Cocktails with George and Martha: Movies, Marriage, and the Making of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

Bloomsbury. Feb. 2024. 368p. ISBN 9781635579628. $32. FILM
Gefter (Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe) skillfully assesses how Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became the 1966 Mike Nichols film that challenged many white, middle-class, Western cultural assumptions of the mid-20th century. The film is about family, deception, marriage, and loyalty, and audiences often had trouble distinguishing between the marital woes (different though they were) of the pedestrian characters George and Martha and of the glamorous stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Gefter relives the film’s taunts, dares, and one-liners, which helped end the film industry’s Hays Code. Gefter offers vignettes of all the major players: actors Taylor, Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis and producer Ernest Lehman. He delves into the verbal and conduct codes and the campy worlds of gay New York and Hollywood, which inform much of the book. Its insights include that George’s and Martha’s names are derived from the first First Couple of the United States. The book also reveals how Lehman cut the three-and-a-half-hour play by an hour for the movie adaptation.
VERDICT Multilayered and eminently revisitable (like the play and the film), Gefter’s wonderful book helps readers reevaluate vis-à-vis values prevalent half a century later.
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