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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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Shout! Factory
10 Surprising Facts About Mr. Mom
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Shout! Factory

John Hughes penned the script for 1983's Mr. Mom, a comedy about a family man named Jack Butler (Micheal Keaton) who loses his job. To ensure their three kids are taken care of, his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr), goes back to work—leaving Jack to fight off a vacuum cleaner and learn why it's never a good idea to feed chili to a baby.

In 1982, Keaton turned in a star-making role in Ron Howard’s Night Shift, but Mr. Mom marked the first time he headlined a movie, and it launched his career. Hughes had written National Lampoon's Vacation, which—oddly enough—was released in theaters the weekend after Mr. Mom. But Hughes himself was still a relative unknown, as it would be another year before he entered the teen flick phase of his career, which would make him iconic.

In the meantime, Mr. Mom hit home for a lot of viewers, as the economy was on the downturn and more and more women were entering (or reentering) the workforce. But some people think that the movie's ending—which sees the couple revert to traditional gender roles—sidelined the movie's message. Still, on the 35th anniversary of its release, Mr. Mom remains an ahead-of-its-time comedy classic.

1. IT'S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

Mr. Mom producer Lauren Shuler Donner came across a funny article John Hughes had written for National Lampoon. Based on that, she contacted him and the two became friends. “One day, he was telling me that his wife had gone down to Arizona and he was in charge of the two boys and he didn’t know what he was doing,” Donner told IGN. “It was hilarious! I was on the floor laughing. He said, ‘Do you think this would make a good movie?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, this is really funny.’ So he said, ‘Well, I have about 80 pages in a drawer. Would you look at it?’ So I looked at it and I said, ‘This is great! Let’s do it!’ We kind of developed it ourselves.” In the book Movie Moguls Speak, Donner mentioned how Hughes “had never been to a grocery store, he had never operated a vacuum cleaner. John was so ignorant, that in his ignorance, he was hilarious.”

The players involved with the movie told Donner and Hughes they thought it should be a TV movie. Hughes had a TV deal with Aaron Spelling, who came aboard to executive produce. “Then the players involved were upset because John was writing out of Chicago instead of L.A.,” Donner said in Movie Moguls Speak. “They fired John and brought in a group of TV writers. In the end, John and I were muscled out. It was a good movie, but if you ever read John’s original script for Mr. Mom, it’s far better.”

2. JOHN HUGHES REJECTED THE IDEA OF DIRECTING MR. MOM.

Stan Dragoti ended up directing the film, but only after Hughes turned it down, because he preferred to make his movies in Chicago, not Hollywood. “I don’t like being around the people in the movie business,” Hughes told Roger Ebert. “In Hollywood, you spend all of your time having lunch and making deals. Everybody is trying to shoot you down. I like to get my actors out here where we can make our movies in privacy.” Hughes remained in Chicago and filmed his directorial debut, Sixteen Candles, there.

3. MICHAEL KEATON GOT THE ROLE BECAUSE OF NIGHT SHIFT.

In 1982’s Night Shift, Keaton’s character works at a morgue and starts a prostitution ring with co-worker Henry Winkler. Donner had an agent friend, Laurie Perlman, who represented the not-yet-famous actor. She contacted Donner and pitched Keaton to her. “’Look, I represent this guy who is really funny. Would you meet with him?’" Donner recalled of the conversation. "So I met with him. Usually I don’t like to do this unless we’re casting, but I met with him because she was my friend. And then she said, ‘You have to see this movie Night Shift that he’s in.’ So I went to see Night Shift, and midway through I couldn’t wait to get out of that theater to give Mr. Mom to Michael Keaton. Fortunately, he liked it."

Keaton told Grantland that he turned down one of the main roles in Splash to play Jack Butler. “I just remember at the time thinking I wanted to get away from what I’d just done on Night Shift,” he said. “I thought if I do it again, I might get myself stuck. So then Mr. Mom came along. So I said no [to Splash] so I could set up this framework right away where I could do different things.”

4. THE FILM BROKE NEW GROUND.

Teri Garr, Michael Keaton, Taliesin Jaffe, Frederick Koehler, and Martin Mull in Mr. Mom (1983)
Shout! Factory

In 1983, more women stayed at home than worked, so it was a novelty for a man to be a stay-at-home dad. Today, an estimated 1.4 million men are stay-at-home dads, and 7 million men are their children's primary caregiver. “Mr. Mom became part of the vernacular,” Donner told Newsweek. “Mr. Mom represented a segment of men who were at home dealing with the kids who, up until then, really hadn’t been heard from. That’s what really told me about the power of film, because it spoke for a lot of men. It also helped women, because I think that women sometimes, if you’re a housewife, you’re not really appreciated for what you do. This sort of made women feel better about what they did because they knew that men were understanding it.”

