Virginia Woolf forces Hollywood to Grow Up

As we saw this week in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966), Hollywood began to accept films that took greater risks in favor of the expensive epics it was releasing in the 1960s. As we discussed in class, with the explosive popularity of television in the 1950s, the roadshow film was Hollywood’s most profitable. Thompson and Bordwell note that almost all films released in the 1960s earned less than a million dollars at the box office.1

The drinking and the fighting made Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? a film for mature audiences.

The drinking and the fighting made Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? a film for mature audiences.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? provided Hollywood that opportunity. It was based on a respected Edward Albee play that opened in 1963. It also drew great criticism from the same Catholic establishment that had pushed for the Production Code thirty years later. Lastly, it also gave Hollywood the opportunity to release films in a different ways.

Many in Hollywood anticipated the film for months before its release in Los Angeles and New York in June 1966. Critics were worried that the language in the film would be too much for movie audiences. However the language did not seem to offend many who saw the film in its early days. One fifteen year-old patron, who attended with his mother, quipped about the language, “I’ve heard worse,” but another patron did take note of “all that drinking, from the very beginning to the very end.”2

Since the beginning of film exhibition in the United States, film censorship was an all or nothing proposition. Either a film was released to all audiences or it was available to no one. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was unique in that it was released for “Mature Audiences” only. In fact, Warner Brothers had added a clause in its contract with exhibitors that it would not admit children under 18 without a parent.3

Hollywood was undergoing a once-in-a-generation change at the time. The Production Code had been one of the most stubborn institutions of the American Film Industry. Former MPAA chief, Eric Johnson, had argued that the Code was necessary to avoid states and localities instituting their own censorship boards. However, the new MPAA head Jack Valenti had taken a different view than his predecessor. He saw the Code as an impediment to the industry’s survival. This was a conflict between old and new. In the film industry trade Moving Picture Daily, Martin Quigley Jr. declared the “Code is dead.”2 It remains one of the great Oedipal ironies in film history as it was his father, Martin Quigley, who co-author the original Code in 1930.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? helped inaugurate a new era in film history. New York Times film reporter and critic Vincent Canby asked, “how can producers make admittedly adult films without alienating a mass audience that includes children?”4 Hollywood’s answer would be to segment its mass audience. The growth of television and the changing American culture forced many media industries to segment their audiences as a way to survive in the new 1960s media landscape. Radio did so by creating music formats, and magazines did so by specializing instead of reaching a mass audience, such as Time and the Saturday Evening Post once did. Hollywood segmented its audience by age, and by doing so, a new sophisticated cinema would emerge in the United States.

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  1. Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2010. 
  2. Canby, Vincent. “Public Not Afraid of Big Bad ‘Woolf’.” New York Times, June 25, 1966. 
  3. “‘Virginia Woolf’ to Be Shown As a ‘For Adults Only’ Film.” New York Times, May 26, 1966. 
  4. Canby, Vincent. “Valenti Is Facing First Film Crisis.” New York Times, May 28, 1966. 

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