It Was 50 Years Ago Today: ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

July 5, 1966
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
#1 film at the US box office, July 3-9; July 31 – August 6; August 14-27; & September 4 – October 1, 1966

WhoAfraidPosterFrom its implementation in 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code ensured that Americans would be spared any “indecent” material in their movies. For decades, the Code weathered few significant challenges; offending films were censored or, more often, never made in the first place. Heads of the major Hollywood studios had few incentives to challenge a system that benefited them. Independent studios, what few existed at the time, lacked the resources to put up a fight or to make extensive rewrites and edits. The world, never as innocent as its cinematic portrayal, only grew more sophisticated in the mid-20th Century, yet the movies remained locked in an artificial time when profanity was nonexistent, sexuality was implied (at best), and “immorality” was punished without exception.

But as with so much else during the 1960s, attitudes about what was permissible in movies began growing more liberal. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) began passing movies as “special exceptions” that previously would have been banned, including instances of strong language, nudity, and depictions of homosexuality. When it faced its strongest challenge in 1966, the crumbling Production Code received a blow that would ultimately prove fatal.

Meanwhile, when Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962, it was immediately hailed as a revolutionary production. A harsh depiction of the psychosexual mind games between middle-aged English professor George and his wife Martha, as well as a younger couple from the same university, the play’s acerbic language and twisted relationships was unlike anything in mainstream theatre up to that point. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? picked up the Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Best Play, and was selected for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — until the advisory board, rather than reward such objectionable material, opted not to give an award in that category at all.

Despite the play’s massive Broadway success, much-praised dialogue, and juicy roles for its four characters, its controversial elements seemed to mark Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as unfilmable. Nevertheless, film producer/writer Ernest Lehman, fresh off the success of his screenplay for The Sound of Music, insisted on keeping Albee’s frequent uses of “goddamn” and “son of a bitch” intact. Lehman was backed in this effort by the film’s leads, and Hollywood’s most notorious couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as Mike Nichols, their chosen director. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? marked Nichols’ film debut, but he was already renowned for his stage work, as well as his successful comedy partnership with Elaine May, and proved unable to be intimidated by his stars, studio, or the MPAA.

In fact, it was the previously unshakable MPAA that found itself cowed by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Its new president, Jack Valenti, had just begun his job in May 1966, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was his first major challenge. But other than a few minor edits (most notably altering Martha’s cry of “screw you” to “goddamn you”), the film was passed as it stood, shocking language, sexual themes, and all. In recognition of its controversial nature, however, Valenti invented the label SMA for the film, advising filmgoers that it was “Suggested for Mature Audiences.”

Audiences were undeterred by the MPAA’s label, turning out in droves for a film aimed squarely at adults that portrayed complex themes — or at least for the thrill of Burton and Taylor behaving naughtily. The film’s high level of artistic quality made it respectable, allowing it to combat censorship in a way that would have been unthinkable for a more exploitative movie. In fact, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became only the second (and, to date, last) movie to be nominated for an Academy Award in every category for which it was eligible. It ultimately picked up five Oscars, including Best Actress for Taylor and Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis, who played half of the younger couple alongside George Segal.

The real legacy of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, however, isn’t the awards it received, but its persistent influence on movies, both in terms of artistry and distribution. The SMA tag marked the first time the MPAA had attempted to classify a film rather than censor it outright. Along with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, released later in 1966, it spelled the end of the Production Code and inspired the creation of the MPAA film-rating system (G, R, etc) still in use today.

The film’s frank language and depiction of adult themes also ushered in an era known as the New Hollywood, with movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, and Nichols’ own The Graduate introducing a new level of maturity and artistic innovation to American cinema. How fitting that a film about the breakdown of the ‘50s myth of happy domesticity also led to an elimination of the censorship that had left American movies stuck in a nonexistent past.

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.