On June 10, 1966, Life magazine did one of its many cover stories on Elizabeth Taylor.
Far from her usual smoldering beauty, she looked puffy, haggard, decades older than her 34 years. "Liz in a Shocker," the headline proclaimed. "Her movie shatters the rules of censorship."
The movie, of course, was "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- a scorching drama adapted from Edward Albee's Broadway play. Its frank, gritty language brazenly violated the Production Code, rigid guidelines that had dictated the content of American movies since 1934. Albee's words, however, served art, not smut, and Ernest Lehman, the movie's screenwriter-producer, saw no way to modify them without gutting the play. Mike Nichols, the film's director, concurred. So Lehman decided to challenge the Code -- a bold act compared to what had been required of him on his previous stage-to-screen project, "The Sound of Music."
Taylor and her husband, Richard Burton, had a lot riding on the picture. Success as Martha, Albee's foul-mouthed harridan, would grant Taylor what she had long craved: credibility as an actress. She made sacrifices -- gaining pounds and lowering her voice until, per Nichols' coaching, she could "bray." Burton, as Martha's husband George, donned "full-length drab." Most astonishing, though, Hollywood's highest-paid couple voluntarily took a financial hit. When shooting overran the schedule by 35 days, they declined to ask for overtime -- saving the production about $1 million.
With the Burtons aboard, "Virginia Woolf" could not be dismissed as an art house trifle. It was big box office -- a perfect test case to go up against the Code.
In a way, Taylor's whole life had led to that moment. Even in her first big film, "National Velvet," she had nettled the censors, who sought to hide her blossoming sexuality. "Please omit the action of Velvet tapping her chest and the line 'I am flat as a boy,'" the Code Office ordered, and the movie did.
Nor could Taylor be shown in a locker room with "semi-nude jockeys." If the scene "is to be retained at all," the memo continued, "all concerned will have to be fully clothed." (In the final film, a few jockeys do, however, change their shirts.)
The Code might seem like an antiquated joke today, but in its heyday, the censors wielded great power, largely through financial blackmail. They had seized control during the Great Depression by threatening an organized Roman Catholic boycott of all movies -- which no studio then could survive. In response, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America set up the Code Office, also known as the Hays Office, after Will Hays, the former U.S. postmaster general who became MPPDA president in 1922.
The Code wasn't just about sex. It had a racist component, forbidding the depiction of interracial couples. And it demanded reverence for religion and government; improper display of the U.S. flag was as severe an infraction as sodomy.