Making Movies with Liz Taylor | Performing Arts

Dive into Elizabeth Taylor’s filmography with these books about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Cleopatra.

Gefter, Philip. 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.—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr.

Humphries, Patrick. Cleopatra and the Undoing of Hollywood: How One Film Almost Sunk the Studios. The History Pr. Apr. 2024. 240p. ISBN 9781803990187. $32.99. FILM

Humphries (Rolling Stones 69) recounts the troubled production of 1963’s Cleopatra in this gossipy book filled with insights into the extravagant final days of Hollywood’s studio system. Originally budgeted at $2 million by 20th Century Fox, the grandiose historical epic ended up costing a whopping $44 million ($320 million today), thanks to an unfinished script, endless delays, and a relocation from London’s rain-soaked Pinewood Studios to sunny Rome after two months of fruitless filming. Humphries devotes much of his account to the scandalous affair between Cleopatra stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, noting how the production’s infamy—which fueled the rise of the paparazzi—was the one factor studio execs hoped would draw in audiences and counteract the production’s bad luck. He places the blame squarely on 20th Century Fox by showing how the growing popularity of TV and a misguided belief in the power of spectacle led executives to risk the studio’s survival on a genre of film that was wearing out its welcome. Some of the book’s points are belabored, and the narrative jumps in time, which may be off-putting to readers. VERDICT Film historians and Cleopatra aficionados will enjoy the book’s many juicy details, but expect repetition.—Sara Shreve

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