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Making Movies: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

By Alicia Dietrich

Page 1 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
Page 1 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962 and gained notoriety for its profanity and sexual themes. It was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but the trustees of Columbia University overruled the advisory committee and awarded no prize for drama that year. Despite the controversy, Warner Brothers acquired the film rights to the play in 1964 and recruited Hollywood’s top screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, to write and produce the movie.

Page 2 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
Page 2 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
The usual procedure for adapting a play is to “open it up,” adding characters and locations to make the film more visually appealing. Lehman worked his way through several drafts of the script but eventually returned to the original play, making only a few minor changes. He was able to cast, against type, “the world’s most famous couple,” Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and he hired Mike Nichols for his first film directing job.

In spite of the scrutiny surrounding the film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became one of the highest grossing films of 1966 and earned every eligible Academy Award nomination. Yet the film’s impact reached far beyond its artistic and financial success. Despite fierce opposition, Lehman and Nichols prevailed in their fight to keep the original language of the play intact. The movie was directly responsible for the Motion Picture Association of America abandoning the old system of self-censorship and adopting the film rating system that is still in use today.

Shown here are Ernest Lehman’s notes about his meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on November 19, 1964, to discuss their roles in the film.

Making Movies Film Series: "Detour"

By Alicia Dietrich

Publicity poster for 'Detour'
Publicity poster for 'Detour'

The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour

(1945), starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. Savage’s archive is housed at the Ransom Center.

Kent Adamson, who has written a biography on Ann Savage, writes about Savage’s connections to Texas and why Detour is still loved by critics.

Since its original release in 1945, Detour has become possibly the most famous and critically examined B-film of all time. In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas called Detour “one of the most relentlessly intense psychological thrillers anyone has ever filmed.” Roger Ebert in his “Great Films” series says, “It lives on, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.” In 1992, Detour was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

In a recent article by Time magazine critic Richard Corliss listing the “Top 10 Greatest Villains,” Ann Savage was one of only two women named, honored for her role as Vera. Detour was also chosen as one of Time magazine’s all-time 100 best movies.

In the public domain, Detour persists based on its own powerful strengths. That it is now considered a noir classic is due to the hard work of many people, including director Edgar G. Ulmer, co-star Tom Neal, and in large part to the fearless, unnerving performance of Ann Savage.

Ann Savage’s character, Vera, is like a dark goddess set free in the blazing California desert, the sexiest and scariest succubus ever filmed. Noir author Christa Faust describes Savage’s performance of Vera: “She was less of a constructed, conniving femme fatale than an unstoppable force of nature. Savage imbued that character with a raw, aggressive and almost masculine power that evokes the same kind of dangerous, unpredictable animal magnetism exhibited by Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill.”

Detour was shot in 28 days at the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) studio in Hollywood over the summer of 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close. Shooting began after the death of Hitler and defeat of Germany in the spring and was concluded before the surrender of Japan.

Well into her 80s, Ann Savage toured regularly to make public appearances with Detour, including an engagement at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin. Savage had spent the bulk of her early childhood in Dallas, where her parents ran a jewelry store. As a lifelong film lover, she remembered going with her parents to the movie palaces on Elm Street in Dallas. The first film she remembered attending was Valentino’s silent masterpiece, The Son of the Sheik, in 1926.

“One of my earliest memories is being taken to a gigantic palace to meet a very important king,” said Savage in 2006. “I realized years later, when I asked my mother about it, that we had gone to an ornate movie theater to see Valentino.

“The movies were silent then, and the theater was filled with beautiful music. I wanted to get up and dance for the king. When we got home from a night at the movies, I would cheer my parents up by play-acting scenes from the films.”

