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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.

The "Dawn" of FX

By Jennifer Tisdale

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The Ransom Center’s exhibition Making Movies explores the collaborative processes that take place behind the scenes in filmmaking.  For another two weeks, visitors have the opportunity to see original materials from the Center’s film collections in the exhibition, which demonstrates the responsibilities of those involved in films, ranging from the producer to the special effects designer.

One portion of the special effects section highlights special effects techniques devised by Norman Dawn (1886–1975) in cinema’s earliest years. Dawn was a little-known yet historically significant early special effects cinematographer, inventor, artist, and motion picture director, writer, and producer. He worked with several important film pioneers, including Mack Sennett, Carl Laemmle, Irving Thalberg, and Erich von Stroheim.

The Dawn collection at the Ransom Center consists of 164 display cards that illustrate over 230 of the 861 special effects that Dawn created in more than 80 movies.  Each display card documents one of his special effects, most often a refinement or improvement of a matte shot process. Information about Dawn’s experiences working with various studios and managers such as Universal’s William Sistrom and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (MGM) Louis B. Mayer are also noted.

The display cards could easily be interpreted and viewed as pieces of art, assembled and constructed personally from Dawn’s own field notebooks and methodical records.

The cards contain original oil, watercolor, pencil, and ink sketches used to sell the effects to skeptical film executives and directors; production and personal photographs; detailed camera records; film clips and frame enlargements; movie reviews, advertisements, and other trade press clippings; explanatory texts and recent sketches to illustrate his methods; and pages from an unpublished autobiography.

Norman Dawn's special effect card for 'Master of Women'
Norman Dawn's special effect card for 'Master of Women'

Costumes reveal character revelations

By Jennifer Tisdale

As the Making Movies exhibition demonstrates, a costume can reveal much about a film character. For example, a character’s social and economic class can be represented through the style and quality of her or his clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. Clothing also exposes a character’s unique personality traits and self-image. Steve Wilson, the Ransom Center’s Associate Curator of Film, talks about Robert De Niro’s costume in Taxi Driver, and how it supports and enhances the interpretation of the character Travis Bickle.

Film curator discusses "Making Movies" exhibition

By Jennifer Tisdale

Associate Curator of Film Steve Wilson elaborates about Making Movies, an exhibition that focuses on the artistic collaboration that is unique to the medium. Wilson shares how the Ransom Center’s holdings document the history of the motion picture industry to illustrate the highly collaborative nature of the movie-making process.