|Who's afraid of the censors? Not Elizabeth Taylor as Martha!|
How was Warner going to get vitriolic Virginia Woolf past the censors? My guess is that Warner knew in his gut that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) wasn’t going to halt a screen version of a Broadway smash from a major studio showcasing Hollywood’s biggest star. Especially when the star was Elizabeth Taylor, who managed survive both Cleopatra and condemnation from the Vatican’s newspaper.
TCM host/historian Robert Osborne later wryly noted times had changed since Warner Brothers filmed the Broadway hit Life with Father 20 years prior with a young Elizabeth Taylor, and movie censors had nixed the famous curtain line, “I’m going to be baptized, damn it!”
At Nichols’s insistence, no “cover shots”—frames without profanity or prurient content as a safe substitute—were filmed during production. Intentionally, there wasn’t much room for negotiation with the censors.
So, there was no surprise when the Production Code office refused to give Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? their seal of approval, citing its content and language as too vulgar. Warner Bros. appealed, but the decision was upheld. The Catholic Church's censorship group had passed the film with a rating of "Morally unobjectionable for adults, with reservations."
|Nichols ditched Nick's "hump the hostess" scene.|
Often seen as a merely mercenary mogul, Jack 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."
Warner 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 Warner Brothers had released a film for adults only. The MPAA ultimately decided to grant the film an unprecedented exemption as "a special, important film" which was not considered to "exploit language for language's sake." Four months after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened, the MPAA announced a less rigid Production Code.
The Sweet Smell of Success
|The gang's all here at the roadhouse! Waiting for the reviews to come out?|
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was not only controversial, but costly, the most expensive black and white film ever made. Everyone involved had a lot riding on its success: aging mogul Warner; superstars Burton and Taylor, seeking artistic redemption after Cleopatra; novice film director Nichols; first-time producer Lehman; film newcomers George Segal and Sandy Dennis; and cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Sam O’Steen, their first time at the helm in such a prestige production.
Jack Warner’s dramatic reaction in Life—“My God, we’ve got a $7.5 million dollar dirty movie on our hands!”—seems more like showbiz savvy than shock, since the old studio shark knew exactly what he was buying.
|Taylor won her second Oscar as Martha; Burton should have |
as George. You think that didn't create some off-camera tension?
The reviews were mostly raves, except for a few that praised Burton and patronized Taylor, similar to a few critics on Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s stage work. But as Taylor once famously said about surviving in showbiz: “There’s no deodorant like success!” Virginia Woolf was the third highest-grossing film of the year, next to epics The Bible and Hawaii.
Albee has run hot and cold regarding the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? When he is interviewed about the movie for tributes, he is usually measured in his praise. "It's the best work Elizabeth has done on film," Albee said in an interview for the 2006 two-disc DVD of Virginia Woolf, "and Richard did his usual splendid professional job." Of the film, he added, "I felt very, very fortunate that it was as good as it was, and it's pretty damn good."
After Virginia Woolf
"I was astounded by the size of the guns that were suddenly trained on me," Lehman told Movieline in 1990 about his then new role as producer, and his collaborators on Virginia Woolf, "who fought back in ways I wasn't used to."
Lehman found out the surviving stars were still not afraid of him when he let portions of his production diary be printed in the April 2000 issue of Talk magazine. The publication followed up with a letter by Mike Nichols, co-signed by Taylor and Segal, which tore into Lehman with a wrath worthy of any Virginia Woolf characters. Some choice excerpts from the letter: “Do you ever check anything? Do you print strange and sour attacks on people without giving the targets a chance to comment?” “There are people, lots of them, who could have told you the diary is full of fictions.” And that Lehman’s script was “hooted into the wastebasket.”
Nichols then strikes a nerve about hypersensitive Lehman, saying he was “included in a group that in fact had little to do with him.” Did Nichols ever consider that if Warner hadn’t backed producer Lehman’s controversial casting of Elizabeth Taylor, she would have never been remotely thought of for Martha, nor husband Burton as George, and their friend Mike Nichols would not have been specially requested as director?
