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14 Poetic Facts About Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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It’s been 50 years since one of America’s most famous married couples, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, played one of cinema’s most unhappy married couples in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Half a century has passed, and yet very little about their contentious relationship or their interaction with the hapless younger couple they’ve invited over for drinks feels dated. Caustic, bitter misery, it seems, is timeless. Directed by Mike Nichols and adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s play, the film still crackles with witty (and sometimes cruel) dialogue and heartbreaking pathos. Here are some behind-the-scenes facts to help you appreciate it all the more.

1. IT HOLDS A SPECIAL PLACE IN OSCAR HISTORY.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of only two films (so far) to get Oscar nominations in every single category it was eligible for: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Sound, Score, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design. (It won five of them, which isn’t a record at all.) The other film to achieve this feat was Cimarron (1931), but things were different then: there were only nine categories that year, seven of which applied to Cimarron.

2. MAKE THAT TWO SPECIAL PLACES IN OSCAR HISTORY.

It was the first film to have 100 percent of its credited cast—all four of ‘em—be nominated for Oscars. That feat has since been duplicated by the two-person drama Sleuth (1972) and Give ‘em Hell, Harry! (1975), James Whitmore’s one-man show about Harry S. Truman.

3. THE PLAY WAS CONSIDERED “UNFILMABLE.” JACK WARNER PAID $500,000 FOR IT ANYWAY.

The last of the original Warner brothers had wanted the movie rights to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ever since he saw the play on opening night on Broadway on October 13, 1962. Most of Hollywood, however, assumed that regardless of the play’s popularity, its profanity and sexual frankness made it unfilmable. It was screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest) who convinced Warner it could be done. Warner must have been thoroughly convinced, because in March 1964, he paid playwright Edward Albee $500,000 for the movie rights, plus 10 percent of the gross after the film earned $6 million.

4. JACK WARNER ORIGINALLY WANTED IT TO STAR BETTE DAVIS AND JAMES MASON

Bette Davis and James Mason, both in their late 50s, were the right age for the roles, and Albee was particularly delighted by the prospect of Davis playing Martha, who quotes a Bette Davis movie (“What a dump!”) in the first scene. (The line is from 1949’s Beyond the Forest.) But even if they could get the script past the censors, the dark, dialogue-heavy film was going to be a tough sell to audiences. Lehman, acting as producer as well as screenwriter, told Warner they needed bigger stars and suggested Elizabeth Taylor.

5. HENRY FONDA’S AGENT WOULDN’T EVEN SHOW HIM THE PLAY.

Henry Fonda was one of the names suggested when Warner and Lehman were still making casting considerations. But to give you an idea of how controversial Albee’s dialogue was for the early 1960s, Fonda’s agent wouldn’t even give a copy of the script to his client.

6. ELIZABETH TAYLOR HAD TO BE TALKED—AND BOUGHT—INTO IT.

Taylor certainly had the right star power to fuel a box office hit, but as a beautiful woman in her early 30s, she was all wrong to play a bitter, middle-aged harridan. She said as much when Lehman approached her, but was convinced by Burton, her then-husband, to take the role as a challenge. She also took a $500,000 salary plus 10 percent of the gross—the same deal the playwright got. (Burton got a flat $750,000.) She wanted Burton to star in it with her, even though many thought he was too strong-willed to play the spineless George.

7. THE PLAYWRIGHT APPROVED OF THE CASTING ... EVENTUALLY.

“I was a little upset by the casting,” Albee said on the 40th anniversary DVD. “I understood the commercial reasons behind it. I mean, Elizabeth and Richard were getting married and divorced a lot, and yelling at each other a great deal. So I suppose they thought it was perfect casting, even though Elizabeth was 20 years too young for the role and Richard was about five years too old.” Albee came around when he saw the actors’ dedication to their performances, though he always said a Davis/Mason version would have been “deeper.”

8. MIKE NICHOLS GOT THE DIRECTING JOB BECAUSE HE HAD SHARED AN ALLEY WITH RICHARD BURTON.

Mike Nichols, also in his early 30s at the time, was an acclaimed comedy performer and theater director who’d never made a movie. He knew Liz and Dick from his time performing with Elaine May on Broadway—their theater shared an alley with the one where Burton was doing Camelot—and had vacationed in Rome with them. The Burtons wanted someone young to direct the movie, and they had veto power, so Jack Warner had little choice but to accept their recommendation. (Lehman, who was the driving force behind the movie the whole way, trusted that Liz and Dick trusted Nichols.)

