Did This Couple Inspire Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’?

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton put their marital demons on film in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). But neither they nor their director, Mike Nichols, can take credit for being the first to try to bring Edward Albee’s 1962 play to the screen, or even for being the first movie couple to draw on their own real-life discord in that context.

In April 1965, Andy Warhol shot what the writer Sheldon Renan described as a “remake” of Albee’s drama, according to the Whitney Museum’s catalog of Warhol’s early film work. The stars were married artists — the underground filmmakers Marie Menken and Willard Maas — and the concept was consistent with some Warhol films of the period: Set the camera in a fixed position; shoot two reels of 16-millimeter stock as the personalities in the frame engage in a mix of self-dramatizing and simply being; then let those two reels, totaling around 66 minutes, run unedited.

The result was titled “Bitch,” and it will receive what is probably its first-ever public presentation on Saturday as part of To Save and Project, the Museum of Modern Art’s annual program of film preservation work.

Warhol never made a print of the movie, Greg Pierce, the director of film and video at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said in a phone interview. “There is a hierarchy to Warhol’s films,” he explained. There are those in the canon, the titles that Warhol stood by, including “Empire” and “Chelsea Girls,” that were printed and shown. But there are dozens of others that Warhol felt didn’t work; in those cases, he simply moved on.

Yet he also didn’t discard those failures. “There is very little footage that is quote unquote ‘lost,’” Pierce said. “Warhol saved everything.” And before his death in 1987, he gave all his physical film material to MoMA, where “Bitch,” in a new digital scan, will screen on a double bill with Nichols’s drama.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”Credit…Warner Bros.

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