Lehman, asked by Talk for comment, caved, apologizing “for all the pettiness and inaccuracies apparently made in my diary 35 years ago. It was Mike’s genius and all others concerned that gave Virginia Woolf its power and lasting life.”
“Clearly he saw the point, he couldn’t defend it,” said a satisfied Nichols.
I got my hands on that issue of Talk via Amazon and eagerly speed-read through the article. All I can say is, in this era of internet celebrity feud du jour, where’s the gossip shock and awe? A mention that Mike Nichols seemed mildly intoxicated once while location scouting. Shocking. Or that new director Nichols was touchy about his status in the production’s hierarchy. No kidding. Or that George Segal had a hissy fit about the size of his dressing room. That must have really hurt Georgie, because Nichols actually brings the subject up in the film’s DVD commentary 40 years later! And the final shock, that Nichols had doubts whether Taylor could pull off the role of Martha. Who didn’t, besides Ernest Lehman? He says Nichols worried that asking Taylor to play Martha was “like asking a chocolate milkshake to do the work of a martini.” That sounds like Nichols to me, and apt, as Elizabeth loved both equally.
Lehman gave his own eulogy at the end of the Movieline interview: “Who was that guy who stood up to Billy Wilder, dealt with Hitchcock, Jack Warner, Taylor and Burton, Mike Nichols, Bob Wise, Gene Kelly, and spent two hours nightly on the phone with Barbra Streisand all through Hello, Dolly? I'd have to go into training before I could face that kind of thing again.”
The reality? Lehman was easily defeated in the face of combative egos.
The Woolf Pack Moves On
|Despite an Oscar, Dennis never made it as a leading lady.|
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a victory lap for some of its participants and a launching pad for others. After their triumph, Taylor and Burton’s careers swiftly became secondary to their lavish lifestyle. Warner soon retired. Despite his backing the groundbreaking Virginia Woolf, Jack Warner disdained the new way of filmmaking. Lehman next labored over Hello, Dolly!, which proved more lackluster than blockbuster. After a few more disappointments, Lehman said goodbye to showbiz. Despite an Oscar win, mainstream audiences quickly tired of Sandy Dennis’ quirky acting style and attempts at making her a leading lady ended with the ‘60s. However, George Segal found his niche as a comedic leading man for the next decade, later segueing into character roles. Haskell Wexler’s cinematographer career was launched, lensing some of the most memorable films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with the distinction of winning two Oscars, one for black and white cinematography, Virginia Woolf, and one for color, Bound for Glory. Sam O’ Steen’s editing career was equally distinguished, winning three Oscar nominations, and editing such influential movies as The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown.
|Mike Nichols and Haskell Wexler didn't always see eye to eye.|
Newcomer Nichols fared best of all, but not without a tough learning curve. The next year, Mike Nichols won his first and only Oscar for his second film, The Graduate. And this time, the opening credits listed his name over the producer’s. Then came some serious film setbacks: the costly dud Catch-22, the panned Day of the Dolphin, and likewise, The Fortune. This was capped by the shelved Neil Simon film, Bogart Slept Here, later directed by Herb Ross as The Goodbye Girl. Nichols returned to Broadway and didn’t direct another film until 1983’s Silkwood. After that, Nichols found his prolific groove, mixing screen and stage work. Nichols’ diverse directing resume ran from highbrow fare like Death and the Maiden onstage to HBO’s Angels in America to crowd-pleasers like his stage and screen versions of Biloxi Blues and the movie smash, The Birdcage. Before Nichols died in 2015, he was still directing top-drawer projects like Charlie Wilson’s War and a rave revival of Death of a Salesman, with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
|Just out on Blu-Ray|
Fifty years later, of the main cast and crew of Virginia Woolf?, George Segal is today’s sole survivor—but film is forever. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? captures this collaboration of talent at their peak, making a hell of a movie, and Hollywood history, too.