Liz and Richard’s favourite pastimes? Fighting & Sex! Burton was convinced it would be a


Richard and I have talked about Martha and George so long,’ said Elizabeth Taylor, ‘we sometimes feel we’ve become them.’

It’s precisely this passionate identification on the part of the actors with the characters they played in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? which gives the film, released in June 1966, its lasting appeal.

George and Martha’s taunts, dares and what Philip Gefter, in his well-researched book, calls ‘an array of escalating antagonisms’ all seem to enshrine Burton and Taylor’s real-life relationship.

For Edward Albee’s play, which opened to acclaim on Broadway in October 1962 and had played for 644 sold-out performances, is a study of the horrible reality of marriage — too much proximity, too much mutual self-knowledge, too much discord.

Love, as Albee depicts it, involves considerable hatred, bitterness, sado-masochism and intermittent loneliness. When George begins to lament some of this, Martha cuts him short: ‘You can’t stand it? You married me for it!’

Elizabeth Taylor with Richard Burton after her Oscar win for the film Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

Elizabeth Taylor with Richard Burton after her Oscar win for the film Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

Elizabeth as Martha and Richard as George in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?, released in June 1966

Elizabeth as Martha and Richard as George in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?, released in June 1966

The European stage premiere was directed by Ingmar Bergman, who had been married five times, and whose later television series Scenes From A Marriage is heavily indebted to Albee.

Albee’s intention was to create a drama that would stand in sardonic opposition to the insipid romantic comedies of Doris Day, or the shrill farce of Lucille Ball. He wanted to shatter sentimental illusions, and his background was distinctly homosexual. As one of Albee’s partners, Terrence McNally, said, ‘We were drunk all the time. We had a lot of fun. And we had a lot of fights. And a lot of sex.’

It is perfectly possible, therefore, to see Martha as a man in drag — one of her lines is: ‘I’m loud and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in this house because somebody’s got to’ — and Taylor, by the 1960s, had become a big camp bawd. 

She is always in movement as Martha, always forging ahead, chewing a chicken drumstick or crunching ice cubes. She is never cowed or broken, is full of strength — never subordinate. Taylor gained a stone-and-a-half to play the role, and spent two hours every day in make-up, turning herself into ‘a frustrated, middle-aged, unhappy woman’, or man-eater.

Warner Brothers paid Albee today’s equivalent of $4 million for the film rights, with the intention of casting Bette Davis as Martha and James Mason or (interestingly) Peter Sellers, as George.

Commercial considerations, however, steered the studio towards Burton and Taylor, who after Cleopatra were bigger than Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Cuban missiles. The producer-screenwriter was Ernest Lehman, who was responsible for Hitchcock’s North By Northwest and The Sound Of Music.

He is the unsung hero in this story, keeping the peace, doing his best to control the ‘wildly indulgent whims’ of his cast. He was soon on tranquilisers and amphetamines, as Taylor kept badgering him for trinkets.

Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf? is a film about of the horrible reality of marriage — too much proximity, too much mutual self-knowledge and too much discord

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf? is a film about of the horrible reality of marriage — too much proximity, too much mutual self-knowledge and too much discord

‘I have no intention of spending my own money on an actress who is receiving $1 million for her performance,’ he stated bravely. Lehman caved in, presenting her at the wrap party with an antique turquoise and gold pendant. Lehman also had to endure the caprices of Mike Nichols, who though a lauded director of Neil Simon comedies in the theatre, had never made a film.

Nichols thought of himself as ‘an undeniable genius’, and claimed to share with Albee ‘a sense of alienation and unhappiness’ about life in general.

A German-Jewish refugee with alopecia (Taylor advised him on wigs), Nichols was much-married, bred Arabian horses, and lived in Cole Porter’s former estate in Hollywood.

‘Luxury was undoubtedly to his taste’, says Gefter. He appreciated invitations to grand parties — he’d boast to Lehman about dinners with Julie Andrews or Andre Previn. He was moody and neurotic. ‘Your rage and your anger make me uncomfortable’, Lehman finally had to tell him.

The Burtons turning up a fortnight late, rehearsals finally began on July 6, 1965. Dressing rooms were palatial — suites with kitchens and grand pianos. Taylor’s was yellow and white; Burton’s wood-panelled ‘with an old English feeling’.

Flower arrangements and cases of Dom Perignon abounded, as did throngs of the Burtons’ personal press agents, lawyers, dressers, secretaries and costume designers. There were bodyguards and additional security. ‘Elizabeth and I are fairly well-known. If we belch, they photograph it,’ Burton explained. As with royalty, studio personnel were not to address the stars, unless the stars initiated a greeting first.

Burton’s chief concern on the set was to insist on a cinematographer and make-up artist who’d successfully conceal his pockmarked skin. ‘He cannot perform to his utmost ability unless he feels absolutely secure about this,’ Lehman noted. 

The first cameraman, Harry Stradling, was sacked and replaced by Haskell Wexler, who duly won an Oscar for his deep-toned black-and-white lighting. Once cameras began rolling Burton remained sceptical and disenchanted. ‘The facts of the matter are that this picture is really going to be a flop anyway. It’s badly written. It’s badly acted. It’s badly directed.’

He was somewhat drunk when he publicly uttered those words. Taylor was also drinking too much, adding to her irritability and raising the tension. Yet being intoxicated and in extreme states are where Burton and Taylor always found each other.

On show in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? therefore, as the characters go for each other, is their delirium: emotions ranging from loyalty to betrayal, tenderness to unbridled contempt, regard to rejection.

On screen and off, Taylor and Burton are to be seen ‘reverting to their favourite pastimes, fighting and having sex. Or having sex and fighting.’ Burton once really did say, ‘I love arguing with Elizabeth, except when she is in the nude.’ And as Taylor said, ‘I was the happy recipient of his reputation as a man who knew how to please a woman.’

Contractually due $100,000 for every week of production that went over schedule, Taylor easily ensured they went over schedule and over budget, which reached $70 million in today’s figures — for a film with one small set and no action set-pieces.

The Burtons never arrived until gone ten, lunched until five, and knocked off at six with Bloody Marys. ‘Mike, old buddy, sorry we’re late,’ said Burton, who with Taylor had been entertaining the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Taylor additionally had days off for period pains and an abscessed tooth.

Though the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures objected to the 11 ‘goddamns’, seven ‘b******s’, five ‘sons of bitches’, and assorted ‘up yours’ and ‘screw yous’, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? garnered 13 Oscar nominations.

Taylor rightly won for Best Actress. (Though Gefter says she’d ‘never played such a psychologically complex role’, I vehemently disagree — maybe her beauty had blinded people to how good she always was, going back to National Velvet.) Burton was robbed of the Best Actor statuette by Paul Scofield for A Man For All Seasons.

I was fascinated to learn Burton, at the time in Camelot, had been offered the role of George in the original New York stage production, but he was already heading off to Rome to play Antony in Cleopatra, and make his date with destiny.

Roger Lewis’s Erotic Vagrancy: Everything About Richard Burton And Elizabeth Taylor, published by Riverrun, is out now.



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