In casting sessions, Broadway’s original George, Arthur Hill was mentioned to re-create his role, with the idea that Hill would bring stage prestige and Elizabeth, movie marquee value. Henry Fonda was offered the stage role first, but his agent turned it down without telling him. Fonda’s name resurfaced, but he would be 60 when filming started, opposite a Martha nearly 30 years younger. Glenn Ford, 50-ish and dull-ish, was considered, but mercifully declined. Jack Lemmon, 40, showed dramatic chops as an alcoholic in The Days of Wine and Roses—a possibly powerful George. Reports vary on whether Lemmon was actually offered the role. Cary Grant’s name came up—can you imagine Grant spouting George’s lines in his best “Judy, Judy, Judy” voice? Montgomery Clift, Taylor’s close friend and frequent co-star, was famous for his introspective roles and in a perfect world, a perfect fit as the henpecked professor. In reality, Monty, called Hollywood’s “slowest suicide,” died before reuniting with Taylor in Reflections in a Golden Eye. All of this was moot, once Elizabeth chimed in on Burton’s behalf.
Burton on Board
|George reflecting on Martha...|
I’m not sure why Burton was considered such a stretch for George, when he had already played beaten men in Night of the Iguana and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Off-camera, his critics were already saying Burton was under his real-life Cleopatra’s thumb. Talk of how strong Richard was, like Lehman saying Burton had four sets of balls onscreen, seems like the same ego-stroking for Elizabeth’s much-ballyhooed “weight gain” as Martha. During filming, Burton, in full George drag, told Lehman: “I am George. And George is me.”
Broadway’s Boy Genius
|Mike Nichols in bed with the Burtons.|
On the revealing 2006 DVD commentary for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Nichols says, “It was my idea that I should do it.” He told director Stephen Soderbergh that he was friends with Burton and Taylor in Rome and shared the same publicist, John Springer. Nichols asked Springer to convey his strong interest in Virginia Woolf to Elizabeth. Long after, when writer Tom Fontana asked how you get to direct such a huge film, Nichols said, “I sucked up to Elizabeth Taylor.”
Regarding the controversy around Elizabeth Taylor’s casting—too young, too pretty, too much the movie star—it’s important to remember that Burton and Nichols came on board later, at her request. Taylor could have asked for a proven past director, like Richard Brooks or Joseph Mankiewicz, with stage star Arthur Hill as her lesser-known co-star. Though Taylor knew Martha would be a challenge, she took a chance on Nichols and was unafraid to be pitted against Burton.
Nichols told Vanity Fair in 1994 that he shot the film in order, and “claims that you can see him becoming a better director as it goes along.” For a first-time film director learning his trade and making his reputation, Nichols squeezes a few sour grapes while looking back: “They gave me $250,000 for making it, and there were no points left after Richard and Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth especially wanted Nichols, calling him a genius, though Mike needed permission from producer Lawrence Turman, with whom he was under contract to do The Graduate. “I couldn’t get to first base with the studios with Nichols,” Turman told film writer Mark Harris. “They didn’t care about Barefoot in the Park—he had never directed a movie before.”
"Elizabeth and I both suggested we get a fresh, young director," said Richard Burton, "because it's a young play, though it's about middle-aged people."
Timing paid off in Turman’s favor, since the Burtons wanted Nichols for their film first. Turman told Harris, “Let Mike do all of his learning on Virginia Woolf and then he can do my picture second.”
Nichols’ contract gave him three months to learn directing prior to the production’s start in March 1965. Nichols admitted, “I wasn’t entirely sure how a camera worked.”
The New Couple on Campus
To play simpering Honey, Nichols hired Sandy Dennis, who was a consecutive two-time Tony award winner for her roles in A Thousand Clowns and Any Wednesday, though she only had one small role in Splendor in the Grass to her film credit.
|Redford turned down George & Martha's invite.|
Robert Redford turned down shallow stud Nick, who “even then didn’t want to play schmucks,” according to Nichols. Though Redford called Albee “magnificent,” he thought the roles of George and Martha were best, and that Nick “just died in the text. I felt he started powerfully, but the author didn’t know what to do with the character, and so he trailed off after the first half.”
That’s hardly the case, since Nick and Martha have sex at the end of Act II, fueling George’s revenge. At the beginning of Act III, Nick is humiliated by Martha, then George, for being too drunk to “deliver.” Potential leading men were much more conscious of protecting their image back then. Redford’s agent was shocked, as was friend and director Nichols: “I thought he could have invested some real magic in that role.”
Nichols settled on George Segal, whom he had directed off-Broadway in The Knack.
In 1965, the press and the play’s fans were skeptical of the dynamic duo playing aging academics. After the fact, it’s long been a kneejerk reaction to say they were just playing themselves, but as George and Martha reply to guest Nick’s accusation that they can’t distinguish truth or illusion, “Maybe. Or maybe not.”
|Early makeup and wardrobe Liz as Martha.|
Not quite there yet.
Taking Richard and Elizabeth from the bedazzling Burtons to gorgons George and Martha was a journey that required tact from everyone who dealt with them. Lehman met with Taylor and Burton in Paris, in November of 1964, where they were filming interiors for The Sandpiper. On hotel stationary, Lehman took notes. Richard was working on ways to suggest “weakness” through costume, such as eyeglasses, and wanted to test different kinds. At this stage, Taylor was planning on playing Martha at age 38. She was thinking of a wig with relatively short hair, and wanted hair and makeup tests.
Talk of aging up Liz seemed secondary to Richard’s top priority—a cameraman who would keep his face from looking obviously pock-marked. Lehman notes say that Burton could not perform to his utmost ability unless he felt absolutely secure about this. Milton Krasner and James Wong Howe were brought up. Lehman wrote, “Elizabeth said, ‘Don’t rule Krasner out,’ but she did feel that my description of Haskell Wexler’s filming methods were important.”
“Martha is 108...years old. She weighs somewhat more than that," zings George to Nick. In the play, Martha is described as 52, large and boisterous, looks somewhat younger, and George teases that he is six years younger, but their ages are not mentioned in the film version. Taylor was 33 and Burton turned 40 during the shoot—my guess is that they are both supposed to be between 45 and death.
|There, that's better!|
Regarding Taylor’s figure, there was a publicity field day over Taylor appearing fat on film. But the press releases were also a bit overblown. All you have to do is watch her prior films, The V.I.P.s and The Sandpiper, to see an increasingly plump Liz. The difference was that those movies accentuated Taylor’s assets and disguised her debits.
La Liz was well-schooled by her alma mater, MGM, and their publicity machine. “Listen, Ernie,” Lehman claimed Taylor told him before shooting. “You must be sure to tell the press tomorrow that you and Mike ordered me to get fat for this picture. I don’t want them to get the idea that I’m overweight and sloppy simply because I don’t know any better.”
Taylor, kidding on the square, asked Haskell Wexler not to use a wide angle lens to make her look even rounder. But it’s a credit to Elizabeth that she allowed herself to be photographed flaws and all in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The men of Virginia Woolf also got in the act over onscreen appearances. "In the beginning when we were shooting wardrobe tests," editor Sam O'Steen said in his memoir, Cut to the Chase, "Mike Nichols had Burton try on glasses but Ernest Lehman was whining, 'I don't like his glasses.' Mike said he did, that they fit Burton's character. So Ernie said, 'Well, what if it comes down to the last day and we have to go one way and I don't want him to wear glasses.' 'Well,' said Mike, 'I'll kill you.' End of conversation."