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‘Cocktails with George and Martha’

Review: Philip Gefter's book about Edward Albee's culture-shattering play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" tells the tale of how its movie version rocked the cinematic world, too.

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Cover of Philip Gefter’s book “Cocktails with George and Martha.” Right: playwright Edward Albee, 1975. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Philip Gefter’s rigorously researched new book, Cocktails with George and Martha, is, in fact, three rigorously researched new books in one—a book about Edward Albee’s famous play; a book about Mike Nichols’s famous film version of that play; and a book about marriage, mores, and this country’s famously transitional mid-1960s zeitgeist.

Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—a 3 ½ hour slugfest between the aging alcoholic daughter of a New England college president (Martha) and her feckless alcoholic husband, an associate history professor (George)—was an “era-defining” phenomenon.

Cocktails with George and Martha is a meticulously detailed look at both the play and the playwright’s genesis, beginning in a Greenwich Village bar where Albee found the uniquely enticing title for his play scribbled on a men’s room mirror. Albee moved to the Village in 1947 at the age of nineteen. By moving there, Gefter writes, he “put down roots in a neighborhood that, over the 1950s and ‘60s, would incubate a disproportionate share of the twentieth-century American cultural canon.”

His first play, The Zoo Story, was written in 1958. It was a critical success and drew considerable attention from the press. A second one-act, The American Dream, followed, and then near the end of 1960 he began work on the play that would become Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Terrence McNally, a friend and lover who had read an early draft of the play, wrote to Albee: “The dilemma of George/Martha will not leave me. You have written brilliantly before but not like this. There is a quality of razor blades here.”

It is a savage play. It is also a very funny one.

Gefter, a former New York Times picture editor and author of What Becomes a Legend Most: The Biography of Richard Avedon, takes us through the twists and turns of getting the play on stage—the financing, the casting, the rehearsals—all the way to opening night in 1962. Alan Schneider, the director (who directed plays by Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, and Ionesco), wrote in his memoir of the opening night that “it was the most exciting night I’ve ever had in the theater.”

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Cocktails with George and Martha: Movies, Marriage,

and the Making of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Philip Gefter, Bloomsbury, 368 pages, $32


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The reviews were terrific (a few moralistic cranks notwithstanding). Howard Taubman, the New York Times critic, described it as “a wry and electric evening in the theater.” The play won a Tony Award for Best Play and a New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Play as well. Albee sold the film rights to Warner Brothers for $500,000 (approximately $4 million in today’s dollars) plus a percentage of the gross, and it was off to Hollywood and a rendezvous with the Burtons, Mike Nichols, and the drama of dramaturgical conversion—the transformation of a long stage play into a standard-length movie.

***

Ernest Lehman was signed to the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? project in an unusual dual role as screenwriter and producer. He was given complete control over the production—over the choice of director, cast, and crew. His name is not well known today, but in the 1960s it was. His credits included Sweet Smell of Success, Sabrina, North by Northwest, and West Side Story—all receiving Oscar nominations.

“Lehman not only looked the part of a powerful Hollywood executive, but he was also known as one of the saner individuals in the industry—level-headed, methodical, and circumspect,” according to Gefter. The daily journal he kept of the production proved an invaluable resource. It provided a real-time record of the arduous process of making movies in general, and in the making of this movie in particular.

Warner Brothers promised Albee that Bette Davis would be cast as the female lead in the film version of his play, but Lehman had an outré idea of his own: Elizabeth Taylor, a woman who was in the summer of 1964 “with the possible exception of the recently widowed Jacqueline Kennedy … the most famous woman in the world.”

He pitched the press some PR pablum about the reasons for his choice: “I sensed certain wavelengths in her personality akin to Martha,” he said.  “I think she has a deeply feminine vulnerability.” More likely it had something to do with the prospective box office and what a high-octane supply of international star power could do for the success of the project.

Taylor was reluctant to sign on. It was a complex and challenging role. She would have to gain weight and allow herself to be transformed from a vibrant, violet-eyed legend of the silver screen into a raging, aging battle-axe. In the end, however, the material was simply too good. Taylor agreed to play the part, but only if her husband, Shakespearean actor Richard Burton, was cast as George.

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Lehman met with the Burtons in Paris. In an hours-long meeting awash in Champagne and caviar they discussed details of the production—everything from the need to shoot the film chronologically to Burton’s worries about his appearance.

“Richard strong on need for cameraman who will keep his face (seen after and in extreme close-ups on film) from being distractingly pockmarked,” Lehman noted in his journal. “Wants camera and makeup tests to ensure this. Said he cannot perform to his utmost ability unless he feels absolutely secure about this.” The Burtons also insisted on veto power over the director. The man they wanted and eventually got was a young friend, Mike Nichols.

