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From the Outside In: Elizabeth Taylor’s publicity photo for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

By Jane Robbins Mize

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

As Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Elizabeth Taylor was hateful, tragic, flirtatious, shrewd, and still beautiful enough to be considered a faded beauty. All of these qualities are apparent in this dramatic publicity photo—it is difficult to imagine many American actresses today who would allow themselves to be filmed in such a harsh and ungenerous light.

 

The first time I saw the film (adapted from the play by Edward Albee), I had never heard of the screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and the only thing I knew about Elizabeth Taylor was that she was friends with Michael Jackson. Even on my tiny TV screen, the film shocked me with its brutality and the vitriol of two couples tearing each other apart over the course of a drunken evening. I was particularly struck by Taylor’s unflinching lack of vanity in her portrayal of Martha, a role for which the luminous 34-year-old gained 30 pounds and appeared to age 20 years. Albee’s original choices for the marquee roles were Bette Davis and James Mason, but director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman fought to preserve the casting of Taylor and her then-husband Richard Burton. Lehman’s refusal to tone down the profane and explicit dialog only added to the controversy surrounding the film.

 

Ernest Lehman’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and figured prominently in the 2010 Making Movies exhibition. Lehman also had a hand in many other classic films, including the original version of Sabrina, West Side Story, The King and I, The Sound of Music, and the masterful North by Northwest, which he had written as an original story and screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock. The 2,500 items contained in the Lehman archive showcase the meticulousness of his work. We see not just screenplays but outlines and personal letters, scrapbooks, revisions of revisions, forays into journalism, photographs of Mount Rushmore (among other film locations), and a 200,000-word diary created during the making of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In addition, much of his work is handwritten, which provides a level of emotional access and authenticity for the reader that is not always afforded by typed manuscripts. Lehman’s decades-long career culminated in a 2001 honorary Academy Award (the first given to a screenwriter), but the richness of his creative process is what makes his archive a resource worth discovering.

 

Former Ransom Center volunteer Julie Liu wrote this post.

Elizabeth Taylor connections to Ransom Center holdings

By Courtney Reed

Promotional still of Elizabeth Taylor from 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
Promotional still of Elizabeth Taylor from 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

Actress Elizabeth Taylor, who died today at the age of 79, has connections to the Ransom Center holdings, ranging from the Mel Gussow collection to the Ernest Lehman collection.

The former New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow, who died in 2005, wrote Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary. His obituary, with updated contributions from other reporters, was posthumously published today in the New York Times.

The Lehman collection, consisting of more than 2500 items, spans the forty year career of the screenwriter, novelist, short story writer, journalist, motion picture producer and director. Included in the collection are scripts, correspondence, photographs and other material from the production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for which Lehman wrote the screen adaption and produced. The 1966 release of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won Elizabeth Taylor her second Academy Award for her performance as a bitter faculty wife, Martha.

As a part of the Ransom Center’s Tennessee Williams Film Series, the Ransom Center will show Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), starring Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie “the Cat” on Thursday, June 23 at 7 p.m. Included in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams is an unidentified magazine clipping titled, Liz Plays “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Though Taylor did not fit Williams’s own idea of Maggie the Cat, Taylor is praised in the article for making herself “believable as a rejected wife, determined somehow to win back her cold and hostile husband.”

Austin Film Festival screens ‘Sweet Smell of Success’

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Austin Film Festival, in partnership with the Ransom Center and Los Angeles Times’ film critic Kenneth Turan, will be screening Sweet Smell of Success (1957) at the Alamo Ritz on Friday, October 22. The Ransom Center holds screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s archive, which consists of more than 2,500 items from his personal and professional files. The collection covers Lehman’s 40-year career in New York and Hollywood not only as a screenwriter but also as a novelist, short story writer, journalist, producer, and director.

Sweet Smell of Success began as Lehman’s novella titled Tell Me About It Tomorrow, focusing on the seedy underworld of gossip columnists. Lehman was set both to write and direct the film, but the process was so stressful that he developed medical problems and had to bow out. Clifford Odets took over screenwriting duties, and Alexander MacKendrick directed. Despite the production difficulties, Sweet Smell of Success is now regarded as one of the best of the film noir genre, with Odets and Lehman sharing screenwriting credit. In 1993 Sweet Smell of Success was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Below are Lehman’s handwritten thoughts in response to director MacKendrick’s notes concerning the screenplay as of August 1956. Lehman’s two pages provide insight about why he had to leave the Sweet Smell of Success project on doctor’s orders and take “a long and work-free vacation.” Lehman ends with “I loved Tahiti.”

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Making Movies: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

By Alicia Dietrich

Page 1 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
Page 1 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962 and gained notoriety for its profanity and sexual themes. It was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but the trustees of Columbia University overruled the advisory committee and awarded no prize for drama that year. Despite the controversy, Warner Brothers acquired the film rights to the play in 1964 and recruited Hollywood’s top screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, to write and produce the movie.

Page 2 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
Page 2 of Ernest Lehman's notes about a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Click image to enlarge.
The usual procedure for adapting a play is to “open it up,” adding characters and locations to make the film more visually appealing. Lehman worked his way through several drafts of the script but eventually returned to the original play, making only a few minor changes. He was able to cast, against type, “the world’s most famous couple,” Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and he hired Mike Nichols for his first film directing job.

