Wednesday, September 19, 2018


“He is the greatest actor I have ever seen,” commented a tearful George Segal, regarding Richard Burton’s performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). “People mention Brando, but there’s never a false moment in Richard’s performance.” Foster Hirsch interviewed Segal after a screening of the film at the Aero Theatre on August 5, 2018. Segal added that he had seen Burton’s Hamlet on stage and, for the first time, understood the character.

Photo by Sasha Lebedeva
“I can’t believe I’m still here,” smiled Segal, the only surviving actor from the film, after the applause from his standing ovation quieted down. All four actors - Segal, Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sandy Dennis - received Oscar nominations for their performances, with Taylor and Dennis winning. The film is one of only two in history that was nominated for every Academy Award for which it was eligible (the other being Cimarron). Hirsch described Virginia Woolf as an American masterpiece.

The film was Mike Nichols' first. Prior to Virginia Woolf, he had directed stage plays exclusively. When Hirsch asked Segal if he was at all aware that it was Nichols’ first film, Segal gave a one-word response: “Totally.”

Nichols was so smart, Segal sensed that he was always in the presence of impeccable taste. The film was more fun to work on than most. It was so intense and everyone knew they were working on something truly important. The cast, crew, and director were bonded more closely than usual.

Elizabeth Taylor had casting approval, so Segal was her choice. He and Sandy Dennis were both on Broadway in separate plays at the time and Taylor saw their performances. “Elizabeth was in charge,” commented Segal, "but Burton was the top of the pyramid. He elevated everyone’s acting."

In Virginia Woolf, a 33-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, at the height of her beauty, takes on the role of a dowdy, middle-aged university wife. She gained thirty pounds for the part. The first director of photography quit, refusing to photograph Elizabeth Taylor with bags under her eyes. He was replaced by the great Haskell Wexler, who won an Oscar for his work on the film.

The film flies in the face of every Hollywood “don’t” of the time. It’s shot in black and white when color films were on the rise, Nichols was a stage director, the material was a long and talky Edward Albee play, the subject matter was pure controversy, and the cast was four actors trained in different traditions. Taylor was a major Hollywood star, Burton was trained in the English tradition, Segal was a Broadway stage actor, and Dennis took a natural approach to her character. Hirsch described the above as a “recipe for disaster” that became that great American film.

Photo by Sasha Lebedeva
“It broke the code,” exclaimed Hirsch. The film so stressed the limits of the censorship and ratings system then in use that it had a big influence on its demise.

Segal reflected a moment and mused that “as I think about it, George and Martha are like Taylor and Burton in real life.” Elizabeth drove the relationship and she didn’t hesitate to call out Richard in public. When he was on stage, he was flirting a little with an actress. From across the room came Elizabeth’s voice, loud and clear, “Richard!”

Nichols rehearsed the cast as for a play, which drove Taylor nuts. The film was shot in Northhampton, Massachusetts, in a house that still stands. The rehearsal stage in Los Angeles exactly recreated the house and the back yard where most of the action takes place. So rehearsal allowed staging perfectly for the final shoot. Nichols didn’t talk much during the shoot, but Segal received specific direction in the rehearsals: “don’t answer right away, he would wait a moment before he could reply” and “you should fall down at that point.”

Segal described his time working on Virginia Woolf as the happiest time of his youth. He still considers it his finest work. Segal left the stage as he arrived, to a standing ovation and Hirsch’s comment “You are in the presence of greatness.”

As stepped into the back seat of a Bentley and drove away, wistful fans waved good-bye to George Segal and to an unforgettable evening of film.

Judith Resell is a volunteer for the American Cinematheque.