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The Little Foxes

The Little Foxes was Elizabeth’s serious stage debut. She had previously done a charity poetry reading called World Enough and Time, and a non-speaking role in Doctor Faustus—both alongside Richard Burton.

Elizabeth, who first met producer Zev Buffman while attending his production of Brigadoon in Washington, admitted that she had always wanted to appear onstage, and agreed to consider doing a play on the insistence of her husband, John Warner. “I always planned to do a play at some point in my career,” admitted Elizabeth. “Did I think about the risk? For about half an hour. I don’t expect to fail. People pay their money and I have a responsibility to give them their money’s worth.” Elizabeth, who gained weight during a largely unhappy marriage to Senator John Warner, would later say that The Little Foxes helped her survive this period. “I decided I really wanted to live and I had to change myself. I thought the most challenging, difficult thing I could do would be to go on Broadway where I would have to whip my brain into shape and I’d have to whip myself into shape physically. And it was. It was the biggest challenge in the world. And I loved it.”

When the media learned that Elizabeth was doing a play, rumours swirled that she and Burt Reynolds would appear in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But on potentially doing Virginia Woolf, husband John Warner admitted: “She already did the movie, and excellence is achieved only once.” Concurring with her husband, Elizabeth said, “People always remember glowingly things you’ve done in the past, so why should I compete with myself?” Besides, Elizabeth noted, “The challenge of doing some thing new is more interesting.” She would also say, “Martha is the most grueling part ever written. I wanted to do something meaty, but I didn’t want to kill myself.” Alongside actors, Elizabeth read through Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, William Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, and Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes; with the latter two being the most serious contenders. But it was The Little Foxes that was chosen as the ideal play.

“I’m not trying to compete with other Reginas before me,” said Elizabeth. The role had been played on Broadway by Tallulah Bankhead in 1939, onscreen by Bette Davis in 1941 and on television by Greer Garson in 1956. Over the years, Lillian Hellman had proved to be very selective with the actresses who she approved for the role of Regina, and as such the play had only been revived once since Tallulah Bankhead originated the role on Broadway in 1939. “Elizabeth,” said the selective playwright, “is the right person at the right age at the right time.”

For her director, Elizabeth wanted either Mike Nichols (her Virginia Woolf director who had previously directed a production of The Little Foxes) or Joseph Hardy—but neither was available. Finally Austin Pendleton, who had previously acted in the Nichols production, was hired.

Elizabeth began six weeks of rehearsals in January 1981, and quickly became enamoured with her role. “Regina is not just a total icicle and avaricious bitch, as she is usually portrayed,” Elizabeth said. “I’ve found so many facets in her. There is also a certain vulnerability in Regina.” Elizabeth’s turn as Regina was refreshing in that she played her more sympathetically; something that playwright Lillian Hellman was quick to point out. “I like [Elizabeth Taylor’s] approach. Regina has frequently been played too much as a villainess.” Elizabeth must have felt the same way while she was shaping her role. “I want to give her a new dimension. She’s a woman who’s been pushed in a corner. She’s a killer—but she’s saying, ‘Sorry, fellas, you put me in this position.’”

Austin Pendleton: “What if The Little Foxes became about appetite—too healthy, in this case, but still appetite—that turned into greed, before our eyes, as a result of what happens in the play? What if Regina started out as a hearty, hedonistic lady, not unlike what we all think of Elizabeth Taylor as being. . . .” Pendleton also said “all of her best work in film was in parts that had been conceived for the theater.” According to Pendleton, as the weeks went on, Elizabeth’s Regina continued to improve. “She kept growing in the role, growing into the ensemble”. He also noted that Elizabeth became less exaggerated as the run continued.

For Elizabeth, the experience of live performing was like nothing she ever experienced. “I was overwhelmed with waves of love which nourished me long after the curtain fell.” It also meant so much to her as an actress. “I have a sense of accomplishment,” said Elizabeth, “a feeling of doing something useful in my life—and the applause is wonderful.”

The opening night in Fort Lauderdale, Florida was a huge news event and covered all over the country. Elizabeth was given a bouquet of lavender roses by husband John Warner, not only in celebration of her opening night, but also of her forty-ninth birthday. “Elizabeth is the hottest draw I’ve ever seen in my twenty-two years as a producer,” said Zev Buffman.

Broadway wasn’t always definite. Elizabeth said of the potentially harsh Broadway critics: “I’ve been gambling all my life,” remarked Elizabeth. “I’ve been rapped enough by movie critics and I can take it. If you’re rapped by theater critics, what’s the difference?” Friends and family who showed up for Elizabeth’s opening night on Broadway included Senator John Warner, Sara Taylor, Maria Burton, Liza Todd, Michael Wilding, Liza Minnelli, Shirley MacLaine, Anne Miller, Joan Fontaine, Halston, and Bill Blass. Natalie Wood and Lauren Bacall also came to see Elizabeth during the run, but her most famous admirer was Princess Diana, who came to see the show in London while pregnant with Prince William.

At $50,000 per week, Elizabeth was at the time the highest paid star to ever appear on stage. Elizabeth made in excess of $1.5 million for her nine months touring in The Little Foxes.

Elizabeth received a Best Actress Tony nomination.

Elizabeth and co-star Maureen Stapleton became close, and often went for dinner together after a nightly performance.

$1 million dollars in ticket sales had been logged one week after the Broadway run went on sale.

Parker Playhouse, Fort Lauderdale (February 27, 1981-?)
Martin Beck Theater, New York (May 7, 1981-September 6, 1981; 123 sold out shows)
Eisenhower Theater, Washington (March 1981-?; 47 shows)
Saenger Theater, New Orleans (September 9 1981-September 1981)
Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles (September 29, 1981-December 5, 1981)
Victoria Palace Theater, London (March 11, 1982-?; sixteen weeks)


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