of the Iguana, Ava Gardner might have been a contender. But when Nichols met Gardner the next year about playing Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, he was put off by Ava’s diva act. Speaking of Mrs. Robinson—Anne Bancroft—potentially a great Martha, was probably not considered, since she was only a year older than too-young Elizabeth Taylor.
"Every actress wanted to play the role," Lehman said at the time. "People know how Uta Hagen played it. They certainly know how Bette Davis would do it, but they wonder how Elizabeth Taylor will do it."
Aside from more sensuality, Lehman wanted an actress less of a bulldozer than Bette Davis. After Uta Hagen, the original Martha that roared, other whiskey-and-cigarette powerhouses like Mercedes McCambridge and Elaine Stritch followed, setting a template. Lehman felt that underneath Martha’s scathing hatred was heartache. He saw that vulnerability in Taylor, in her two best Tennessee Williams roles, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer. So Lehman sent Liz the script.
(Part 2 will the casting of George, Nick, and Honey, plus newcomer Mike Nichols debut as film director.)