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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.”


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.)


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.


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. Writer Edward Albee saw the title in a Greenwich Village bathroom.

The inspiration for the play's title came from an unlikely source—a bar bathroom in Greenwich Village. One night in 1953 or '54, playwright Edward Albee walked into the bathroom and saw the message "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" written on the mirror. In an interview with The Paris Review, he said the message—which he called a “typical university, intellectual joke” about being afraid of “living life without false illusions"—later popped into his mind while drafting the play.


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.


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.


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.


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

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It


When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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12 Smart and Simple Kitchen Hacks

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Merlas/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Use these quick and simple tricks to save time in the kitchen and make cooking easier—and safer.

1. Put a damp paper towel under your cutting board.

Take a paper towel, wet it, wring it out, and place it under your cutting board. This will keep the board from slipping all over your counter and allow you to cut more safely. You can put a damp paper towel under mixing bowls to keep them from sliding around, too.

2. Use cooking spray on your cheese grater.

A person using a cheese grater
Whichever way you have your grater positioned, a little cooking spray will make the job easier.
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Before you start grating cheese, lay your grater down on its side, which keeps it from moving around and catches all of your cheese in once place. Then spray the surface with the cooking spray of your choice. The oil lubricates the surface and makes grating easier, especially for sticky cheeses.

3. Put felt glides under countertop appliances.

Not only will this save your countertops from getting scratched, but it also makes oft-used appliances easier to move when you need them.

4. Put a spoon on top of boiling pasta water.

A person holding a spoon with penne pasta over a pot of boiling water.
Foam be gone!
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Does the foam of your starchy pasta water boil right up out of the pot? There’s a simple fix: Lay a metal or wooden spoon over the top of the pot. According to Gizmodo, this method works because the foam is “thermodynamically unstable," so when the foam’s bubbles reach the spoon, they burst, "breaking the layer of foam and sending all the bubbles collapsing down again.” If you opt for metal, though, make sure to use oven mitts to remove it from the top of the pot—it will be hot.

5. Keep dental floss handy.

You can use it to cut soft cheeses. “If the cheese is small, you can hold it in one hand while your other pulls the floss taught and does the cutting,” cheesemonger Nora Singley writes at The Kitchn. “For larger situations, place cheese on a surface, shimmy the floss beneath it, and simply slice up, holding both ends of the floss and crossing the two ends to complete the cut. Then repeat in equal intervals.”

You can also use non-minty dental floss to cut cookie dough, burritos, and hard-boiled eggs; slice melons and layers of cake; to tie things together; and get food unstuck from baking sheets.

6. Preheat your baking sheet.

A baking sheet in the oven.
Pre-heating your baking sheet saves time.
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If you’re making something like French fries or roasted veggies and your baking sheet is hot right from the get-go, you won’t have to go through the process of flipping your food later. Plus, both side of your food will be evenly browned and cook faster.

7. Save burnt pans with a dryer sheet.

Have you charred a pan so badly that the food you're trying to cook essentially became a part of the pan? Before you throw the pan out, try tossing in a dryer sheet, adding warm water, and letting it soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Then wash with soap and water as usual, and the burned bits will come right off. Karen Lo at Food52 writes that “It feels like an absolute miracle—because it is. But, according to lifestyle reporter Anna De Souza, it’s also ‘likely the conditioning properties of the dryer sheet’ that do the trick.” If the burn is really bad, Lo says you can use two dryer sheets and hot water for severe cases if you’d like, and let it soak overnight—use your judgment.

8. Leave the root end on your onion when cutting it.

A person holding an onion by the root end and dicing an onion with a knife.
Leaving the root end of your onion on gives you something to hold onto while you're dicing.
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This method is a game changer: It allows you to dice your onions safely and quickly. First, according to Real Simple, you should cut the top off of the onion; then lay the onion on the now-flat top and cut the vegetable in half through the root. Next, peel off the skin, being careful to leave the root attached. Take half of the onion and lay it, flat side down, on the cutting board. Holding on to the root end, slice the onion vertically in strips of your desired size, without cutting through to the root. Then slice in the opposite direction to dice. When you’re done, save the root end of the onion to make stock.

9. Use a Bundt pan when cutting corn.

When you’re cutting corn on a flat surface, the kernels tend to fly everywhere messily. But if you hold the ear of corn—pointy end down—on the center of a Bundt cake pan, then rotate as you cut, the kernels will fall neatly into the pan.

10. Put away your potato peeler and use this method instead.

A pot of boiling water with potatoes.
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Peeling potatoes is time-consuming and wastes delicious potato. Instead, use this potato peeling hack from Foody Tube: Make a small cut into the skin around the circumference of the potato, then boil it. Once the potato is cooked, peel the skin off. It’s that easy.

11. Keep your plastic wrap in the fridge.

When it’s cold, plastic wrap is easier to handle and less likely to get stuck to itself.

If getting plastic wrap to stick is the issue, wet the rim of whatever you’re trying to cover before putting on the plastic. The water will help it cling to the surface.

12. Use magnets to hold down parchment paper.

Two rolls of parchment paper on a white surface.
Keep parchment paper from rolling up on your baking sheet with this clever trick.
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To keep parchment paper from rolling up on baking sheets—and therefore making it incredibly difficult actually to put anything on the sheet to cook—Le Cordon Bleu-educated pastry chef Amy Dieschbourg uses magnets to hold the paper in place. Once everything is on the paper, remove the magnets and get cooking.