Making Movies: "North by Northwest"

By Alicia Dietrich

Brochure from Mount Rushmore that Ernest Lehman used in his research for North By Northwest (1959). Click image to enlarge.
Brochure from Mount Rushmore that Ernest Lehman used in his research for North By Northwest (1959). Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of masterpieces in the 1950s, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and Psycho. At the height of this remarkable run came North by Northwest, a unique marriage of Hitchcock’s trademark suspense and humor. Ernest Lehman, well known in Hollywood for adaptations such as Sabrina and The King and I, wrote the screenplay, his only original one and now widely regarded as his best.

The film follows Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, in a journey that travels “in a northwesterly direction” through New York, Michigan, South Dakota, and eventually Alaska. The plot emerged through Hitchcock and Lehman’s usual process of batting around ideas and imagining their character into impossible situations, then figuring out ways to extract him.

This brochure from Mount Rushmore National Memorial shows notes made on the cover by Lehman during his research trip. You can view a slideshow of more photos that Lehman took during this trip to the national monument.

Making Movies: "Black Narcissus"

By Alicia Dietrich

Alfred Junge's notes on design for 'Black Narcissus.' Click on the image to view larger version
Alfred Junge's notes on design for 'Black Narcissus.' Click on the image to view larger version
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), starring Deborah Kerr and David Farrar. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Arguably Britain’s greatest production designer, Alfred Junge was born in Germany and spent his teenage years working as an apprentice to a painter. At 18 he was “kissed by the muse” and began working in the theater, painting sets, designing costumes, and operating special effects. In the late 1920s he began working with British International Pictures and later Gaumont British, where he gained a reputation not only for his brilliant designs but also for his organizational skills in running a large staff of art directors and craftsmen.

Alfred Junge’s best known film work is on Black Narcissus, the story of emotional tensions among a group of Anglican nuns who try to establish a convent in the remote reaches of the Himalayas. Director Michael Powell gave Junge unusual freedom in terms of color, composition, and technique, and Junge received the Academy Award for Best Art Direction for the film in 1947. Audiences are still surprised to learn that the film was not shot on location in the Himalayas but on sound stages in England.

The notes shown here, written and drawn on a letter from Junge’s son, are believed to be the earliest notes on the design of the film. Note the comments about the colors of the costumes and the dramatic effect of the bell tower.

You can also view a previous blog post that shows a scene design that Junge created for this film. Also, view a trailer for the film.

Making Movies Film Series: Duel in the Sun

By Alicia Dietrich

'Duel In The Sun' matte painting. Click image to enlarge.
'Duel In The Sun' matte painting. Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946), starring Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

This matte painting from the David O. Selznick collection was used for the opening shot in Duel in the Sun. The camera starts at the top of the painting and tilts down while zooming in on the cactus at the bottom. This perspective accounts for the stair-step configuration at the bottom of the painting.

A conversation with playwright Kenneth Brown

By Alicia Dietrich

Kenneth Brown
Kenneth Brown
Playwright Kenneth Brown, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, introduces a screening of the documentary film Another Glorious Day tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. The film explores the history, context, and performances of the Living Theatre’s European tour of his play, The Brig (1963). A question and answer session follows.

The film is centered around a 2008 revival of The Brig, the inflammatory play that exposed the harsh realities inside a U.S. Marine prison. This documentary by Karin Kaper and Dirk Szuszies puts former Marine Kenneth H. Brown’s drama into historical perspective—and makes a case for its ongoing relevance—through powerful scenes from the recent production in Berlin and illuminating interviews with directors of the play past and present, revival cast members, and the playwright himself.

The Cultural Compass had a conversation with Brown in which he discussed The Brig, its ongoing relevance, and his archive at the Ransom Center.

Brown discusses how The Brig changed the Living Theatre’s approach to productions.

The Living Theatre’s been in existence over 40 years, and it was in existence about 15 years before The Brig was done. And before The Brig was done, they were doing Brecht and various standard radical theatrical events. They did Paul Goodman and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Brecht.

