How She Broke the Rules
On June 10, 1966, Life magazine did one of its many cover stories on Elizabeth Taylor. Far from her usual smoldering beauty, she looked puffy, haggard, decades older than her 34 years. “Liz in a Shocker,” the headline proclaimed. “Her movie shatters the rules of censorship.”
The movie, of course, was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — a scorching drama adapted from Edward Albee’s acclaimed Broadway play. Its frank, gritty language brazenly violated the Production Code, rigid guidelines that had dictated the content of American movies since 1934. Albee’s words, however, served art, not smut, and Ernest Lehman, the movie’s screenwriter-producer, saw no way to modify them without gutting the play. Mike Nichols, the film’s director, concurred. So Lehman decided to challenge the Code — a bold act compared to what had been required of him on his previous stage-to-screen project, The Sound of Music.
Taylor and her husband, Richard Burton, had a lot riding on the picture. Success as Martha, Albee’s foul-mouthed harridan, would grant Taylor what she had long craved: credibility as an actress. She made sacrifices — gaining pounds and lowering her voice until, per Nichols’ coaching, she could “bray.” Burton, as Martha’s husband George, donned “full-length drab.” Most astonishing, though, Hollywood’s highest-paid couple voluntarily took a financial hit. When shooting overran the schedule by 35 days, they declined to ask for overtime — saving the production about $1 million.
With the Burtons aboard, Virginia Woolf could not be dismissed as an art house trifle. It was big box office — a perfect test case to go up against the Code.
In a way, Taylor’s whole life had led to that moment. Even in her first big film, National Velvet, she had nettled the censors, who sought to hide her blossoming sexuality. “Please omit the action of Velvet tapping her chest and the line ‘I am flat as a boy,’ ” the Code Office ordered, and the movie did. Nor could Taylor be shown in a locker room with “semi-nude jockeys.” If the scene “is to be retained at all,” the memo continued, “all concerned will have to be fully clothed.” (In the final film, a few jockeys do, however, change their shirts.)
The Code might seem like an antiquated joke today, but in its heyday, the censors wielded great power, largely through financial blackmail. They had seized control during the Great Depression by threatening an organized Roman Catholic boycott of all movies — which no studio then could survive. In response, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America set up the Code Office, also known as the Hays Office, after Will Hays, the former U.S. postmaster general who became MPPDA president in 1922.
The Code wasn’t just about sex. It had a racist component, forbidding the depiction of interracial couples. And it demanded reverence for religion and government; improper display of the U.S. flag was as severe an infraction as sodomy.
Until 1960, Taylor was a contract player with MGM, meaning that she had to take the roles MGM offered. But her best films from that time were made for other studios — projects she chose, with MGM’s permission. These were not sweet, quaint movies; they were daring projects with themes forbidden by the Code: A Place in the Sun (1951) deals with pregnancy out of wedlock and includes references to abortion; Giant (1956) addresses miscegenation; Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) hinges on homosexuality and cannibalism.
Although the Hays office was nominally secular, its chief enforcer, Joseph Breen, was a fanatical lay Catholic. The Code itself was written by Catholics: Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest, and Martin Quigley, editor of an obscure Midwestern movie magazine. Even off-camera, Taylor was a pet target for the Catholic censors — particularly in 1962, when she left her then-husband Eddie Fisher for Burton and the Vatican accused her of “erotic vagrancy.”
Taylor’s ability to convey intensity, especially sexual intensity, helped courageous directors get around the letter of the law. The censors held sway over scripts, but some films communicated much more onscreen than in writing because of all the nonverbal things Taylor expressed. In A Place in the Sun, a working-class man (Montgomery Clift) impregnates a co-worker (Shelley Winters) before falling in love with the boss’ daughter (Taylor). Not with the daughter’s money, but with her — and thanks to Taylor’s ability to convey simmering passion, the audience believes this. Clift and Taylor embrace, filling the screen. She whispers a line that director George Stevens ad-libbed: “Tell Mama. Tell Mama all.” The line would have seemed inane on paper, but as spoken by Taylor, it touches us. Taylor’s voice overrides our prefrontal cortex. She speaks directly to our ancient aft-brain, our amygdala: the repository of love, hate, fear and lust.
When Clift’s character is tried for murdering the pregnant mistress, we understand his complex feelings about her pregnancy. This distinguishes us from the censors. “We cannot accept any suggestion of the subject of abortion,” Breen repeatedly instructed.
Not all of Taylor’s directors were brave enough to fight the Code. Richard Brooks, for example, blithely bowdlerized Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by eliminating the homosexuality of its male lead, played by Paul Newman. In the play, Newman’s character refuses to sleep with his wife because he is gay. In the movie, he refuses for no coherent reason. Taylor turns in a fantastic performance as the wife, but it cannot overcome the illogical plot.
