Director William Wyler was “saved,” to use the term preferred by his biographer Jan Herman, from what turned out to be the biggest picture of all time (up till then) The Sound of Music (1965) by a piece of door-stepping by two determined young producers who presented him with a pre-publication copy of John Fowles’ novel The Collector.
Wyler had been well down the pre-production route for The Sound of Music. It was he who hired Julie Andrews, having seen her performance on Broadway in My Fair Lady, and been granted access to the rushes of Mary Poppins (1964). While he was an odd choice to direct, being more of an opera buff and hard of hearing, he would later nurse Funny Girl (1967) to box office and critical acclaim.
While instinct told the German-born director that The Sound of Music “would be a success” he was troubled that it was set in Austria at a time just before World War Two when the country was mostly whole-heartedly welcoming the Nazis. “I can’t bear to make a picture about all those nice Nazis,” he said.
So when novice producers Jud Kinberg and John Kohn, television writers who had set up Blazer Films, brought him what would turn out to be a sensational bestseller, actor Terence Stamp already under contract and a deal in place with Columbia, turned up on Wyler’s doorstep with a completed screenplay they gave him a reason to pull out of The Sound of Music. He ignored the screenplay in favor of devouring the book.
“I couldn’t put the book down and I’m a man who can put down books very easily,” he said. While not so enamoured of the screenplay by Stanley Mann, he signed up, and although since the 1950s he had either officially or unofficially acted as producer on his own movies, he agreed to allow Kinberg and Kohn to do the job this time, as long as they did not interfere with direction and that he, of course, had final say.
Despite critical acclaim for Billy Budd (1962), a part he won ahead of the likes of Warren Beatty, Terence Stamp had not made a film since, and begun to doubt whether he was cut out for stardom. He wasn’t short of media attention – the various women he squired seemingly all the time made sure of that – but he was distinctly lacking in movie offers.
He took on the role of the deranged Freddie – even though he loathed the character – primarily because he had no other choice. “I hadn’t gotten any new work in roughly a year,” he explained. “I knew the camera loved me, so I had confidence in that. But I just thought this Freddie character was beyond me.” And once Wyler was signed, Stamp felt he would not come up to the director’s high standards. Told that Wyler had no objections to his casting, the still dubious actor asked to take part in the screen tests the director was holding for actresses hoping to win the role of Miranda, the female lead, partly to feel his way into the part and partly to give Wyler an opportunity to fire him if he wasn’t up to the mark.
Without the director being present, he tested with Sarah Miles, whom he had played opposite in Term of Trial (1962) and Samantha Eggar (Doctor in Distress, 1963). Once Wyler saw the footage, with Stamp clad in his own notion of the character’s clothing he expressed his confidence in the actor and told him, “I’m not going to make the book. I’m going to make a modern love story.”
Samantha Eggar was fired three weeks into rehearsals, undermined by just how good Stamp was, unable in her inexperience to cope with his “nasty attitude,” a deliberate decision by the actor, remaining in character during shooting, in part because they had attended drama school together where he had a crush on her and could not allow himself to feel inferior to her. Although his character worshipped her in one sense, his level of entitlement made him feel superior to her in another.
It turned out Stamp was following Wyler’s instructions. The director didn’t want Stamp and Eggar mixing off-set. The actor was to be as cold to her in real life as the character was in the film.
There had been enormous press coverage over Eggar being chosen, one of those Gone with the Wind-style star hunts of which Hollywood was so fond, so the press would leap at the news that she had departed the picture without shooting a scene. Wyler, in the meantime, pursued Natalie Wood (Splendor in the Grass, 1961), a far more accomplished actress and certainly not going to be dominated on screen, or in real life for that matter, by the likes of Stamp. Columbia production head honcho Mike Frankovich intervened on Eggar’s behalf, a script read-through was arranged, and Eggar was back in, on condition she agreed to an acting coach, Kathleen Freeman, of Wyler’s choosing.
But it wasn’t just the humiliation of working with a coach – although Marilyn Monroe famously employed a coach, she was scorned for relying on one – that Eggar had to put up with. Eggar wasn’t permitted to leave the set during the day, or eat with the rest of the cast, forcing her to remain in the daunting isolation of her character.
“He wanted her in a constant state of terror and that’s really very difficult to act,” revealed Stamp, who agreed to conspire with the director to drag out of her the performance of her life. It felt to Stamp that they were torturing the young actress even if that extended to no more on his part than giving her the cold shoulder.