Nichols began his life on Broadway as part of the legendary comedy duo Nichols and May. He went on to a critical success and a Tony award directing Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. “He was acquiring the kind of clout that satisfied his avaricious urgency to be at the center of things,” Gefter writes.

Nichols had never directed a film before, but he was a master of many things, and particularly adept at networking. Nichols got to know Burton when the two were working in adjacent theaters on Broadway, and came to know Taylor through Burton. When he heard she was expressing an interest in doing Virginia Woolf, he contacted her agent and let it be known that he was interested in directing it. He had seen the original production of the play on Broadway. “I thought it was the most exciting play in production that I’d ever seen, with the exception of Streetcar: I always thought that it was Shakespearean in that the two main characters compete in recruiting the audience to their side, in a manner not dissimilar to Taming of the Shrew.”

***

 “In the early days of the pre-production,” Gefter writes, “Lehman and Nichols danced around each other. The balance of power between a producer and a director necessarily shifts back and forth: The director has a vision for the film; the producer makes it happen. Because producers control the budget, final authority leans heavily in their camp.”

The dynamics were further complicated by Lehman’s hybrid role as producer-screenwriter. The power struggles were perpetual. Bringing a story to life on screen is a completely different thing from bringing it to life on stage. “In a film,” Gefter says, “so much of the work is visual first. The burden of storytelling is foregrounded by the image before the story unfolds. While the theater relies on the voice, the screen relies on the face. On the screen, film magnifies a face as if it were an entire stage; the infinitesimal adjustments in a facial expression can have the same narrative impact as a character’s soliloquy in a play.”

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When the shooting began, the problems only multiplied. There was trouble with the cinematographer; trouble with the sound; trouble with the script; trouble with the stars; trouble with the music; trouble with production schedules; trouble with budgets; and, of course, eventually trouble with Warner Brothers and what was then called the Decency Code.

Nichols and Lehman argued with Jack Warner about the off-color language in the script. They emerged from the meeting on the subject essentially victorious. “I would say,” Lehman wrote, “that in the entire script, about all we gave up were two ‘Jesus Christs’ and one ‘God damn.’ (Louis Menand, in his book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, says they gave up a “screw you” as well.) The sheer amount of frustration involved in this sort of undertaking is simply astonishing. Bette Davis once said that getting old was not for sissies—neither is movie-making.

Five months after the first day of rehearsal, the final scene was shot. The film was two months late and two million dollars over budget. It premiered in Los Angeles on June 21, 1966. “Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the best American play of the last decade and a violently candid one, has been brought to the screen without pussyfooting,” Stanley Kauffmann wrote in his New York Times review. “This in itself makes it a notable event in our film history.” The movie went on to receive 13 Oscar nominations and to win five—including a Best Actress award for Elizabeth Taylor.

***

Virginia Woolf was—and remains today,” Gefter writes, “an existential provocation that serves up a range of fundamental truths about marital attachment. … It would be impossible then to imagine the same kind of George-and-Martha skirmishes taking place behind the closed doors of the best-known married couples in the collective consciousness of the time: the zany Ricardos—Lucy and Ricky—of I Love Lucy, the even-keeled Nelsons of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the upstanding suburban Cleavers—Ward and June—of Leave It to Beaver.”  

“George and Martha,” he says, “shattered the polite expectations of their Kennedy-era audiences.”

Gefter has done much the same thing here in pulling the curtain back on the romantic idea of movie-making. While he does from time to time offer us details that say less about the subject than they do about his prowess as a researcher, he has combed most of the minutiae from the process and given the reader a substantive appreciation of the ordeal. Narcissistic insecurity is the fossil fuel of ambition. Cinema is a craven contact sport—a tangle of transactional exchanges, petty power struggles, resentments, and greed. The romance of movie-making is one thing—the reality of it is something else.

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Gefter has given us a sort of mid-way view. Emotionally obligated to one source or another, he has pulled a few punches he should have thrown, but he has given us a privileged inside look at how the cinematic sausage is made.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

K.B. Dixon’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals. His most recent collection of stories, Artifacts: Irregular Stories (Small, Medium, and Large), was published in Summer 2022. The recipient of an OAC Individual Artist Fellowship Award, he is the winner of both the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Eric Hoffer Book Award. He is the author of seven novels: The Sum of His SyndromesAndrew (A to Z)A Painter’s LifeThe Ingram InterviewThe Photo AlbumNovel Ideas, and Notes as well as the essay collection Too True, Essays on Photography, and the short story collection, My Desk and I. Examples of his photographic work may be found in private collections, juried exhibitions, online galleries, and at K.B. Dixon Images.

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