Books

Cocktails with George and Martha by Philip Gefter review – art imitating life in a war of egos  

Burton and Taylor may be the marquee draw, but the amusingly fraught relationship between the director and producer is the beating heart of this book

Cocktails with George and Martha by Philip Gefter is out now (Ithaka, £25)

When Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered on Broadway in 1962, it was an instant smash, a cause célèbre.  Set over the space of a chaotic, booze-fuelled night in the unhappy home of a middle-aged, upper middle-class married couple, it’s a raw, harrowing, intensely claustrophobic, desperately funny and terribly sad psychodrama hell-bent on eviscerating the hypocrisies of bourgeois western society. A film adaptation of this Great American Play was the next logical step. As detailed in Cocktails with George and Martha, Philip Gefter’s absorbing account of its production, the 1966 classic starring real-life married couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was beset by behind-the-scenes drama and occasional eruptions of absurd showbiz farce.  

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Like the play itself, Gefter’s story focuses on four protagonists at odds with each other: Burton, Taylor, writer/producer Ernest Lehman and director Mike Nichols. They all believed in the project wholeheartedly, they were united in their commitment to honouring the integrity of Albee’s masterpiece while making a great work of art in its own right, but the entire process comes across as a war of attrition between a quartet of fragile egos.  

They all had something to prove. Taylor had never played a role as demanding and complex as Martha before. She was 33, an impossibly beautiful superstar. Martha is a dishevelled alcoholic in her mid-50s. Taylor worried – everyone worried – that if she couldn’t inhabit the role convincingly, the film would fail.  

Burton, despite his reputation as one of the greatest living actors, was always deeply insecure. He and Taylor would sometimes fight on set, although they were for the most part consummately professional (granted, they did insist on finishing work each day at 6pm – or ‘bloody mary o’ clock’).  

Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Nichols – an au courant theatre director, satirist and sophisticated schmoozer about town who’d never directed a film before – often butted heads with the older Lehman, an Oscar-winning screenwriter and first-time producer.  

Burton and Taylor may be the marquee draw, but the amusingly fraught relationship between Nichols and Lehman is the beating heart of this book. They’re a classic odd couple: Nichols is a bratty, brilliant and maddening perfectionist; Lehman is talented too, but he’s far more diplomatic and level-headed. They’re both utterly neurotic.  

The censors-baiting film these people somehow made together isn’t just magnificent, it’s historically significant. A year before Bonnie and Clyde and Nichols’ own The Graduate, it ushered in the New Hollywood era. American cinema’s second golden age starts here.   

Gefter’s erudite cocktails tome is an absolute must for anyone interested in the granular toil and psychological demands of filmmaking.   

Paul Whitelaw is a book, TV and music critic

Cocktails with George and Martha: Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and the Making of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ by Philip Gefter is out now (Ithaka, £25) . You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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