Elizabeth Taylor’s Kiss And Other Brushes With Hollywood – Book Review

Angus McBean Photograph (MS Thr 581) / © Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Memoirs about the acting profession are always fascinating, but more often than not, the actor/director/producer in question is extremely well-known and internationally recognised. David Wood has, since the 1960s, worn lots of different hats in show business, from budding thespian on the stage and silver screen to author, composer, director, magician and producer. Over time, Wood has found a niche in writing and adapting children’s stories for the stage. Even so, Wood has (without the need to aggressively pursue opportunities) found himself working in disparate forms of entertainment, rubbing shoulders with ‘the greats’. In his memoir, Elizabeth Taylor’s Kiss And Other Brushes With Hollywood, Wood takes the reader to six occasions during his career where he was a part of unique projects and in the most improbable of circumstances, performs with some of the biggest names in entertainment on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dr Faustus: L-R Elizabeth Taylor, Nicholas Young and David Wood/Angus McBean Photograph (MS Thr 581) / © Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Wood’s first anecdote is arguably the most important in terms of media coverage it generated and lasting impact on his professional career, as well as on him personally… As an undergraduate at Oxford University, Wood was involved in a production of Dr Faustus. Professor Nevill Coghill (the Oxford don directing Faustus) also directed Burton in Measure for Measure when he himself was an undergraduate. As a way of saying thank you for Coghill’s encouragement – and so that the drama department could raise money for the University Theatre Workshop Fund – Burton offered to star in his show. As Faustus was hitherto the one role that he had never been offered to play, Burton jumped at the opportunity. Of course with Burton at that time married to Elizabeth Taylor – arguably the most famous married actors of the 1960s – their joint presence on stage as a package deal generated publicity money couldn’t buy.

Dr Faustus: Oxford Playhouse – a wide shot of the Dr Faustus press conference. Angus McBean Photograph (MS Thr 581) / © Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

The way that Wood describes past events is matter-of-fact and without superlatives or exaggeration. He also has plenty of notes, programmes, photos and so on to hand, which no doubt contributed to the degree of detailed recall of events. In each chapter, Wood shows what the critical reception was like, revealing whether the newspaper critics of the day liked and understood (or not…) about what the creatives were trying to accomplish.

Taylor as Helen of Troy, Angus McBean Photograph (MS Thr 581) / © Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Taylor and Burton’s stage performance at Oxford was always going to be scrutinised thoroughly. Of course, what constitutes ‘theatre’ nowadays (especially the ‘professional’ kind) is much broader now than in the pre-Peter Brook era. And at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, well-known actors often perform in shows that don’t have the same ‘production values’ as the West End equivalents. As we read the reviews of the period that are enclosed in the book, we see that most of them concentrate on Burton and Taylor, either offering praises for their performances or bewilderment at their talent being used for an ‘amateur’ show. As someone who was widely perceived by critics to be “the natural successor to Olivier”, Burton’s perceived failure to live up to their expectations during his lifetime disappointed some and added to his image as a great performer who had wasted his natural talent.

Burton: Faustus with students/Angus McBean Photograph (MS Thr 581) / © Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

While it’s easy to surmise that the ‘friendship’ between Burton/Taylor and Wood as not so much a relationship of equals than established stars taking a fledgling actor under their wings, anybody would be chuffed to be invited to Burton’s 50th birthday party by Taylor via telegram (see photo below). Also included after every chapter is a summary of ‘what happened next’ to all the people quoted by name. While not all became household names, Wood’s summary highlights the achievements of those who made a career in entertainment their lifelong goal, with or without recognition.

The 1975 telegram invitation from Elizabeth Taylor

Years later, Wood’s recollection of acting with Shelley Winters was a very different affair. For a start, The Vamp (the TV play Wood appeared in) was a ‘two-hander’, so there was no chance of him of being overshadowed by a large cast. Secondly, as the play was on TV, everybody had the opportunity to see his performance, and not solely for a small audience.

Shelley Winters and David Wood in The Vamp 1972 © ITV/Shutterstock

While still maintaing a matter-of-fact tone regarding his description of Winters, to the discerning reader her behaviour in many mirrors the archetypal Tennessee Williams female protagonist in terms of self-image, looking back at one’s ‘glory days’ and general insecurities. The fact that there was some overlap between Winters and the character of Barbara Bennet that she played, paid dividence towards the truthfulness of the performance, but made the rehearsal period a protracted affair.

TVTimes listing © ITV/Shutterstock

Working with Winters led to another lasting friendship with a Hollywood star, but some of the most interesting aspects of this anecdote derive from their socialising post-performance. The tale Wood tells of meeting Winters in New York and observing a “method” class at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio offers ‘food for thought’ beyond the usual fare. On that occasion, one particular student (who was visibly shaking with nerves and suffering from low self-confidence) was publicly shamed by Strasberg. With this in mind, it’s not hard to connect the dots between why Winters’ felt the ‘need’ during rehearsals to emote, rather than ‘say words’, as well as conversely for British readers, how well-known drama schools deal with ‘constructive criticism’. Is there any dramatic institution that truly offers a ‘safe’ space to actors try things out and ‘fail’?