But once The Brig was done, the play, which the movie demonstrates, created the acting style and the approach to material by the company that has existed from 1963 to the present day. The whole direction of the company was re-directed by their doing The Brig. The reason being, that in order for the play to work onstage, you have 17 Marines—those are all the characters in the play—you have to make them Marines. So we had to conduct a boot camp, which went on for six weeks. By the time it was over, these guys were running ten miles and doing 60 push-ups and sit-ups, and they knew how to march, and they knew how to double-time, they knew how to half-step. They were Marines!

And that made the play absolutely riveting because it was like looking at the real thing, rather than looking at something being enacted. Because the one thing the actors said to me was, “There’s no audience in the brig. And there’s no acting in the brig because if you have to make a bed, you really have to make a bed.” There’s no making belief you’re making the bed. If some guy punches you in the stomach, he’s not really punching you, but your reaction has to be so real that it’s almost as bad as if he really punched you.

So by the time they did the play, it created this whole style and approach to material in the theater that was responsible for everything the Living Theatre did afterward. They did everything in that style and still do to this day.

Brown discusses how it feels to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.

I’m 74 years old. A few years ago—and I’m in relatively good health—I said to myself, “Well, I’m over 70, got a nice little apartment in Brooklyn overlooking the bridge, a beautiful neighborhood with the store where I did my shopping.” I had really kind of retired from life. And it was fine. I hadn’t stopped writing. I never stopped writing. I’d been writing since I was 6 years old. But I had settled on “this is it.”

And then, in 2007, Judith Molina [co-founder of The Living Theatre], who’s now 83 years old, called me and said, “We’re reviving The Brig.” I went, “I don’t believe it.”

And then it opened in 2007, and it was a bigger hit than it was the first time. And in The New York Times, we had a two-page review with pictures. Two pages! Not a column. Two pages with pictures! And then in 2008 it went on the European tour, and then Tom Staley bought the archive, and all of a sudden, I turned around, and I had been thrown back in the pool again. And that’s kind of what my feeling of my archive, of the whole process, is.

It has enlivened interest in a lot of other stuff of mine.

Brown discusses why The Brig is still relevant to today’s audiences.

The Brig has always been relevant, which is kind of amazing to me. But I guess as long as there’s war and as long as there’s a military and especially as long as one questions the ethical right to wage war and in this ridiculous nonsense in Afghanistan and Iraq—when you do a play that studies the psychology of what it is to be a Marine, how more relevant can you get? It’s going to stay relevant forever. Until there’s peace throughout the world. Then the play’s not relevant anymore because then there’s no military threat. If there’s no military threat, then the play ceases to be relevant.

Writer Angella Nazarian discusses her memoir

By Alicia Dietrich

Photo of Angella Nazarian by John Collazos.
Photo of Angella Nazarian by John Collazos.
Tonight, writer Angella Nazarian reads from Life as a Visitor, her account of fleeing Iran with her family and life as an immigrant caught between two cultures. This event, which is co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, will be webcast live. She shares the story of her memoir.

In writing my book, Life as a Visitor, I wanted to talk about the psychological and personal issues that take over the life of an 11-year-old Iranian girl when she finds herself in a new country without her parents. This book was a deeply personal tale of my journey. But an interviewer raised an interesting question last week: “Your book is a personal tale, but isn’t the personal also always political?” Anything that is related to Iran and one’s experience in the country seems to have political overtones. Many Iranian Jews did as my family did at the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1979—they fled the country, leaving their belongings and loved ones behind in a matter of days or at the most a couple of months. So tales of displacement, loss, and revolution, as personal as they may be, are embedded in the larger arena of world politics. Now once again, I see images of uprisings, protests, and violence coming out of Iran, and I am reminded of what I witnessed as a child. But this time instead of fear, I am feeling a renewed sense of hope.

