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Dishy-yet-earnest, 'Cocktails' revisits the making of 'Virginia Woolf'

Bloomsbury Publishing

There are some titles that stick in your head forever. One of the most indelible is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a witticism that Edward Albee saw scrawled on the mirror of a Greenwich Village bar and appropriated for his groundbreaking 1962 play. Albee couldn't have dreamed that, 60 years on, people would use the title as a shorthand to describe fractious marriages, boozy arguments and parties gone terribly wrong.

Albee's play – and the 1966 movie adaptation with Elizabeth Taylorand Richard Burton – are the subject of Philip Gefter's dishy-yet-earnest new book, Cocktails with George and Martha: Movies, Marriage, and the Making of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Moving from the origins of the play in Albee's unhappy childhood to the shark tank that was the film's production – with Taylor, Burton and director Mike Nicholsall flashing their teeth – Gefter shows why Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hit the '60s like a torpedo. His book got me thinking about how the film looks in 2024.

You may know that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? portrays a late night battle royal between a floundering professor, George, and his frustrated wife Martha, the daughter of the university president. Martha has invited over for drinks an ambitious young professor, Nick, and his dippy wife, Honey. Over two-plus hours of industrial-level boozing, the loud-mouthed Martha and venomously witty George go after one another – and their unlucky guests – with stinging barbs and cruel revelations.

As Gefter makes clear, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? took aim at post-war America's idealized vision of marriage, in which fathers knew best and wives just loved being mothers and helpmeets. Albee depicted marital unhappiness in all its rancor and often perverse fantasy – like George and Martha's imaginary child – that hold people together. Its ferocious candor shifted the cultural terrain, paving the way for everything from Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage to Tony and Carmela Soprano.

Yet if you view Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? now, it feels dated and almost innocent. George and Martha were shocking creations in their day because Albee was showing audiences what Broadway and Hollywood kept hidden. These days nothing's hidden. Real life couples sign up to flaunt their toxicity in TV series from The Real Housewives to Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Where Albee searched for meaning inside his characters' sensationally bad behavior, reality TV settles for the sensational – who cares what it might mean?

What feels most contemporary about Virginia Woolf is the way it piggybacked on celebrity. Liz and Dick, as they were known, landed the lead movie roles, even though she had to put on 20 pounds and 20 years to play Martha. No matter. Ever since their affair on the set of Cleopatra, they were hot, a paparazzi magnet who jetted from posh Parisian hotels off to Mexico – they made Puerto Vallarta famous. The world knew about their drinking, their passionate sex (she called him her "little Welsh stallion") and their rip-roaring fights. Naturally, their fame, willfulness and self-absorption made them hard to handle on the set. Their stardom also made the movie a hit.

In the end, Burton gave a terrific performance and Taylor did better than expected – even winning an Oscar. Still, it's eerie watching them today. Their roles seem to predict the future in which they became the target of jokes, the once legendary beauty being mocked as a chubby, chicken-scarfing fool by John Belushi in drag, while Burton sank ever deeper into the persona of a drunken, self-hating cautionary tale about wasting one's talent.

Sad to say, we live in a culture bored by ordinary people. Liz and Dick were the prototypes of the parade of celebrity couples who now dominate public consciousness. Their stardom heightens the movie's profile the way Princess Di and Charles elevated the dreary British monarchy. Even the Super Bowl had a special tang this year because of Travis Kelce's relationship with another talented Taylor.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a great play and Gefter's a good writer. But if the movie had cast its original Broadway stars, Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, I wouldn't be here talking about it.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.