In spite of the scrutiny surrounding the film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became one of the highest grossing films of 1966 and earned every eligible Academy Award nomination. Yet the film’s impact reached far beyond its artistic and financial success. Despite fierce opposition, Lehman and Nichols prevailed in their fight to keep the original language of the play intact. The movie was directly responsible for the Motion Picture Association of America abandoning the old system of self-censorship and adopting the film rating system that is still in use today.

Shown here are Ernest Lehman’s notes about his meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on November 19, 1964, to discuss their roles in the film.

Making Movies: "North by Northwest"

By Alicia Dietrich

Brochure from Mount Rushmore that Ernest Lehman used in his research for North By Northwest (1959). Click image to enlarge.
Brochure from Mount Rushmore that Ernest Lehman used in his research for North By Northwest (1959). Click image to enlarge.
The Making Movies Film Series runs throughout the summer and features films that are highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition. Tonight, the Ransom Center will screen Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Throughout the series, Cultural Compass will highlight an exhibition item related to each film.

Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of masterpieces in the 1950s, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and Psycho. At the height of this remarkable run came North by Northwest, a unique marriage of Hitchcock’s trademark suspense and humor. Ernest Lehman, well known in Hollywood for adaptations such as Sabrina and The King and I, wrote the screenplay, his only original one and now widely regarded as his best.

The film follows Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, in a journey that travels “in a northwesterly direction” through New York, Michigan, South Dakota, and eventually Alaska. The plot emerged through Hitchcock and Lehman’s usual process of batting around ideas and imagining their character into impossible situations, then figuring out ways to extract him.

This brochure from Mount Rushmore National Memorial shows notes made on the cover by Lehman during his research trip. You can view a slideshow of more photos that Lehman took during this trip to the national monument.

"North by Northwest": The Chase Across Mount Rushmore

By Alicia Dietrich

Contact sheet of research photos for 'North by Northwest' taken by Ernest Lehman.
Contact sheet of research photos for 'North by Northwest' taken by Ernest Lehman.

Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of masterpieces in the 1950s including Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960). At the height of this remarkable run came North by Northwest (1959), a unique marriage of Hitchcock’s trademark suspense and humor. Ernest Lehman, well known in Hollywood for adaptations such as Sabrina (1954) and The King and I (1956), wrote the screenplay, his only original work and which is widely regarded as his best.

View a slideshow of Lehman’s photographs of Mount Rushmore from his research trip. The photographs were developed from previously unstudied negatives found in the Lehman collection.

This is just one film scene highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition tomorrow night. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman plan Hitch's final film

By Alicia Dietrich

Behind the scenes photograph of Alfred Hitchcock drawing a storyboard for 'Spellbound'; ca. 1945
Behind the scenes photograph of Alfred Hitchcock drawing a storyboard for 'Spellbound'; ca. 1945

Except for the actor, no other position in filmmaking is as much discussed or as little understood as that of the director. Directing a film requires sensitivity to the story, understanding of technical filmmaking processes, and coordination of these two skills. It also demands the ability to communicate, persuade, and shape the work of other artists and technicians working on the film.

Visit the Ransom Center’s website to listen to an audio clip of director Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman developing the storyline for what would be Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot (1976).

Film editing: How the script supervisor tracks and controls the editing process

By Alicia Dietrich

Click image to enlarge. Continuity supervisor’s copy of The Prize, 1963.
Click image to enlarge. Continuity supervisor’s copy of The Prize, 1963.

Film editing is the selection, arrangement, and combination of shots into sequences, sequences into scenes, and scenes into the final film. Editing is where a motion picture takes its final shape.

The editor controls and often enhances the emotional and narrative aspects of a motion picture. Through the selection of “takes” or alternate versions of the same shot, the placement of “cuts,” and the layering of images, sound, and music, the editor manipulates time and space, controls the pacing and rhythm of the story, shapes the actor’s performances, guides the viewer’s attention, and creates an emotional connection with the viewer. Indeed, the editor can, in some cases, effectively rewrite and redirect a motion picture.

The continuity supervisor, known as the “script clerk” in early industry parlance, records information about such details as which costumes are worn and whether or not a collar was turned up. The continuity supervisor also records the “takes” that were filmed, whether they were long or medium shots or close-ups, and any associated action—information that is especially valuable to the editor.

Shots or “takes” are recorded as vertical lines through the text of the script. The shot number is noted at each end of that line. A wavy part of the line indicates action or dialogue that takes place off screen, and notes are often written near the shot number.

In this script for The Prize (1963), we see that shot 106A is a close-up of Inger Lisa (Elke Sommer) and 106B is a close-up of Craig (Paul Newman). This part of the scene consists mostly of intercutting between these two close-ups. The cuts are numbered before each character’s lines of dialogue. Shots 106F and 106J near the bottom were panning shots of the characters’ feet. These shots were not used. Shot 106D, however, a pan from right to left following Craig into a two shot with Inger Lisa, was the shot the editor selected.

This is just one item from the “Film editing” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.