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Lillie And Coward And Wisedom

Updated: Nov 29, 2020


A number of years ago, I went to a screening of Robert Wise's film Star!, the life story of Gertrude Lawrence. The director was in attendance and did a Q&A afterward. He told the story of trying to get Bea Lillie's permission to be a character in the screenplay. Her representative made it very clear that Miss Lillie would only consent if she was hired to play herself. Star! takes place in the 1920s when she was a young girl, and she was around 70 when the movie was being made. So they wrote her out of the script.

Later the producers had to meet with Noël Coward for the same reason. Wise said they were very nervous because under no circumstance could Coward be written out: his historic relationship with Gertrude Lawrence was a profoundly integral part of her life and career. Coward had heard about the Bea Lillie situation, so the very first thing he said upon meeting Wise was, "Who is going to play me?" -- to the director's great relief. It was Coward who recommended Daniel Massey, his godson, for the role. Massey earned a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his effort.

I spoke to Wise during the intermission, and he was as gracious as could be as he explained how he had hoped this film could present the world of the theatre which so inspired him growing up. As I listened, all I kept thinking was, I'm talking to the man who edited Citizen Kane! The memories of a life well lived.

Rory Lance is the stage and pen name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre.


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