Living Peter Matthiessen

By Alicia Dietrich

Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close
Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close
The Ransom Center screens Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries, the award-winning PBS documentary about the National Book Award–winning writer and environmental activist, on Monday evening at the Ransom Center. Matthiessen’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

The film will be introduced by Jeffrey Sewald, producer, writer, and director of the documentary. He writes about what it was like to work with Matthiessen on this project.

I studied his craggy face as he gazed at the screen, reviewing a rough-cut video of his story, adapted and condensed of course for television viewers and the film festival crowd. More than three years of my own life had been invested in Peter Matthiessen’s, and the thought of my bio film soon being finished left me at once elated and a little bereft. How often does one get to pick the brain and probe the heart and soul of a legend like Peter, a hero to every young man (myself included) who ever believed he had what it took to write for a living? I couldn’t help but think how lucky I had been to get to know him, and how reluctant I was to pronounce the project “completed.” After all, Peter Matthiessen, then almost 82, was still very much alive and showing no signs of wanting to pack it in.

Making films about people, especially living ones, presents both joys and challenges, and this film was no exception. It was captivating to hear Peter speak about his books and journeys, from The Snow Leopard, to Shadow Country, and from New Guinea to Nepal. Few if any people have crammed more into eight decades of life than he has. In fact, the totality of Peter Matthiessen’s written work and personal experience is something most may only dream about. Here is a man who writes both fiction and non-fiction, who married three times, fathered and adopted children, became a Zen monk, and fought the powers that be over human and civil rights. I always found it funny that all Peter asked of my personal take on his life story was “clarity.” Therein was the challenge.

When the final version of Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn last year, Peter seemed to like the film— even though he more than once chided me for taking his life far too seriously. In truth, he can be very funny and wonderful company, which I think we demonstrate on screen. But in a film that was required to clock-in at 56 minutes and 46 seconds (a PBS hour), I chose to focus on what I believe are Peter’s most important works and on how the events and circumstances of his life informed his choices and set the trajectories for his literary and spiritual quests. I still maintain that this approach was the best one. After all, Peter Matthiessen is an important body in the literary firmament. To do anything less would have been unthinkable to me.

I have been gratified by the fact that my film has been in demand on the screening circuit since it first aired nationally on PBS in April of last year. It is always interesting to note audience reactions and to meet people who have seen and appreciated my work and the work of my collaborators. Like writing, making independent films can be a rather solitary process, especially after shooting has ceased and scripting begins. I am now working on my next film, about the author and feminist Isabel Allende. But we’re still in the shooting stage, which means I’m still sociable. So come out and see me on April 12. It will be fun.

What's coming up at the Ransom Center this spring?

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center’s spring calendar is now available on the Ransom Center’s website.

Highlights include programs with visiting writers John Banville, Iain Sinclair, Peter Carey, and Kenneth Brown.

The calendar also features programming related to the spring exhibition Making Movies, including a Music from the Collections program about film music, talks by film scholars, and a summer film series showcasing films highlighted in the exhibition.

Learn more about these programs (and download a PDF of the calendar) on the Ransom Center’s public programs page. Information about live webcasts of many programs will be noted closer to the date of the events.

Isaiah Sheffer: Poe is "one of America's greatest writers"

By Alicia Dietrich

The Cultural Compass recently spoke with Isaiah Sheffer, creator of NPR’s Selected Shorts, who hosts tonight’s program “Edgar Allan Poe: Poet and Storyteller,” which will be webcast live. He shares his thoughts on Edgar Allan Poe:

“If Edgar Allan Poe had never written a poem, he would still have been one of America’s greatest writers, thanks to his wonderful short stories, and the invention of the murder mystery genre in particular. If he had never written any of his colorful and often scary short stories, he would still have been one of America’s very greatest poets. In our program at the Harry Ransom Center we’re going to try to demonstrate both sides of this unique literary artist.”

Tonight’s program also features actors René Auberjonois and Fionnula Flanagan. They will read works by Poe, including “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Black Cat,” “Alone,” “To Helen,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Sphinx,” and “The Bells.”