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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.

Elizabeth Taylor connections to Ransom Center holdings

By Courtney Reed

Promotional still of Elizabeth Taylor from 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
Promotional still of Elizabeth Taylor from 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

Actress Elizabeth Taylor, who died today at the age of 79, has connections to the Ransom Center holdings, ranging from the Mel Gussow collection to the Ernest Lehman collection.

The former New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow, who died in 2005, wrote Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary. His obituary, with updated contributions from other reporters, was posthumously published today in the New York Times.

The Lehman collection, consisting of more than 2500 items, spans the forty year career of the screenwriter, novelist, short story writer, journalist, motion picture producer and director. Included in the collection are scripts, correspondence, photographs and other material from the production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for which Lehman wrote the screen adaption and produced. The 1966 release of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won Elizabeth Taylor her second Academy Award for her performance as a bitter faculty wife, Martha.

As a part of the Ransom Center’s Tennessee Williams Film Series, the Ransom Center will show Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), starring Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie “the Cat” on Thursday, June 23 at 7 p.m. Included in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams is an unidentified magazine clipping titled, Liz Plays “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Though Taylor did not fit Williams’s own idea of Maggie the Cat, Taylor is praised in the article for making herself “believable as a rejected wife, determined somehow to win back her cold and hostile husband.”

Austin Film Festival screens ‘Sweet Smell of Success’

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Austin Film Festival, in partnership with the Ransom Center and Los Angeles Times’ film critic Kenneth Turan, will be screening Sweet Smell of Success (1957) at the Alamo Ritz on Friday, October 22. The Ransom Center holds screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s archive, which consists of more than 2,500 items from his personal and professional files. The collection covers Lehman’s 40-year career in New York and Hollywood not only as a screenwriter but also as a novelist, short story writer, journalist, producer, and director.

Sweet Smell of Success began as Lehman’s novella titled Tell Me About It Tomorrow, focusing on the seedy underworld of gossip columnists. Lehman was set both to write and direct the film, but the process was so stressful that he developed medical problems and had to bow out. Clifford Odets took over screenwriting duties, and Alexander MacKendrick directed. Despite the production difficulties, Sweet Smell of Success is now regarded as one of the best of the film noir genre, with Odets and Lehman sharing screenwriting credit. In 1993 Sweet Smell of Success was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Below are Lehman’s handwritten thoughts in response to director MacKendrick’s notes concerning the screenplay as of August 1956. Lehman’s two pages provide insight about why he had to leave the Sweet Smell of Success project on doctor’s orders and take “a long and work-free vacation.” Lehman ends with “I loved Tahiti.”


Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.


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.