She didn’t want to make Butterfield 8, but her MGM contract demanded it (instead, she wanted to film Cleopatra for 20th Century Fox at 10 times her MGM fee). Yet Taylor breathed life into her defiant character, Gloria Wandrous, who was sexually liberated before society permitted this for women. She was a misogynist’s nightmare: so sexy that men could not resist her, yet picky about her partners. She had the impunity to say no to gross men — no matter how much money they offered — and to say no to marriage.
Geoffrey Shurlock, who had replaced the retired Breen at the Hays Office, was tempted to nix the entire project, until he came up with two ways to make Gloria comply with the Code: Attribute her independence to a mental illness and punish her for it hideously — with death. “She might have been a great woman,” Shurlock’s assistant wrote in a memo, “if it were not for the fact that she is a sick one.”
The script adhered to Shurlock’s notes, but Taylor’s performance subverted what the censors had intended, searing bad-girl Gloria into our collective memory. When people think of Butterfield 8, they generally recall two scenes, both from the first part of the film, when Gloria is proud and strong. In one, Taylor energetically scrawls “No sale!” on a mirror in her married lover’s Upper East Side apartment. In the other, she impales his instep with her stiletto heel, showing that she, not he, holds the power in their relationship.
In contrast, Taylor sleepwalks through the second part of the film, when Gloria has supposedly recanted. Whether by accident or on purpose, she appears dull, inert, forgettable.
“In the last century, issues between good and evil were much more clearly drawn,” Shurlock pontificated in a letter on why he approved Butterfield 8, calling it a moral tale like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.“In both these novels, the adulteresses died horribly,” he noted with glee. Flaubert and Tolstoy, he added, “would have been scandalized” by the lighthearted treatment of prostitution in Never on Sunday (a foreign film released the same year over which his office had no control).
Unfortunately, the more Shurlock wrote, the more he betrayed his ignorance. Flaubert was, in fact, an outspoken fan of sex for money, and his novel criticized the society that destroyed Emma Bovary, not the woman herself. “I love prostitution,” he famously declared, “and for itself, too, quite apart from its carnal aspects.”
Taylor didn’t phone in any scenes in Virginia Woolf, especially not the drunken frug with co-star George Segal, which Lehman feared would make the censors apoplectic. But he could not change course. “Disguising profanity with clean but suggestive phrases is really dirtier,” Nichols told Life. So he had shot no “covering” material — scenes in which the language had been softened or the dancing sanitized.
Warner Bros. kept the picture under tight wraps while strategizing for its release. Fearing the financial impact of a condemnation by the Catholics, it first courted the Legion of Decency (now the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures). To avoid imposing an unpopular directive on its already rebellious flock, the Legion recruited 81 college-educated volunteers to watch the movie and advise them. All but a handful saw redeeming value. Having discerned which way the wind was blowing, the Legion signed off on the movie, but only for “mature” adults.
Things went less well with Shurlock. When Warners sent the script to his office, it received a five-page list of words and phrases that needed to be cut. They included “goddam,” “screw you,” “bugger,” “plowing pertinent wives,” “hump the hostess” and “mount her like a goddam dog.” Nor did Shurlock bend when he saw the movie. “I could not give it the seal with that language. I’m throwing it to Jack Valenti,” he said. Valenti, a former aide to President Johnson, was the new president of the MPAA. He himself couldn’t overrule Shurlock, but the Production Code Review Board — an 11-member committee on which he sat — could. And it did, killing the Code in the process.
As an alternative, Valenti in 1968 introduced a new way of handling “mature” subject matter: a rating system that put the onus on exhibitors to bar people younger than 18 from watching certain movies. The rating system remains in place.
When the film opened in July, Taylor’s bravery was at last rewarded. Stout, potty-mouthed and shamelessly adulterous, Taylor’s Martha riveted audiences. She was a volcano of distilled rage, emitting coarse animal sounds and guttural taunts.
“The famous problem of the movie’s frank language turns out to be no problem at all,” critic Richard Schickel observed at the time. “There is too much genuine excitement present for one even to pay any attention to the four-letter words. I was hardly conscious of their presence.”
In her portrayal of Martha, Taylor exacts revenge for 32 years of censorship. The Code ordered women to revere marriage and authority. Martha spits at the men around her, curling her lip in contempt: “I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops.” The Code expected women to appear demure. Famished after having to eat daintily in public, Martha shoves an entire chicken leg into her mouth. Martha was everywoman trapped in a disappointing marriage.
Immersed in this dangerous role, Taylor showed Hollywood that audiences could survive an encounter with the truth. In fact, they hungered for it. They didn’t need a Code to shield them from a mirror of themselves.
“I’m loud, and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in this house because somebody has to,” Martha shrieks. “But I’m not a monster.”
M.G. Lord is the author of The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice, forthcoming from Walker/Bloomsbury USA. She teaches in the master of professional writing program at USC.