Last week I made the observation that there seems to be a strand of “Golden Age of Hollywood” pieces running through the online Edinburgh Fringe programme. At the time I teamed up The Girl Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign (which I admired) and My House (which I didn’t) for appraisal; this time I concentrated on plays about two legends of the screen Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Davis. Both pieces are solo performances and show the two women in their prime though both are racked by doubts and caught up in often tempestuous relationships. Both are indebted to (or should that be cursed with?) driven mothers and also do battle with the male dominated world in which they exist and emerge largely triumphant.
Call Me Elizabeth takes place in the early 1960s shortly after Taylor won an Oscar for Butterfield 8 (a film she actually hated) and is still recovering from a bout of intense pneumonia which has halted production on her latest movie, the legendary Cleopatra. She is in a suite of the Beverley Hills Hilton Hotel where she sips champagne and nurses a bad back caused by a film set fall from a horse. A potential biographer has been called in as she thinks it is about time her real story was told; she insists that her name is Elizabeth and not Liz as has been foisted on her by the intrusive media. During the course of the next hour, she runs back over her life as a child star and her relationship with her parents and takes the unseen biographer and us through a number of experiences which have led up to this moment including, of course, some of the films which made her famous. She is currently on husband number four Eddie Fisher (three more were to follow) and it becomes increasingly clear through several phone calls (he’s out of town) that this marriage is already on the rocks. There are detailed accounts of these relationships which may not be big on revelations but help to give the piece a structure.
The monologue is written and performed by Kayla Boye who both looks and sounds the part and shows us the vulnerability beneath the façade. In truth it is more of a film (appropriate I suppose) than stage performance although it is a show that has played extensively as live theatre. In any case the filming is of very high quality and gives a sense of the opulence with which the actor surrounded herself. It is perhaps a shame that the piece finishes when it does as we miss out on anything to do with the Richard Burton years – though he does get a late name check – her acts of philanthropy and her friendship with Michael Jackson; maybe like any movie franchise these days, there’s a Part Two planned. However, in capturing a moment in time midway through a stellar career this biographical play is both interesting and engaging.
Also starting out by capturing a single moment in time, Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies actually ranges far wider than the Taylor piece. As the play opens Bette Davis has just returned home from the 1939 Oscar ceremony early having heard that she hasn’t won for Dark Victory; the award has gone to Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind. Naturally, as with many other aspects of her life, Davis is not best pleased and doesn’t care who knows it. From here the narrative takes us back through her early career, her ongoing fight for recognition as a serious actor and her resulting fights with studio boss Jack Warner who suspended her many times to bring her to heel; in that he was sadly disappointed. We are also flash forwarded through Davis’s later life and the making of All About Eve (a second sure fire Oscar disappointment) and culminating in her comeback performance in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? at just about the same time at which Call Me Elizabeth is set.
Jessica Sherr, like Boye, has written her own script which looks at both the public and private personas whose tempestuous nature both helped and hindered her career and relationships. Sherr is the absolute embodiment of Davis in full flight and there is a definite physical resemblance. There are perfectly recreated film moments with some of the actor’s most memorable lines and the vocal mannerisms, so often parodied, are well in evidence. Several costume changes (apparently including some items actually owned by Davis) help to retain visual interest and the stylised set serves to provide multiple locations.
These are two well realised pieces of monologue theatre where the only really false note – and it was a trope used over heavily by both shows – is the device of having the outside world keep intruding on the narrative via numerous telephone calls. This becomes somewhat tedious and leads to both Boye and Sherr having to announce to them who it is supposed to be on the other end of the call. The first piece has great production values and seems slicker and more sophisticated which is in keeping with the star it is portraying. The second is probably a little rougher around the edges but as it is clearly a filmed live performance it has more of a sense of immediacy about it and, to my mind anyway, probably tells the more interesting story. And in a nice piece of circularity, Davis reveals how she has an epiphany about being an actress having watched Peg Entwhistle in a production of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck; this would be the same Entwhistle who was the original Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign. Spooky!
As is today’s bonus Scenes For Survival piece. Naeb’dy features Greg McHugh (also written and directed by him) as a man on his own in a future decimated by the pandemic. Eerily (as this material has been kicking around for a while) it is set in summer 2021. It could all so easily have been just like this so it’s an unsettling piece to watch.
Call Me Elizabeth and Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies are available via the Edinburgh Fringe Festival click here
Scenes For Survival pieces are available from the NTS website – click here; a number are also available on BBC iPlayer – click here
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