5. TODAY, “MR. MOM” IS CONSIDERED A PEJORATIVE TERM.

More than 30 years after the film’s release, stay-at-home dads feel the term “Mr. Mom” should die. The National At-Home Dad Network launched a campaign to terminate the phrase and instead have people refer to men as “Dad.” In 2014 Lake Superior State University voted to banish “Mr. Mom” from the lexicon.

“At least, the pop-culture image of the inept dad who wouldn’t know a diaper genie from a garbage disposal has begun to fade,” wrote The Wall Street Journal, after declaring “Mr. Mom is dead.”

6. TERI GARR DIDN’T KNOW IT WAS A MESSAGE MOVIE.

The movie redefined gender roles, but when the producers pitched the premise to Garr, they hid the plot reversal. “They just told me it was about a guy who does the work that a woman does, because it’s so easy,” she told The A.V. Club. “And I went, ‘Oh, yeah. Ha ha.’ It’s so easy. All the women I know who stay home and take care of their kids, they go, ‘Oh yeah, this is easy.’ Hmm.”

7. MARTIN MULL IMPROVISED THE “220, 221” LINE.

The quote everyone remembers from the movie comes from Jack, holding a chainsaw, standing next to Ron Richardson (Martin Mull) and discussing what kind of wiring Jack will use in renovating the house: “220, 221, whatever it takes,” Jack says.

“We’re doing the scene and it was okay,” Keaton told Esquire. “And I remember saying to the prop guy, ‘Go find me a chainsaw.’ When he comes back with it, he says, ‘You wanna wear these?’ And he holds up some goggles. I go, ‘Yeah.’ You know, they make me look crazy. And when Martin shows up, I know I should look under control, I’m not sweating it. I’m a dude. So we’re standing there, Martin pulls me aside and says, ‘You know what you ought to say? When I ask about the wiring, you oughta just deadpan: ‘220, 221.’ I died. It was perfect. I may have added ‘whatever it takes.’ But it was his.”

“That was a little ad-lib that we just threw in, but every carpenter or construction person I’ve ever worked with, they’re always quoting that line from Mr. Mom,” Mull told The A.V. Club.

8. MR. MOM OUTGROSSED HUGHES’S OTHER 1983 SUMMER MOVIE—VACATION.

Mr. Mom only opened on 126 screens on July 22, 1983, but managed to gross $947,197 during its opening weekend. Once the film went wide a month later to 1235 screens, it hit number one at the box office and spent five weeks at the top. By the end of its run, the film had grossed just shy of $65 million, making it the ninth highest-grossing film of 1983 (just between Staying Alive and Risky Business). National Lampoon’s Vacation, Hughes’s other film that summer, came out July 29 and ended its theatrical run with $61,399,552 (at its height, it showed on 1248 screens). Vacation finished the year in 11th place.

9. THE MOVIE LED TO HUGHES BEING CALLED “A PURVEYOR OF HORNY SEX COMEDIES.”

During a 1986 interview with Seventeen magazine, Molly Ringwald asked the writer-director why he never showed teen sex in Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. “In Sixteen Candles, I figured it would only be gratuitous to show Samantha and Jake in anything more than a kiss,” he said. “The kiss is the most beautiful moment. I was really amused when someone once called me a ‘purveyor of horny sex comedies.’ He listed The Breakfast Club and Mr. Mom in parentheses. I thought, ‘What kind of sex?’ Yes, in Mr. Mom there’s a baby in a bathtub and you see its bare butt.”

10. MR. MOM WAS MADE INTO A TV MOVIE AFTER ALL.

In the beginning, producers wanted Mr. Mom to be a TV movie, not a feature film. But a year after the film came out in theaters, ABC produced a TV movie called Mr. Mom, with the same characters and premise. Barry Van Dyke played Jack and Rebecca York played Caroline. A People magazine review of the movie stated: “They and their three kids are immediately likable … But it goes downhill from there as the script lobotomizes all its characters. Here’s a textbook case in how TV takes a cute idea—and a script that does have some good lines—and leeches the wit out of it.”

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Central Press/Getty Images

Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 119th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."


Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."


Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."


By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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