9. JOHN FRANKENHEIMER AND FRED ZINNEMANN WERE ALSO CONSIDERED AS DIRECTORS.

John Frankenheimer had made Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and would make Seconds (1966) and Grand Prix (1966) during the time Nichols was making Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (It’s not clear whether he was actually approached or just considered.) Fred Zinnemann, who’d directed High Noon (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), and Oklahoma! (1955), was offered Virginia Woolf but turned it down to make A Man for All Seasons (1966)—which ended up being Virginia’s main competition at the Oscars.

10. THEY HAD TO MAKE A CHANGE TO AVOID RUNNING AFOUL OF DISNEY.

The title is a play on “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?,” a song from the 1933 animated Disney short The Three Little Pigs. But when Martha sings it, she uses the tune from the nursery rhyme “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.” Why? Because nursery rhymes, unlike Disney songs, are in the public domain and can be performed in movies without having to get permission or pay royalties. (Most productions of the stage play take the same route.)

11. IT WAS SHOT IN BLACK AND WHITE TO MAKE EVERYBODY LOOK WORSE.

Nichols was adamant on this point, even though most Hollywood films were in color by this time. For one thing, the makeup used to add 15 years to Taylor’s age showed up better in black and white, and she and Burton both looked wearier and more haggard in gray tones than in Technicolor. For another thing, Nichols felt color would make the film too literal, too real-world. He wanted it to be stylized and somewhat abstract. At the time (and thanks largely to Albee’s and the Burtons’ salaries), it was the most expensive black-and-white film ever produced, costing some $7 million. It made $10.3 million at the box office.

12. THE OSCAR-WINNING CINEMATOGRAPHER WAS A LAST-MINUTE REPLACEMENT.

Harry Stradling, Sr. was a talented and acclaimed cinematographer (he’d won two Oscars already) who nonetheless proved wrong for the task at hand and was fired. The reasons for this vary depending on the source. Nichols said it was because of his suggestion on how to get the right look: shoot it in color, then print it in black and white. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry you said that. I have to fire you now,’” said Nichols. But other sources say Stradling was let go because his work was too flattering on Taylor—he just couldn’t make her look dowdy enough. Whatever the reason, he was replaced by Haskell Wexler, who won his first Oscar for his work on the film.

13. IT LED TO THE MOVIE RATING SYSTEM THAT WE HAVE NOW.

In 1966, Jack Valenti had just taken over as head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and he was already convinced that the MPAA’s Production Code needed to be overhauled, if not abolished. The Production Code was an old set of rules that had been applied to movies since the mid-1930s, dictating, for example, that even married couples couldn’t be shown sharing a bed; no one could use profanity; crime and immorality must be punished; and so forth. As America’s standards changed and Hollywood’s filmmakers grew more adventurous, it was becoming clear that the old-fashioned system—where a movie was either approved for all audiences or not approved for any of them—wasn’t going to work anymore. Valenti’s experience negotiating the finer points of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (see below), soon followed by the controversy of full-front nudity in Blow-Up, made him actively pursue a new system where movies would be rated according to the audience for which they were appropriate. It went into effect in 1968 and, with a few alterations over the years, is still in place today.

14. THE LANGUAGE CAUSED MANY HEADACHES AND CAREFUL NEGOTIATIONS.

To hear people talk about it, you’d think the characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? swore like Scorsese characters. But the language that was so controversial in the 1960s would barely get a PG-13 rating today. (The play didn’t even use the F-word, though Albee has since revised it so that it does.) Still, when audiences were accustomed to movies using no profanity, even light imprecations were shocking. Valenti and the MPAA board met with Jack Warner to discuss two specific phrases in the film: “hump the hostess” and “screw you.” (If you see a production of the play now, that second phrase will be the one with the F-word in it.) No one had ever used either of those verbs in that context in a major Hollywood film before. After three hours of discussion, it was decided that “screw you” would be replaced by “goddamn you” (it’s a mystery why this was considered less objectionable), while “hump the hostess” remained intact.

Additional sources:
DVD commentary and features
Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, by Mel Gussow

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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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