At some point in the 1960s, American filmmaking began to change forever. The Old Hollywood era, characterized by large studios and the Production Code, was on the decline. In its place, a tide of young directors rose, auteurs who sought to disrupt Hollywood conventions with their new ideas, smaller budgets, and influences from international art-house cinemas. The defining films of this era include Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and The Graduate.
The latter of those, The Graduate, is arguably director Mike Nichols’ most famous film, but it wasn’t his first. In 1966, he was a theater director who made his film debut with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an adaptation of the Edward Albee play of the same name. The film is cited as the first of the New Hollywood era and was highly successful, winning numerous awards including a Best Actress Oscar for Elizabeth Taylor.
Although Taylor isn’t traditionally associated with New Hollywood, her involvement with and performance in Virginia Woolf? were vitally important to the film, Nichols’ career, and the era of American filmmaking that grew in the years after the film’s release. Taylor was also instrumental in the decline of the Old Hollywood system (though not always intentionally). The best way to understand how Hollywood changed so quickly in the span of a few years through its transition from the Old to New eras is by understanding Taylor’s career up to and including the 1960s.
The Old Era
One of the nails in the coffin for Old Hollywood was the financial failure of 20th Century Fox’s 1963 historical epic Cleopatra. Even though it was the biggest box office hit of the year, the film’s bloated budget ensured that it could never be profitable. The cost was an unprecedented $44 million (roughly $360 million today) and Elizabeth Taylor took home a salary of $1 million, an amount unheard of for an actor to receive at that time.
The film’s budget was inflated even more when Taylor’s health problems delayed production and a change of directors that involved Taylor selecting Joseph Mankiewicz to helm. The easier solution — and the one that would have happened if Cleopatra had been made decades earlier — would have been to swap Taylor out for a star who was completely under the studio’s control. But by 1963, Taylor had become Hollywood royalty, and though she sometimes wrecked havoc with the studios, her talent and celebrity ensured that she wasn’t going away any time soon.
In the late 1950s, Taylor’s public persona had been marred by scandal. After her third husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash, she began an affair with Todd’s friend Eddie Fisher, who at that time was married to Debbie Reynolds. Understandably, public sympathy went the way of Reynolds, who was already seen as America’s sweetheart.
Although it takes two to tango, it was Taylor and not Fisher who was most harshly attacked for their affair. With one film left in her contract at MGM, Taylor was forced to make BUtterfield 8, a movie with some barely concealed parallels to Taylor’s public perception, in 1960. In the film, she stars as a prostitute — at one point dubbed “the slut of all time” — who must be punished by the film for her promiscuity before she wrecks the relationship of her childhood friend (played by Fisher) and his sweet, demure fiance. (Side note: for what it’s worth, Taylor and Reynolds did reconcile and were even able to laugh about the whole ordeal years later.)
Despite Taylor’s reception among the public, she came out victorious in the end by winning her first Oscar for BUtterfield 8. Taylor was never particularly proud of the film or her work in it, but that doesn’t change that she and her golden statue walked away from a potentially career-ending scandal that in years past would have been swept under the rug by a studio. These events are covered at length in the podcast You Must Remember This; host Karina Longworth puts it quite well when discussing how Taylor’s Oscar win signaled the end of the studio era: “after an MGM star has spent three years bringing to life all of Louis B. Mayer’s worst nightmares, and she still triumphs because none of it matters anymore, what power did someone like Mayer have left?”
All of this is to say that before Cleopatra, Taylor had been through the wringer and come out the other end having proven that she wasn’t going to be controlled by anyone and that her career wouldn’t be threatened by anything. She was able to negotiate a million-dollar salary because she was one of the most, if not the most, bankable stars at the time. She could have her choice of directors because Fox couldn’t risk her walking away from the project. In previous years, actors were at the mercy of studios, but with Taylor and Fox, it was the other way around. And when Cleopatra nearly bankrupted the studio that made it, Taylor was able to walk away relatively unscathed.
