A slim memoir, David Wood’s Elizabeth Taylor’s Kiss and Other Brushes with Hollywood is a gathering of impressions and memories from a career spanning five decades.
Wood – best known for his acting and screenplay work – has extensive film, television and theatre credits, all of which are put to good use in his book. At 152 pages, it’s physically slight, but Wood packs a lot in. Wood starts by recalling a surprise invitation to Richard Burton’s 50th birthday party at The Dorchester in 1975. This startling adjunct is explained, as Wood remembers his student days at Oxford, and Burton – a former student of Professor Nevill Coghill – returns, with Elizabeth Taylor, to appear in a college production of Dr Faustus.
This extraordinary set of circumstances – it’s hard to imagine two A-listers doing this today – is brought to life by Wood, as he recounts working with Burton and Taylor. Both stars are surprisingly low-key, with any fireworks played offstage. The details are what make this chapter: Taylor spots Wood’s moth-eaten jumper during rehearsals and gives him one of Burton’s. It is a charming recollection, which fans of Burton and Taylor will love.
The book has lots to offer film and theatre fans: a chapter on the ill-fated musical Jeeves is particularly enjoyable. A show based on the novels of PG Wodehouse, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the book by Alan Ayckbourn. Wood remarks “the pedigree of the creatives was impeccable”. Lloyd Webber was fresh off back-to-back hits with Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar. This was the project that could not lose. But factor in a 4-week rehearsal period, and a director sacked at the last minute, and Wood’s misgivings are well placed. Michael Billington’s review called Jeeves a “3-hour insult to Wodehouse”.
What is refreshing is that Wood does not bemoan the failures, the near-misses. He shrugs them off, wisely noting how a failed audition often lead to something else. His career path is fascinating: working with Disney; a two-hander play with Shelley Winters; filming on an oil rig with Roger Moore, James Mason and Anthony Perkins.
The book doesn’t want for colour: Wood can provide plenty of it. The issue is unevenness. Evergreen anecdotes, such as the Burton and Taylor chapter, work because the stars haven’t lost their lustre. Wood’s memoir is, by necessity, filled with names. But fame moves quickly, and the impact – particularly in discussing projects from the 60’s and 70’s – is lost on a modern audience. While some of Wood’s acquaintances endure (an early friendship with Malcolm McDowell comes full circle when they work together on a film), there is a generational disconnect that is difficult to get past.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Kiss ends rather abruptly, with no postscript or final reflection. But there are positives: far from being a gossipy tell-all, the book illustrates just how precarious the route to stage and screen can be. Wood’s calm authorial voice makes the reading experience enjoyable, but where aspects of the book live, other stories feel their age.
Published by The Book Publishing Guild on 28 July 2022