In this film, Elizabeth Taylor does an exaggerated impression of Bette Davis saying a line from Beyond the Forest (1949): "What a dump!" In an interview with Barbara Walters, Bette Davis said that in the film, she really did not deliver the line in such an exaggerated manner. She said it in a more subtle, low-key manner, but it has passed into legend that she said it the way Elizabeth Taylor's delivered it in this film. During the Barbara Walters interview, the clip of Bette Davis delivering the line from Beyond the Forest (1949) was shown to prove that Davis was correct. However, since people expected Bette Davis to deliver the line the way Elizabeth Taylor had, she always opened her in-person, one woman show by saying the line in a campy, exaggerated manner: "WHAT ... A... DUMP!!!". It always brought down the house. "I imitated the imitators", Davis said.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) became the first motion picture in Academy Awards and cinema history to be nominated for every Academy Award category in which it was eligible, including Best Adapted Screenplay (Lehman), Director (Nichols), all the acting categories (Burton, Taylor, Segal, and Dennis), and Picture of the Year (Lehman), since Cimarron (1931).
According a 2005 interview with Edward Albee, the original writer of the play which the film is based, producer Ernest Lehman hired himself to write the screenplay for $250,000. Also, Albee says that when director Mike Nichols and stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor read the script, they hated it so much that, unknown to Lehman, they changed all of the dialog back to Albee's play save two lines: "Hey, let's go to the roadhouse!" and "Hey, let's come back from the roadhouse!" Albee said, "Two lines for $250,000, $125,000 a piece. That's pretty good."
Although the title was obviously inspired by the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" (sung in the Walt Disney's Three Little Pigs (1933)), Warner Bros. was unable to negotiate with Disney for the use of tune, so when characters sing the title phrase it is illogically set to melody of the public domain folk song "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush."
Richard Burton befriended Mike Nichols in New York while playing in "Camelot," and reportedly he and Elizabeth Taylor championed the hiring of the first time director after Fred Zinnemann withdrew from the project. Ironically Zinneman beat Nichols for the Oscar, Directors Guild of America, and Golden Globe for his work on A Man for All Seasons (1966), which is still controversial to this day that Nichols hadn't received an award for his work on the film.
When the film was shown on network television for the first time, some local television affiliates bumped the broadcast from 9:00 P.M. to 11:30 P.M., because a film with such adult language had never been shown on network TV.
The movie was one of a series of films in the 1960s, beginning with the The Pawnbroker (1964), to successfully challenge the Production Code Office. In addition to the compromise on language, WB studio head, Jack L. Warner, undercut the Code's usefulness by arranging to have the film released with the "For Adults Only" and required theaters to prohibit selling tickets to unaccompanied minors, which in effect unofficially created the Restricted rating years before the Motion Picture Association of America abandoned the Production Code for a classification system (G-M-R-X) in 1968.
Costing $7.5 million, it was the most expensive black & white movie yet made in the U.S. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Edward Albee's combined salaries/fees were (not including percentages): $2,350,000 - $1,100,000 for Taylor, $750,000 for Burton and $500,000 for Albee.
Jack Lemmon was the only actor to be offered the role of George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) before Richard Burton was cast. He accepted the role but quickly changed his mind the next day without offering any explanation. Other sources claim that Lemmon's asking price was too high for Warner.
According to Edward Albee, the only thing he doesn't like about the film is the over-use of over-head shots. He did say, however, that he envisioned Bette Davis and James Mason as Martha and George rather than Taylor and Burton. If Davis had been cast, she would have ended up parodying a line from one of her old films ("What a dump!") in the opening scene.
In addition to Sleuth (1972) and Give 'em Hell, Harry! (1975), only one of three films in which entire on-screen billed cast received acting Oscar nominations. (Although Sleuth's credits did contain a number of nonexistent phony cast members to mislead audiences into thinking it was more than a two-character thriller and Virginia Woolf did feature two unbilled bit players as roadhouse employees.)
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
According to director Mike Nichols, producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman had written a different ending for the film where George and Martha's son had hanged himself in the closet years before. Nichols refused to shoot it.