From the Outside In: Elizabeth Taylor’s publicity photo for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
By Jane Robbins Mize
The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.
As Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Elizabeth Taylor was hateful, tragic, flirtatious, shrewd, and still beautiful enough to be considered a faded beauty. All of these qualities are apparent in this dramatic publicity photo—it is difficult to imagine many American actresses today who would allow themselves to be filmed in such a harsh and ungenerous light.
The first time I saw the film (adapted from the play by Edward Albee), I had never heard of the screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and the only thing I knew about Elizabeth Taylor was that she was friends with Michael Jackson. Even on my tiny TV screen, the film shocked me with its brutality and the vitriol of two couples tearing each other apart over the course of a drunken evening. I was particularly struck by Taylor’s unflinching lack of vanity in her portrayal of Martha, a role for which the luminous 34-year-old gained 30 pounds and appeared to age 20 years. Albee’s original choices for the marquee roles were Bette Davis and James Mason, but director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman fought to preserve the casting of Taylor and her then-husband Richard Burton. Lehman’s refusal to tone down the profane and explicit dialog only added to the controversy surrounding the film.
Ernest Lehman’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and figured prominently in the 2010 Making Movies exhibition. Lehman also had a hand in many other classic films, including the original version of Sabrina, West Side Story, The King and I, The Sound of Music, and the masterful North by Northwest, which he had written as an original story and screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock. The 2,500 items contained in the Lehman archive showcase the meticulousness of his work. We see not just screenplays but outlines and personal letters, scrapbooks, revisions of revisions, forays into journalism, photographs of Mount Rushmore (among other film locations), and a 200,000-word diary created during the making of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In addition, much of his work is handwritten, which provides a level of emotional access and authenticity for the reader that is not always afforded by typed manuscripts. Lehman’s decades-long career culminated in a 2001 honorary Academy Award (the first given to a screenwriter), but the richness of his creative process is what makes his archive a resource worth discovering.
Former Ransom Center volunteer Julie Liu wrote this post.