Acting Out

One tortuous journey from stage to screen

Director Mike Nichols (left) and cinematographer Haskell Wexler on the set of <em>Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?</em> with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, 1965
Director Mike Nichols (left) and cinematographer Haskell Wexler on the set of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, 1965

Cocktails with George and Martha: Movies, Marriage and the Making of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Philip Gefter; Bloomsbury, 368 pp., $32

 In 1922, the Franco-British theater visionary Michel Saint-Denis, then 25 years old, asked Constantin Stanislavsky, the founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, how he had made the character Madame Ranyevskaya drop a cup of hot tea so realistically in Act Three of his production of The Cherry Orchard.

Stanislavsky confessed that he asked the stage manager to fill her cup with scalding water. “You have to do everything, anything, even stupid things, to get what you need in the theater,” he said.

This sentiment—unfashionable as it may be today—holds true for other arts, too. I thought of it while reading Philip Gefter’s engaging new book about the making of the 1966 movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf   ? By leaning into stupid things, Gefter, the author of several books about visual culture, gives readers a rich, messy, accurate picture of how artists, especially collaborative artists, do things. (Stupid things are what’s missing from Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, a biopic of Leonard Bernstein that presents so anodyne a vision of the creative process that it might as well be about dentistry.)

Cocktails with George and Martha is a dishy, process-heavy appreciation of a cinematic masterpiece. Gefter shows how, after almost 60 years, the kitchen-sink savagery of the movie—and Edward Albee’s 1962 play, on which it is based—still shatters. The film portrays a long, cocktail-infused Saturday night at the home of middle-aged history professor George (played by Richard Burton in the movie) and his wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor). Martha has invited another couple over for drinks, with whom they begin to bicker, then flirt, then wage war. Their heaviest weapon is their imaginary child (they are, in fact, childless), whom they use as a punching bag and a life raft. Gefter locates Albee’s genius in the creation of the child and his poetic language, but also in the tender ending, which suggests that for George and Martha, at least, the sparring has been play-acting, albeit of the most serious kind.

As fun as that is, is it enough for a book? After all, many of the characters involved are already well known. Mark Harris’s 688-page biography of Mike Nichols, the director of the film, was published only three years ago. Nonetheless, the answer is yes—and for two reasons. First, Gefter deftly connects the stupid things that made Woolf a part of the zeitgeist. He credits the scandal that Albee’s hit play incited, which haunted the 1966 movie, for ushering in a more permissive era. Albee had his characters curse, drink, and have sex, but more important, he portrayed a battle-scarred middle-class marriage as a norm, not an exception. Woolf was not just about George and Martha; it was about all marriages and is thus a “dividing line” for movies about marriage, Gefter asserts: before, screwball comedies; afterward, scathing exposés, Bergman, Woody Allen, and Cassavetes. Gefter also ties the play’s success to many cultural shifts, including the publication, in the same era, of two big books: Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist tome about female discontent, The Feminine Mystique, and Richard Yates’s 1961 novel of suburban anomie, Revolutionary Road. Some reviewers of Albee’s play considered it necessary viewing, but others complained about Martha’s obscenities and the play’s display of nihilism and narcissism. In The New York Times, Joseph Hayes damned Albee’s “sick views”—code for his homosexuality. Some critics may have tried to marginalize Woolf. No one could ignore it.

All of that creates a convincing portrait of a masterpiece, or what the critic Richard Gilman called a “flop hit”—a play people admired but also loathed. But Cocktails With George and Martha has a second arrow in its quiver: the daily production journals of Ernest Lehman, the novelist who wrote and produced the film. Gefter was one of the first researchers to see the journals, embargoed for 25 years at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Lehman, who had created iconic American films including Sabrina, North by Northwest, and The Sound of Music, kept, according to Gefter, “a systematic chessboard-like description of the daily activities, obstacles, minuscule dramas, and protracted sagas.”

Among those dramas was Lehman’s decision, against Albee’s wishes, to cast Liz Taylor, at the time 33 years old and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, as frowsy Martha. (Albee wanted Bette Davis.) “I don’t think you’re enough of a harridan,” her then-husband Richard Burton told her. Lehman picked him to play George. The power couple, whose real-life quarreling added to the film’s allure, insisted that Lehman bring in their friend Mike Nichols to direct. Nichols, who at the time had never directed a film, immediately understood his challenges: translating three-plus hours of dialogue into images while retaining Albee’s poetry, fighting the studio and the Motion Picture Association of America censor, and besting Lehman. Indeed, the epic and petty fights between Lehman and Nichols were like a schtick from The Odd Couple. But they were not trivial. From his first move—reversing Lehman’s “improvements” to Albee’s script, which included making the imaginary child real and having that character kill himself—Nichols made the film what it would be.

Lehman proved no match for the director, whose moxie Gefter both admires and shrinks from. One of Nichols’s classic moves was to bulldoze opponents by flaunting his wealth and connections—for example, leaving a conversation with Lehman to talk loudly on the phone to a celebrity.

Gefter contends, for the most part convincingly, that Nichols’s peacocking protected his vision of Woolf from the stars and the suits. He won many battles, including getting Taylor to agree to an unheard-of three-week rehearsal to help prepare her for the role of Martha. (He had less luck persuading the actress to arrive on set at nine a.m.) He plotted to get the first cameraman on the set fired to make way for genius cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Nichols’s control was so absolute that Lehman was left rounding up white lilies and turquoise jewelry for Taylor.

Like the film itself, Cocktails with George and Martha has a happy ending. Studio head Jack Warner fires Nichols but delays the sacking so that the director can make good on his promise to bring Jackie Kennedy to the Catholic Office for Motion Pictures screening, held at the Warner Brothers office in New York. Nichols and Kennedy sit behind Monsignor Thomas F. Little and praise the movie. “Jack would have loved this film,” she says. Woolf passes the studio censor, which itself would dissolve two years later, contributing to the creation of the modern movie ratings system. And the film, finished late and insanely over budget, wins five Oscars, including Best Actress for Taylor. What sticks in my mind is what it took to get there—in other words, the stupid things.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Rachel Shteir’s most recent book is Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography.


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