Quick Answer: The filmmakers behind Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) endured countless setbacks in adapting Edward Albee’s 1962 play for the big screen, mostly due to their refusal to comply with the Motion Picture Association of America’s strict censorship guidelines. As Warner Brothers’ first film intended for adult audiences only, it found surprising critical and commercial success when it was released in theaters in 1966. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is symbolic of the rapidly changing era in which it was made: it paved the way for other filmmakers to challenge censorship in the name of artistic freedom, and it helped to establish the modern film rating system used in the United States today.
Warner Brothers released Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, during a period of great cultural change in Hollywood and in the United States in general. An adaptation of Edward Albee’s Broadway play of the same name, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? faced so many challenges in production — issues of adaptation, censorship and the lead actors’ improper ages for their roles — that it was considered "unfilmable." But adapting the story into film was a risk well-taken: it remains one of the best theater-to-screen adaptations to date, whose success helped to both nullify the strict censorship enforced in Hollywood at the time and establish the film rating system we have today.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Martha and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is essentially a war story. It’s about a long-married academic couple, George and Martha, who host a young couple, Nick and Honey, at their home after a party at the college where George teaches. Confined to the setting of Martha and George’s home, the story relies on sharp dialogue and body language to analyze the breakdown of their bitter marriage over the course of one progressively drunken night. Albee’s tragicomic play premiered in 1962 to find major critical success (including a Tony Award for best play) — but when Jack Warner bought the film rights for a then-shocking $500,000, he might not have realized this project would present obstacles every step of the way.
Hailing from Broadway, Mike Nichols was hired as a debut director for the film, and he cast real-life married couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the leading roles. Nichols' casting choice was questioned by the studio and even by Taylor herself. Although Taylor and Burton's turbulent relationship (which resulted in two divorces) might have suited the project, Martha and George were middle-aged characters. Taylor was beautiful and only in her early 30s at the time; Burton in his late 30s. Taylor eventually took on the role as a challenge: she put on some weight, and the makeup and costume designers did everything they could to age and de-glamorize her.
Producer-screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), who had initially talked Warner into buying the rights for the film, was in charge of adapting the script for onscreen. Lehman was concerned with staying true to Albee’s original screenplay and maintaining its essence, which in the case of this dialogue-centric story meant preserving the characters’ weaponry: their sharp language and incessant use of profanity. The only significant changes he made to Albee’s screenplay were minor scene cuts, and he broke free from the one-room setting. Instead of taking place solely in the living room, the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? follows characters into various rooms in the house, out onto the lawn and briefly out to a roadhouse.
George Segal and Sandy Dennis as Nick and Honey
Nichols’ film was originally supposed to be shot in color, but with the help of cinematographer Haskall Wexler (who Nichols hired after firing Director of Photography Harry Stradling), he opted for black-and-white just at the moment when this style was going extinct but experiencing an Indian summer. Nichols' reasoning was that the use of blacks, whites, greys and contrasting shadows would render the bitterness Martha and George felt towards each other — and that black-and-white would make everyone look less attractive. At the time of its release, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the most expensive black-and-white film ever made, costing $7.5 million.
The largest obstacle that Warner Brothers faced in adapting the film was censorship. Lehman and Nichols felt that Martha and George’s harsh language could not be removed from the screenplay: it was crucial to understanding the tense relationship that defines the film. Warner supported this sentiment, although the film’s profanity very well could have led to financial consequences and public outrage. They were up against the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which since 1930 had a Production Code in place to protect audiences from material that was considered obscene. The code stated that onscreen, no one could use profanity, crime had to be punished, and married couples couldn’t even be shown in the same bed. Many filmmakers during this era felt that these strict guidelines hindered their artistic freedom — in hindsight, the MPAA’s requirements seem propagandistic — but by 1966, it was becoming clear that the censorship enforced by the Production Code was anachronistic.
Richard Burton and George Segal
As stated by Warner himself, "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." He announced that all theaters showing the film would, under contract, prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from entering the theater unless accompanied by an adult. Following suit in 1967, the MPAA’s Production Code was set aside for a rating system like the one we have today.
Although the studio and collaborators behind Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had to jump through countless hoops to get the film shown on the big screen, it found huge commercial success. The profanity issue was predicted to diminish sales, but it ended up selling more tickets, in part because viewers were drawn to the scandal of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s real-life romance and eventual divorce(s). The couple had met while filming Cleopatra (1963). They were both married at the time and had an affair, which was highly publicized and denounced by the Vatican as an "erotic vagrancy." By the time Taylor and Burton were married in 1964 and working together on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, public intrigue in the Hollywood couple was at its peak. The film made Academy Awards history: it was the first film to be nominated for every category it was eligible for, and the first film in which all credited cast members were nominated for Oscars (Elizabeth Taylor; Richard Burton; Sandy Dennis; George Segal).
Elizabeth Taylor: "Hollywood's pagan queen"
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was groundbreaking in more ways than one. It helped establish our modern film rating system and initiated change for filmmakers fighting for artistic freedom. Through Elizabeth Taylor's Martha, it challenged gender roles in the mainstream: she was loud, strong, drunk, profane — and she talked back to her husband. She was the opposite of the female image that dominated the media at the time, which was ladylike and agreeable. Taylor was even paid $1.1 million to her male co-star and then-husband's $750,000 — a female-favoring wage gap that is rarely even seen today. As Camille Pagila writes in Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? helped make Elizabeth Taylor into "Hollywood's pagan queen,” a symbol of the changes that were occurring rapidly in the 1960s in Hollywood, and ultimately, in the American mindset.