Elizabeth Taylor died Wednesday at the age of 79. Taylor had been ill with congestive heart failure for several years and was hospitalized in February. In an exclusive excerpt from
How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, William J. Mann reports on her life and the role she was born to play. Plus, view our gallery of her career and marriages.
The day before shooting began on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Nichols had mused with producer Ernest Lehman about Elizabeth Taylor playing Martha. “It’s like asking a chocolate milkshake to do the work of a double martini,” he’d lamented.
Press were forbidden on set. There was a reason: For the first time, Taylor would not be glamorized. She was not at all comfortable with the idea, at least not at first. She complained about being forced to consume “a lot of cream and butter and sweets—though one suspects she didn’t find such gourmandizing as odious as all that. One day, just before shooting began, she buttonholed Lehman and turned on all her charm. “Listen, Ernie,” she said, eyelashes batting, “you must be sure to tell the press from here on in that you and Mike have ordered me to get fat for this picture. I don’t want them to get the idea that I’m overweight and sloppy simply because I don’t know any better.” Lehman was impressed with her savvy. And then, her talent.
On the first day of rehearsal, as the actors began reading the script—beginning with Martha’s splenetic “Jesus H. Christ!”—something magical occurred. Elizabeth possessed the right fire and wasn’t the least bit hammy. If anything, it was Richard who was “a bit uneven.” At the reading, Bloody Marys kept everybody’s spirits free-flowing. At 4:30, the reading concluded, with Martha’s heartbreaking reply to George, who’d been singing the play’s catchphrase, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Looking up from her script with just the right amount of fear and sadness on her face, Elizabeth said softly, “I am, George. I am.” Nichols was pleased. Elizabeth let out a whoop.
After more than two decades of merchandising her looks, Elizabeth was anxious about appearing dumpy. So it’s not surprising that, as she was made up as Martha for the first time, she was cranky, knocking back vodka after vodka. Striding out of her dressing room wearing the gray wig that Sidney Guilaroff had made for her, she awaited consensus. Lehman thought it made her look chic, “ravishingly beautiful” in fact—which of course pleased Elizabeth but horrified Nichols. The wig was sent back to Guilaroff.
Elizabeth threw a fit. She was suddenly convinced there was no reason to play Martha as harridan. When she turned around in her chair to look at herself as Martha in the mirror, she nearly burst into tears. Elizabeth was swearing and throwing out demands that they postpone the start of filming. “My feeling was that she had been drinking too much and was far too tired,” Lehman said.
The drinking would continue, sanctioned by the top brass; the film, after all, is one long marathon binge. There were pills, too, Lehman believed. When Elizabeth was “exceedingly cheerful” to everyone, the producer had a realization: “For the first time it occurred to me that she might just possibly be taking some sort of medication." Noting her “highly energetic performance,” he became more convinced. But a happy Elizabeth meant a happy set. “Whatever the pill is,” Lehman said, “I am very much in favor of it.”
But Elizabeth was more than just a diva; she was also a pro. Nichols was awed by her technical virtuosity. “Elizabeth can keep in her mind 14 dialogue changes, 12 floor marks and 10 pauses—so the cutter can get the shears in and still keep the reality,” he said. All that MGM training still paid dividends. In just one weekend she learned 26 pages of the script and had showed up to work “very well-prepared,” Lehman said. The stress of post-production seemed to evaporate.
Actually, Elizabeth was having a ball. “I had a character to grab hold of and sink my nails into,” she said, and the script provided “wonderful words to wrap your lips around.” Burton was in awe. “You cannot believe it is her,” he said. “When I first saw the rushes, I was absolutely astounded. The voice, the accent, the walk. It’s so vulgar and oddly poignant.”
Nichols and Lehman realized there were certain things they could do to keep their star happy and cooperative. Little gifts were left for her to find in her dressing room, over which she’d titter and giggle like a child. During filming, Elizabeth constantly compared the gift-giving of Lehman to Martin Ransohoff, with whom she had worked in her previous picture, The Sandpiper. “Ernie,” she trilled one day, “I thought you’d be interested to know that Marty has just given me another present.” Playing along, Lehman asked what she could possibly want. “Another husband,” Nichols deadpanned. “Hey, now, wait a minute,” Burton said, glancing up.
A happy Elizabeth meant a happy set. “Whatever the pill is,” Lehman said, “I am very much in favor of it.”
Elizabeth paid them no mind, slinking over to Lehman to tell him that she’d seen a “fabulous” piece of jewelry designed by David Webb. “ David Webb,” Elizabeth repeated. “Take out your pen and write down that name.” Lehman told her he’d forgotten his pen. But he told her had considered buying her a baby wolf to commemorate the picture. Elizabeth squealed with delight. She’d love to have a baby wolf.