The New Era
The failure of Cleopatra put an end to the productions of expensive historical epics. Producers needed to find new material to invest in. Thankfully for them, at the same time, the Production Code was on the decline and there were new possibilities in storytelling. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, increasingly explicit films like Psycho, Some Like It Hot, and Suddenly, Last Summer (also starring Elizabeth Taylor) were being made. And when these films were successful the authority of the Code was only weakened further. But none of these somewhat explicit films prepared the American filmmaking industry for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Edward Albee’s 1962 play, about the conflicts of two married couples that take place over the course of one night of drinking, fighting, fun, and games, shocked audiences with its provocative subject matter and language. For a time, the play was thought to be unfilmable because of how drastically it would have to be altered to suit the rules of the Production Code.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman worked at adapting it anyway and made the bold choice to change very little and to keep the provocative elements of the play. While the film was in production, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) threatened that if it retained the language of the play, they wouldn’t even wait for a screening of the film before refusing to give it a seal of approval for release.
In the end, there was one notable difference made to change a line from Taylor’s Martha that was originally “screw you!” into “Goddamn you!” Other than this, the film was an incredibly faithful adaptation of the play. Apparently, Warner Bros. head Jack L. Warner paid a $5,000 fine in order to keep the profanity in the film. Warner also compromised by having warnings placed on all advertisements that indicated adult content. Additionally, contracts with theaters exhibiting the film included a clause that prohibited anyone under the age of 18 being admitted without an adult. It was, in a sense, the first R-Rated film.
The film was certainly a gamble. It directly challenged the Code and included material that was sure to shock and even potentially alienate audiences. But the risk paid off and Virginia Woolf was a critical and commercial smash hit. By challenging the Code and winning, the film stripped the MPAA of its once unquestionable authority. Warner, Lehman, Nichols, and others working behind the scenes believed in the film and refused to back down. But it’s also worth noting that Taylor was instrumental in the film becoming what it is and her endeavors extended far beyond her on-screen involvement.
Taylor was the one who suggested Nichols despite the fact that he had no experience in film. His vision, which included thoroughly rehearsing scenes as if he was directing a play, no doubt contributed to the career-best performances delivered by the four lead actors.
Additionally, Taylor was taking advantage of the changing Hollywood landscape to mold her own celebrity. Under contract at MGM she had been forced into a film intended to shame her with BUtterfield 8, but with Virginia Woolf? she was taking control of her image. She and Richard Burton, her husband at the time who also starred as her fictional husband, George, were known for their glamorous lifestyle.
Taylor, in particular, then 34, was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. This made her a surprising choice to play the frumpy, middle-aged Martha in the film. As a display of her commitment to the role, Taylor gained 30 pounds and wore makeup to appear much older than she was. The result is a true transformation; Taylor looks nothing like she did in films such as Cleopatra or BUtterfield 8, where she was cast at least partially because of her beauty and association with glamour.
Taylor had received numerous Oscar nominations prior to this and was considered a talented actress, but with her commitment to the role of Martha, she proved beyond a doubt that she was not just a pretty face and was deserving of every bit of praise that had gone her way. She won her second Oscar for her performance in Virginia Woolf?, which is generally considered her greatest. I’d also happily argue that it is the greatest performance ever given by an actor period, but that’s an essay for another day.
Discussions about control in Old Hollywood are largely dominated by producers and studios, and those about New Hollywood focus on the influence of male auteur filmmakers. But in 1966, when the American film industry was undergoing an unprecedented shift, there was one actress who was at the center of it all.
Even when she was at the mercy of the studio system, Taylor’s talent kept her in the game and ensured that after Fox nearly went down after putting all their eggs in Cleopatra’s basket, they wouldn’t take their leading lady down with them. When the opportunity for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? came, Taylor suggested Nichols, thus igniting the filmmaking career of one of New Hollywood’s greatest directors. She physically committed to the role of Martha, signaling that gone were the days of Golden Age glitz and here to stay was an era of raw, honest, and challenging performances.
It’s impossible to know exactly what the last five decades of American films would have been had it not been for Taylor’s influence. What I do know is that as a fan of Old Hollywood, New Hollywood, and Taylor herself, I am immensely grateful that she contributed her incredible talent and unwavering spirit to two of the greatest eras of filmmaking.