'Cocktails with George and Martha' review: Gefter revisits 'Virginia Woolf' Philip Gefter's Cocktails with George and Martha traces the evolution of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — from Broadway sensation, to Oscar-winning film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

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Dishy-yet-earnest, 'Cocktails' revisits the making of 'Virginia Woolf'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new book "Cocktails With George And Martha," writer Philip Gefter tells the story surrounding Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," from its days as a Broadway sensation through the making of the film version with megastars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton through its afterlife in American culture. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says it's a very smart and entertaining book that got him thinking about how this once-controversial play seems today.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: There are some titles that stick in your head forever. One of the most indelible is "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?," a witticism that Edward Albee saw scrawled on the mirror of a Greenwich Village bar and appropriated for his groundbreaking 1962 play. Albee couldn't have dreamed that 60 years on, people would use the title as a shorthand to describe fractious marriages, boozy arguments and parties gone terribly wrong.

Albee's play, and the 1966 movie adaptation with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, are the subject of Philip Gefter's dishy-yet-earnest new book, "Cocktails With George And Martha: Movies, Marriage, And The Making Of 'Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?'" Moving from the origins of the play in Albee's unhappy childhood to the shark tank that was the film's production, with Taylor, Burton and director Mike Nichols all flashing their teeth, Gefter shows why "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" hit the '60s like a torpedo. His book got me to thinking about how it looks in 2024.

As you probably know, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" portrays a late-night battle royale between a floundering professor, George, and his frustrated wife Martha, the daughter of the university president. Martha has invited over for drinks an ambitious young professor, Nick, and his dippy wife Honey. Over two-plus hours of industrial-level boozing, the loudmouth Martha and venomously witty George go after one another, and their unlucky guests - with stinging barbs and cruel revelations. Here, after George plays a vicious game with his guests during a quick trip to a roadhouse, he and Martha argue as they walk back to their car.

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RICHARD BURTON: (As George) Oh, baby, I did it all for you. I thought you'd like it, sweetheart. It's to your taste, blood, carnage and all. I thought you'd sort of get excited, sort of heave and pant and come running at me.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: (As Martha) You have really screwed up, George.

BURTON: (As George) Oh, come on, Martha.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) I mean it. You really have.

BURTON: (As George) You can sit around with a gin running out of your mouth, you can humiliate me, you can tear me to pieces all night. That's perfectly OK. That's all right.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) You can stand it.

BURTON: (As George) I cannot stand it.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) You can stand it. You married me for it.

BURTON: (As George) That's a desperately sick lie.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) Don't you know it even yet?

POWERS: Now, as Gefter makes clear, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" took aim at postwar America's idealized vision of marriage, in which fathers knew best and wives just loved being mothers and helpmates. Albee depicted marital unhappiness in all its rancor and often perverse fantasy, like George and Martha's imaginary child, that hold people together. Its ferocious candor shifted the cultural terrain, paving the way for everything from Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage" to Tony and Carmela Soprano. Yet, if you view "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" now, it feels dated and almost innocent. George and Martha were shocking creations in their day because Albee was showing audiences what Broadway and Hollywood kept hidden.

These days, nothing's hidden. Real life couples sign up to flaunt their toxicity in TV series from "Real Housewives" to "Keeping Up With The Kardashians." Where Albee searched for meaning inside his characters' sensationally bad behavior, reality TV settles for the sensational. Who cares what it might mean? What feels most contemporary about "Virginia Woolf" is the way it piggybacked on celebrity. Liz and Dick, as they were known, landed the lead movie roles even though she had to put on 20 pounds and 20 years to play Martha. No matter. Ever since their affair on the set of "Cleopatra," they were hot. A paparazzi magnet who jetted from posh Parisian hotels off to Mexico. They made Puerto Vallarta famous.

The world knew about their drinking, their passionate sex - she called him her little Welsh stallion - and their rip-roaring fights. Naturally, their fame, willfulness and self-absorption made them hard to handle on the set. Their stardom also made the movie a hit. In the end, Burton gave a terrific performance and Taylor did better than expected, even winning an Oscar. Still, it's eerie watching them today. Their roles seem to predict the future in which they became the target of jokes. The once legendary beauty being mocked as a chubby, chicken-scarfing fool by John Belushi in drag while Burton sank ever deeper into the persona of a drunken, self-hating cautionary tale about wasting one's talent. Sad to say, we live in a culture bored by ordinary people.

Liz and Dick were the prototypes of the parade of celebrity couples who now dominate public consciousness. Their stardom heightens the movie's profile, the way Princess Di and Charles elevated the dreary British monarchy. Even the Super Bowl had a special tang this year because of Travis Kelce and that other, less ravishing but far more talented Taylor, who's also known for her string of exes. "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" is a great play, and Gefter is a good writer, but if the movie had cast its original Broadway stars Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, I wouldn't be here talking about it.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed "Cocktails With George And Martha: Movies, Marriage, And The Making Of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Busy Philipps, a star of the new movie musical adaptation of Tina Fey's "Mean Girls." And she's in the streaming series "Girls5eva," about a girl group that reunites decades after their one hit. Phillips' first big role was in the series "Freaks And Geeks." In her best-selling memoir, she's written about misogyny she's faced in Hollywood and in her personal life. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

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