A few weeks later, after Ransohoff had dropped off a double rope of nine-and-a-half millimeter pearls, Elizabeth reminded Lehman that all he’d given her so far were flowers and Champagne. Even Mike Nichols had splurged on some sapphire earrings. Watching from the sidelines, Richard found it all very funny. Elizabeth, he said, reminded him of his Aunt Tessie, who was “a bit on the greedy side.” Dropping his arm around Lehman’s shoulders, he said, “The wonderful thing about Elizabeth is that she loves jewels so much that she makes even a stingy man like me want to give her jewelry just to see the thrill she gets when she sees it.”
But, in her own way, Elizabeth could be quite generous. For Nichols, one anecdote summed up her “very essence.” They were getting ready to shoot a particularly long monologue of Martha’s in which she cried. Elizabeth was terrified that she might not be able to bring forth the tears. But when Nichols called “action,” he watched as she summoned all the emotion she could. Her eyes began to glisten. And then, with a groan, Nichols had to call “cut.” There was a technical problem with the camera. Elizabeth deflated like a balloon.
“OK, so now it’s the second take,” Nichols described, “And she has to get herself going again. She’s really going and she’s amazing and the tears suddenly start flowing on cue and she’s great.” But then, from overhead, disaster. Right in the middle of the scene came a very loud snoring sound. Above the soundstage, a crewmember had fallen asleep. “And he was snoring so loud,” Nichols said, “that there was absolutely no way to go on filming.” Once again, he had to cut the scene. “And the first thing out of Elizabeth’s mouth,” Nichols said, “right on top of the word ‘cut,’ was ‘Don’t fire him! Please don’t fire him!’ That was her very first response—her reflex—even after all her worries, even after this guy had ruined her very difficult scene. She said, ‘Don’t fire him!’ There are not a lot of people like that.”
True to his leading lady’s wishes, Nichols let the errant crewmember keep his job. And Elizabeth redid the scene. Brilliantly.
* * *
Well-tanned, in a white dress and with her hair worn in a stylish upsweep, Elizabeth watched from the window of the Cadillac as they headed north on Interstate 91. Their destination was Northampton, Massachusetts, home of Smith College, where exteriors for the film would be shot. Known for its liberalism, the college nonetheless triggered some dissension among its alumnae by allowing the campus to be used for a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. “Why should we help support a college that entertains such an unsavory female?” one graduate of the Class of 1922 asked in a letter to President Thomas C. Mendenhall. The president’s reply was succinct. “The play is about hypocrisy,” he wrote, referencing Edward Albee’s original. “Personally I find hypocrisy unattractive….”
Shooting began on August 23, frequently interrupted by rain and thunderstorms, fog and humidity. The first scene shot was the opening scene of the picture, where George and Martha stroll across the campus after a party at the house of the dean, who also happens to be Martha’s father. To simulate late fall instead of high summer, dried leaves were blown around by wind machines. Various Smith faculty members served as extras, sauntering out of the house and dispersing across the lawn. Lehman fell in among them, a bit player in his own picture. It was decided that George and Martha knew him, so they exchanged a wave. But Lehman cringed when he heard Elizabeth call over to him, “Goodnight, Ernie! Up yours!” He hoped the microphone hadn’t picked it up.
Then came the fight between George and Martha in the parking lot. “Elizabeth and Richard were absolutely blood-curdling in their performance,” Lehman recorded the following morning. Their struggle was so realistic that the crew winced every time Elizabeth was thrown back and hit her head against the station wagon. At one point tears sprang to her eyes and she had to lie down for a bit, the company doctor looking in on her. Still, she came back again and redid the scene “many times,” Lehman said. Even when Nichols finally said he had what he wanted, Elizabeth requested they do it once more, because she felt she could do it better. “And indeed she did,” Lehman said.
“I never had a better time in my life,” Elizabeth would say, looking back on the filming of Virginia Woolf. Perhaps to counterweight the Sturm und Drang of the script, there was considerable laughter and lightheartedness on the set. Elizabeth and Sandy Dennis engaged in belching contests, and for the first time in her life, Elizabeth didn’t win. Burton and Nichols played word games, betting each other they wouldn’t know the definitions of odd words like porbeagle, roup, or pleach. The quarrels that had arisen early in the shooting had been largely replaced with harmony.
Part of the reason Elizabeth would always hold such rosy nostalgic memories of Virginia Woolf was because, in many ways, this was the pinnacle of her time with Richard. For these five months, they were truly, deeply, happily in love. Not long before shooting wrapped, Richard showed Lehman a short poem he’d written about Elizabeth that, in the producer’s opinion, was “decidedly erotic.” Lehman later asked Elizabeth, “How does your husband do things like that?”
She replied simply, “I inspire him.”
William J. Mann is the author of Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, which was named a New York Times Notable Book. Mann has worked as a freelance journalist and editor, and has written several other works of fiction and nonfiction. He divides his time between Massachusetts and California.