'Cocktails with George and Martha'- Philip Gefter's book on Edward Albee's acrimonious play and film

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Monday March 25, 2024
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Author Philip Gefter
Author Philip Gefter

It can be argued the definitive end to the family-friendly 1950s cultural homogeneity occurred with the 1962 Broadway debut of Edward Albee's drama, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" which is as far as one could get from the idealized "Father Knows Best."

This is the persuasive polemic set forth by gay writer Philip Gefter in his new book, "Cocktails with George and Martha," an analysis of both the play and the 1966 Hollywood film, which despite its vulgar language and venomous wit, helped end the industry's Hays Code censorship.

Gefter, author of two outstanding biographies — one on gay fashion and (celebrity) portrait photographer Richard Avedon and the other on Sam Wagstaff, the gay art curator, collector, mentor, benefactor, and lover of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe — claims the movie was "both a product of the 1960s and a catalytic influence that came to define that decade."

Gefter uses this now classic drama to explore how recent movies have depicted marriage in light of "Woolf," asserting it as "the truest portrayal of love in marriage that I know...and my standard against which all movies about marriage are measured."

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' (photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)  

Anatomy of a marriage
Gefter views the couples' tumultuous marriage as an anatomy of marriage itself (aka existential torment), that underneath the (exaggerated) surface of what happens between George and Martha, occurs in every polite suburban marriage. The first three chapters are devoted to the gay Albee and his play, while the remaining ten focus on the making of the movie.

Albee (who discovered his title written with dry soap in a gay bar's bathroom mirror) was very involved in the bohemian Greenwich Village scene, such that Gefter contends, he based George and Martha on a real-life Wagner College faculty couple he knew, who had epic, drunken arguments, which also became the basis of Andy Warhol's 1965 documentary on them called "Bitch."

However, Albee forcefully rejected the insinuation that Woolf was a gay play in drag, and squelched any revival of Woolf onstage with gay male couples or four men.

The narrative is a late-night drunken battle between history professor George and his bitter wife Martha (the couple named after President Washington and his wife), daughter of the university professor. She considers George a flop/failure for not rising above an associate professor, hence not chairing the History department, reaching a career dead end.

Playwright Edward Albee in 1974 (photo: Wikipedia)  

She's invited a new, young, handsome biology professor Nick and his dippy, mousy wife Honey, for drinks. George and Martha play cruel, sadistic games with each other and their unwitting guests, until dawn. There is a small ambiguous affirmation of love between the couple at the conclusion.

"The dialogue is brilliant and hilarious (i.e. "I swear if you existed, I'd divorce you," "Musical beds is the faculty sport around here."). One minute you're laughing out loud, and the next minute you're gasping at what they're actually saying and doing to each other."

Pulitzer prudes
The play was a wild success with mostly (but not all) rave reviews, running for two years. It won the Tony Award as Best Play. Pulitzer drama jurors had selected it, but the prudish board of trustees rejected their choice, calling it a "filthy play," because Albee pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable Broadway content. So, in a deliberate snub, there was no Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year.

Warner Brothers paid Albee $500,000 for the film rights, though CEO Jack Warner doubted whether such a profane play could be transferred to the screen. But he gave a gentleman's promise, to cast Bette Davis and James Mason as Martha and George.

George Segal, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a scene from the 1966 film 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'  

Warner asked Oscar-nominated screenwriter Ernest Lehmann ("The King and I," "West Side Story," and "The Sound of Music") to pen the script. Lehmann also wanted to produce the film, which would be his first and Warner agreed. Lehman offered Elizabeth Taylor the role of Martha, even though she was 20 years too young. She and Richard Burton were the most famous couple in the world, after a notorious, mass media-mania affair on the set of "Cleopatra," led to them divorcing their spouses and marrying in 1964.

Taylor was doubtful about playing Martha, but Burton convinced her this was the role of a lifetime. She only agreed to play Martha if Burton was cast as George. And the couple insisted that their friend Mike Nichols (known for his sophisticated satirical stage comic routine with Elaine May and as the director of Neil Simon Broadway comedies) direct, which would be his debut film.

Intimate ambiance
Nichols, who could be arrogant and impatient, clashed immediately with Lehman. Gefter calls the pairing "the blind leading the blind." Lehman had to condense Albee's three-and-a-half-hour play to a two-hour movie. Nichols sought to retain Albee's original dialogue, saying, "My job is not to 'fix' what Albee wrote, but to reveal it."

Nichols didn't like the original cinematographer Harry Stradling and had him replaced with the well-respected veteran Haskell Wexler, who used a hand-held camera to give the movie a naturalistic, intimate ambience. Nichols raged a long battle with Jack Warner to film in black and white, rather than screening it in color, which the studio sought.

Director Mike Nichols (photo: Wikipedia)  

Taylor agreed to gain 20 pounds for the role to look more middle-aged and wear a frumpy wig. However, rather than play Martha's age of 52, she drew the line at 48. She stormed out of the studio when Nichols told her to recite the exact lines in the script and didn't return till late, once offering the excuse that she had a long lunch with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. She felt inadequate as Martha, with Burton giving her acting tips.

Off-set, Taylor would scream at Burton, then say, "That wasn't me, it was Martha." As expected, Taylor and Burton argued on the set, bringing their stormy relationship (also fueled by alcohol) to Martha and George. Taylor commented later that she found the set "cathartic. We would get all our shouting and brawling out on the set and then go home and cuddle."

It was precisely this blurry contrast between real-life husband-and-wife and their characters, which drew audiences to theaters making them voyeurs hoping the film might reveal secrets or insights about the couples' actual marriage.

Using Lehman's diary excerpts, Gefter reports the volatile atmosphere on-set was tense with tempers flaring, emotional outbursts, complicated by the fame and self-absorption of Taylor/Burton rendering them hard to handle. Nichols, Warner, and Lehman, to soothe their stars, sent Taylor/Burton gifts — her jewelry and him expensive liquor— though as an inside joke, Nichols delivered a 500-pound taxidermied moose head to their house.

Lehman relied on tranquilizers and speed, while Nichols at times felt he was having a nervous breakdown. During postproduction, he became an obnoxious terror, insulting Lehman to his face, firing the composer he had never liked. Warner banned him from the studio lot.

Dirty picture
However, Nichols had an inspired idea to deal with the censorship threat. He invited his good friend, Jacqueline Kennedy, to the screening for the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures and prompted her to say in a loud voice at the conclusion, "Jack would have loved this film," helping to secure a barely passable rating. Jack Warner's initial worried reaction was, "We've got a $7.5 million dirty picture on our hands."

But the public begged to differ. They and critics loved the movie. It snagged 13 Oscar nominations and won 5 awards, including one for Elizabeth Taylor, considered her greatest film performance, and for Dennis as supporting actress. Burton, Segal, Nichols, and Lehman were nominated, but lost.

Rewatching the film, one is struck how tame and dated it feels. It doesn't have the shock appeal it did when originally released, because everything from Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage," to "The Sopranos," "The Real Housewives," and "A Marriage Story," express rage, toxicity, and bad behavior at which Woolf seems a pale comparison.
But those films and TV shows are inconceivable without Woolf paving the way. It still retains its power to shatter illusions about marriage, depicting it with brutal, non-rose-colored-glasses-candor.

Gefter has produced a dishy, terrifically written, engrossing, page-turning cultural history. Even if you are very familiar with the film, its history, or Taylor and Burton, prepare to be surprised with new revelations. Cinematic stories about marriages were never the same after "Woolf," and we can all be grateful that the film still continues to force us, whether straight or queer, to confront our myths about relationships, sex, family, and yes, love.

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

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