June 21, 2020

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

On June 21, 1966, Mike Nichols' debut film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" premiered at the Pantages theater in Hollywood.

The film is based on the play of the same name by Edward Albee, which was a huge success on the stage of the Broadway Billy Rose theater in 1962-1964. A total of 664 performances took place, and each of them was accompanied by a full house. According to many theater critics, the success of Albee's play was provided by extremely explicit dialogues, thickly stuffed with profanity. Against the background of the prevailing norms of morality and morality in the American theater at that time, such frankness was something out of the ordinary. And, as is often the case with "forbidden fruit", this frankness and obscenity of the vocabulary attracted crowds of spectators to the theater.

The combination of the over-popularity of Albee's play, on the one hand, and serious censorship claims against it, on the other hand, led to a certain Pulitzer prize-winning scandal in 1963. Literary and theatrical critics considered Albee's play the only one worthy of this award. Censors and Catholic organizations were strongly opposed. As a result, the award was not awarded to anyone. Naturally, the question arises: how could such a play get on the stage at a time when there were very serious censorship restrictions?

It is believed that the then American censorship agreed to the release of the play on the stage only due to the special political situation that developed in the fall of 1962. This situation is known worldwide as the Caribbean Crisis. It is believed that the admission of Albee's play to the most famous and prestigious stages was intended to distract significant masses of the audience from the painful thoughts caused by this crisis in the American philistines, to serve as a kind of background on which the supposed future events will be perceived less oppressively. Quite probable.

Anyhow, in 1964, Warner Bros. purchased from Edward Albee the rights to screen his play for a very impressive sum - half a million dollars (equivalent to the current 4.1 million dollars), and on May 16, 1964, the last performance of this play on Broadway took place. However, in 1965, performances of this play began in London.

The film was created with great difficulties and delays. For example, Edward Albee wanted Katharine Hepburn to play the lead role in this film, and for this he sent her his play. After some time, he received the answer of the Actress: "Your play is much better than me." The film was originally planned to be directed by Fred Zinneman and the male lead by Jack Lemmon. But suddenly they both refused to participate in the work on the film. Fred Zinnemann chose to work on the production of the film "A Man for All Seasons". And Jack Lemmon refused without explanation. Then Elizabeth Taylor lobbied for the role of George her husband - Richard Burton. And he, in turn, proposed the candidacy of his friend, 35-year-old Mike Nichols, for the position of director, whose real name is Mikhail Igor Pavlovich Peshkovsky.

The choice of Richard Burton was based not on friendly relations, but on a fair assessment of the professional qualities of the young director. Mike Nichols, born in 1931 in Berlin to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, moved to the United States in 1939 with his family fleeing Nazi persecution. In the early 1950s, his professional career began. First, as they would say today, as a stand-up comedian as part of the comedy duo Nichols and May. In 1962, the duo disbanded and Nichols took up theater directing. Already in 1963, the play "Barefoot in the Park" based on the play by Neil Simon, staged by Nichols at the Broadway Biltmore Theater, withstood 1530 performances and brought its director a Tony Award.

After the cast was established, Sandy Dennis had a miscarriage during filming, and this circumstance also affected the timing. Many problems in the course of filming created the "star" behavior of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Besides, the "sticks in the wheels" were inserted by the guardians of morality, who constantly demanded that the filming of the movie based on the infamous play be stopped. It is said that at a certain stage, the producers had doubts about the feasibility of continuing filming, which they shared with Nichols. Nichols replied that he had allegedly arranged with Jacqueline Kennedy, by then the former First Lady, who promised to explain to the first persons of the Church that Jack (meaning John F. Kennedy-FG) would have liked the film. It is difficult to say how true this was, but work on the film continued.

All these obstacles and delays resulted in a doubling of the originally planned budget. At a cost of $ 7.5 million, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" became the most expensive black-and-white film made in the United States. Moreover, the choice of black and white format was a conscious decision of Mike Nichols. He believed that this format is more in line with the style of the play. And, in addition, the black-and-white color allowed to hide the real age of Elizabeth Taylor.

The largest items in the budget were actor fees: $ 1.1 million by Elizabeth Taylor, $ 750,000 by Richard Burton, as well as $ 500,000 by Edward Albee, mentioned above, for the film adaptation of the play. But the costs paid off with interest: the box office exceeded $ 33,7 million. The film was not released in the Soviet Union.

Elizabeth Taylor, who was 33 years old at the time of filming, to be more convincing in the role of a 52-year-old heroine, specially recovered by 14 kilograms and tried her best to de-glam her image. Her efforts were not in vain: she was awarded the Academy Award and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress. In her memoirs, Taylor called the role in this film her best role.

In 1967, the film received 7 nominations for the Golden Globe Award, but did not receive a single one. In the most important nominations - Best Drama Film and Best Director - the film and Mike Nichols lost to the film "A Man for All Seasons" and its director Fred Zinneman, respectively. In the Oscars, Mike Nichols was a little more successful. The film received 13 nominations, of which it won 5, though not the most important ones. In the dispute over the main nominations, the same story was repeated as on the Golden Globe. In Europe, the most prestigious film forum in which Mike Nichols' film took part was the British BAFTA Award. And "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" had got this award.

Despite the fact that more than half a century has passed since the release of the film, the modern moviegoer continues to rate it no less highly than the moviegoers of the late 60s of the last century. 66% of IMDB and Kinopoisk users gave Mike Nichols' picture "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" ratings from 8 to 10. Taking into account this indicator and the above, the rating of the film according to FilmGourmand was 8,570, which allowed it to take 296th Rank in the Golden Thousand.