The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.
The gin-soaked, foul-mouthed 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? drunkenly stumbled its way to 13 Oscar nominations and helped put the final nails in the coffin of the Hays Production Code. It’s also become a camp classic not just due to the histrionic scenery-boozing and chewing, but also because its overarching theme of illusion — the toying with reality to make life bearable — is something to which queer audiences can certainly relate.
Elizabeth Taylor, stars with then-husband Richard Burton as the unhappily married George and Martha, who invite an unsuspecting young couple, Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis in an Oscar-winning turn) to a night of depraved fun and games. And along the way Liz snatched her second Best Actress Academy Award.
It’s often (mistakenly) said that Woolf is a thinly-veiled allegory for homosexuality; that George and Martha’s bitter, self-destructive, and childless relationship is Albee’s withering criticism of gay couples. Albee found that notion “ludicrous” to say the least:
“The bullshit that Virginia Woolf was about two male couples … every time some damn fool asks you the question because they’ve read it somewhere, you have to sigh and deny it again, they print your sigh and denial, and it perpetuates the falsehood. I don’t know why people don’t pay attention. When somebody’s told them something isn’t true, why don’t they just accept it? … I’m perfectly capable of writing gay characters if I wanted to. There are some gay people flitting around my plays from time to time. I think Butler in Tiny Alice is probably gay. Certainly Jack in Everything in the Garden is gay. … But I certainly wouldn’t put gay couples in a domestic scene on a university campus, which is one of the most conservative establishments imaginable. That would be ludicrous!”
The play has even occasionally been staged with an all-male cast, much to Albee’s litigious chagrin. But make no boners about it, the dysfunction in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is good old-fashioned, traditionally-valued American heteronormativity…
…albeit imagined by a gay man. Not that Albee’s sexuality has anything to do with his work.
The 86-year-old playwright has vehemently rejected the label of “gay writer” for fear of being limited or ghettoized. “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay,” Albee said in 2011 while accepting a Lambda Literary Award, which honors the achievements of LGBT authors.
Albee also denies the existence of a gay sensibility, which strikes me as impossible since he must have met Liz Taylor at some point. And it don’t get more sensibly gay than La Liz.
If he did meet Taylor, however, Albee was not impressed. Both he and Warner Bros. head Jack Warner wanted another gay icon for the role of Martha: Bette Davis. Surely Bette was better suited to play an overbearing 50-something-ish harridan — and she would have no doubt devoured the role by unhinging her jaw and swallowing it, and everyone else, whole. Albee was particularly queening out about Davis delivering her line from 1949’s Beyond the Forest, which Martha quotes at the beginning of the film:
Taylor, the most famous and beautiful woman in the world, then 34, had just scandalized said world with her whirlwind romance with Burton. Determined to prove herself as an actress, and impress Burton, she threw herself into the role of Martha, gaining 30 lbs and allowing her glamour to be obfuscated by the hair and makeup departments. But at the end of the day, Liz Taylor is still Liz Fucking Taylor and she still made the most gorgeous, middle-aged alcoholic bitch you’ve ever seen.
Albee’s adult language was the main concern with adapting the play to screen, but by 1966 America had begun to lose its cinematic innocence. The play’s sumptuous use of “god damns” and “son-of-a-bitches” practically made it unscathed from Broadway, where people were used to hearing that kind of potty-mouthery.
Apparently, “Screw you” was a bit too much for the censors, and it was overdubbed with the more florid, “God damn you.”
The play’s language was a small obstacle, but for all their loquacious, expletive-filled grand-standing, George and Martha are simply two broken, battered people holding onto each other because they have nothing left. They’re shells of their former selves.
They play these sick, twisted games with Honey and Nick to escape their bleak reality; building fantasies that become reality when the liquor has flowed too long.
Unable to have children of their own, George and Martha invented one, a son. But when Martha betrays George by sleeping with Nick, George punishes Martha by “killing” their son. And with the daylight and sobriety comes the truth, or what George and Martha believe to be the truth, since they’re not entirely sure of the difference anymore.
The use of illusion, and alcohol, as a balm on life’s wounds is part of the human experience, but it resounds especially for queer audiences. Whether he recognizes it or not, Edward Albee has a gay sensibility — or maybe he’s simply an architect of a gay sensibility, as we’ve come to know it. So can you blame a group of theater queens for wanting to have some fun with it?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? stands as one of the classics of modern theater and film. The over-the-top Martha, played by the over-the-top Elizabeth Taylor, quoting the over-the-top Bette Davis is like a Russian nesting doll of gay iconography. Even Albee had to admit that Taylor was “quite good” — though he still would’ve preferred Bette. Doing this:
Talk about a bumpy night.