David Hemmings in the title role of Jeeves / © Lord Lichfield

During the 1960s and early ’70s, David Hemmings obtained international recognition, starring in pop culture hits such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up with Vanessa Redgrave. Hemmings was also a trained soprano singer in his youth, so the leap to working on a Andrew Lloyd Webber musical wasn’t such a great leap as one might think. With the ‘book’ written by prolific playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn, a project utilising their respective talents would be box office gold, surely…?

Jeeves the musical (based on the books by P.G. Wodehouse) toured outside London while they were ‘ironing out its kinks’. Directed by Eric Thompson, (who perhaps was most famously known as the narrator for The Magic Roundabout), Jeeves was the first musical that he had worked on. However, from all the events described in the books, the events that transpired were incomprehensible. But to put them into context, perhaps we should look at another high-profile musical that was released two years before.

In 1973, Lost Horizon was released on the big screen. As a remake of a Frank Capra film with an all-star cast, and Hal David and Burt Bacharach supplying the songs, the finished product shoud have been a high-pedigree achievement. However, what wasn’t apparent until after it was released was how ‘departmentalised’ the story and songs were from one other. Separately, they were fine by themselves, yet it was obvious that the songs and narrative were not an organic outgrowth of each other. This brings us back to Jeeves

Jeeves: David Wood in tennis shorts, with the ladies in 1975 / © Lord Lichfield

Wood recalls how Ayckbourn wrote a full-length play that didn’t take into account how long the show would be once Lloyd Webber’s songs were added. The full-length show was so long in fact, that during performances each evening, it was still running after 11.30pm. Thompson also gave the performers less time than what is normally alloted for a professional show to learn the songs. Asides from other avoidable ‘hiccups’, Thompson wouldn’t trim the length of the show and nor would Ayckbourn or Lloyd Webber talk to each other about accommodating cuts. If the producers of Jeeves had taken an interest in the day-to-day progress of Jeeves, they could have interceded and made the necessary changes that the creative team were unwilling to do. In the end, Ayckbourn, Lloyd Webber and Thompson were ‘too busy’ to make the necessary cuts for the show’s run in London, with the producers leaving to the cast to do it themselves! It truly beggar’s belief and only goes to show with no one over overall in charge, ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’. With anecdotes like this surfacing, it’s perhaps not surprising to find Lloyd Webber’s remark regarding his own recent Cinderella musical as a “costly mistake”…

Wood reunited with Malcolm McDowell, 50 years
after If…. and 43 years after Aces High

Happily for Wood, his foray into feature films was a much happier affair. The best all-round experience came from Aces High – an airborne adaptation of one of Wood’s favourite plays, Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff. Set during the First World War, Wood played Thompson, one of the pilots, whose life expectancy was estimated at weeks.

Wood as Thompson in Aces High / © STUDIOCANAL

In terms of ‘co-stars’, Wood was spoilt for choice: Malcolm McDowell (who he starred with in If…. in 1967), Christopher Plummer, Simon Ward, Peter Firth, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Ray Milland. However, the opportunity to work on a film for a journeyman actor doesn’t come very often and Wood confesses he had to renege on a project he had already said yes to, to participate in this project that ‘dropped in his lap’. Certainly, his conundrum was understandable at the time and recognising one-off opportunities is something all jobbing actors are mindful of.

Wood with Anthony Perkins / © Universal Studios Licensing L.L.C.

While having perhaps, not so many well-known ‘co-stars’, Wood’s stint on on North Sea Hijack was in no way a step backwards. Starring Roger Moore, James Mason, Anthony Perkins and Michael Parks, this film – while not an international box office success – has the distinction of arguably showing Moore’s best ever performance.

Even though Wood had worked on other movies by this point, he is quite candid about always learning new ‘on the job’. From observing Moore and Mason, Wood learnt that when it comes to facial expressions for ‘the big screen’, less is most definitely more…

While most of the book deals with acting-related anecodotes, Wood had some success writing for Disney. As someone who is a seasoned playwright for children’s plays, his insights on what to expect if Disney is interested in your intellectual property (IP) are helpful or conversely, if you have a project that fits Disney’s reportoire, how to navigate the etiquette minefield so that you can shepherd the project you instigated.

Back Home: The two Hayleys, Carr and Mills, 1985

Wood’s patience and acumen led to his script for Back Home (starring Hayley Mills) being accepted by the powers-that-be at Disney, as well as given a credit as an ‘official’ Disney writer. But having a previous relationship with Disney and understanding how they feel about ‘their’ IPs certainly helped with negotiating the use of Winnie the Pooh for a one-off British project.

The Queen’s Handbag /    © Ian Jones

Tasked with writing a script for a televised play on the BBC (The Queen’s Handbag) that united IPs from different children’s authors, Wood had the uneviable challenge of securing the rights to use them and then writing a script that everyone would be happy with.

While not comprehensively covering the entirety of Wood’s personal or professional history, Elizabeth Taylor’s Kiss And Other Brushes With Hollywood reminds us that versatility and openness to challenges are the actor’s best friends. To be fair, Wood is candid about his own shortcomings at various times, but his anecdotes show his diverse talents and eclectic interests have been bedrock of his career’s longevity, leading to being considered for disparate projects. A life to be proud of.

© Michael Davis 2022

Elizabeth Taylor’s Kiss And Other Brushes with Hollywood is available to buy from The Book Publishing Guild (£9.99).

 

 

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