Wyler went further. He wanted her to feel defenceless. During the rain sequence, she had a bucket of water thrown in her face so she was absolutely drenched. And while her travails were not much compared to what, for example, Kate Winslet endured on Titanic, it has been viewed as yet another example of a director bullying a young actress.
I’m not so sure about that, to be honest. The scene called for Eggar to be soaked to the skin and whatever way that occurred she would need to be absolutely drenched. Whether she believed a gentle shower of rain from a sprinkler would achieve the same effect is unknown and you might consider whether Wyler took the bucket approach because he believed her incapable of registering the required look of shock.
It transpired that Eggar hadn’t a clue, beyond checking his credits, who Wyler was. She hadn’t been allowed to visit the cinema until she was 18. And “had no knowledge…of the history of film.” Directors scarcely made the gossip pages and the flurry of biographies and critical appreciations were a few decades away. And minus VHS or DVD there was no way to easily lay your hands on a director’s back catalogue. “I was very ignorant,” she admitted, “of the position that he held as a Hollywood icon.” It’s entirely possible she never even saw Ben-Hur, for she has never mentioned doing so.
During the love scene, she was kept nude while Stamp had his clothes on. “I kept wondering why I had to stand there with no clothes on when they were only shooting me from the waist up.” (And in keeping with the Production Code rules, no nudity was shown on screen). Eggar wondered if perhaps Wyler, who had a reputation as a ladies man and enjoying dalliances during shooting with some of his actresses, had taken a fancy to her. But he showed no signs of making any moves or even making the kind of remark that suggested he was in love with her, or ogling her body. It was just another device to keep her in character. (Thought it might have been better all round if she had been given some say in this approach.)
On the other hand, Wyler clearly went out of his way to help her. He reversed his own decision to use her. To help her remain in character and develop her role, ridding her gradually of the confidence she exuded in her earlier scenes, Wyler shot the film in sequence, as unusual a method in Hollywood as the other techniques mentioned here. And when a photographer hid in the gantry to get a shot of Eggar in the nude, Wyler raced to her defence, ripping the camera from the intruder’s hand, destroying the film and throwing the man out.
A later decision in the editing room enhanced her performance without the actress having to express single emotion, speak an extra line or give another look. The script called for her character to remember her lover, using his image to see her through her ordeal. But Wyler completely cut out actor Kenneth More playing the lover, leaving in just one shot of the back of his head, so that instead of appearing to rely on that memory and those feelings to combat the situation, she was presented instead as woman of great resilience. “It’s love keeping her alive,” Eggar would later say.
And there’s certainly no sense that Wyler was dissatisfied with her performance. However, like Stamp, she doubted her own skill. “At first I just felt I couldn’t do it. It took me five weeks to get on Wyler’s wavelength. When it’s over you realise you have done the best you could do. It’s very satisfying for an actress.”
Stamp saw a different side to Wyler. He recalls a director who didn’t even call “action.” He would “simply roll his hand” in order not to disturb an actor’s concentration. Unless, of course, an actor was not up to the mark: Maurice Dallimore, who played the nosy neighbor, felt the rough edge of the director’s tongue when he could not manage the necessary English accent.
Originally, Wyler intended to shoot the film in black-and-white. But when the cinematographer did a black-and-white test of Eggar he also did a color one that captured the magnificence of her red hair and skin. Wyler had feared that color would act as a distraction and “could be phony, exaagerated.” Except for some establishing shots in Britain, the picture was shot in Hollywood. The scene with the bathwater running down the stairs was not in the book and of course Wyler took quite a different approach to the novelist. Even so, John Fowles appeared pleased with the result.
Stamp changed his views of Wyler. Initially, he told Roger Ebert, “I don’t go much for Wyler.” But, contacted by Jan Herman for the Wyler biography, he claimed Wyler and Fellini were the two best directors he had ever worked with. “It was one of the great experiences of my life. He was just wonderful in a way I’ve never come across before,” he told Brian Raven Ehrenpreis.
SOURCES: Jan Herman, William Wyler, A Talent for Trouble (Da Capo Press, 1997) p418-428; Roger Ebert, “Interview with Terence Stamp,” New York Times, June 12, 1968; Brian Raven Ehrenpreis, “Get Your Sword!”, www.thequietus.com , August 25, 2018; “Collecting Life, An iIterview with Samantha Eggar, www.terrortrap.com ; Kathleen Carroll, “Redhead Mad for Pink,” New York Daily News, June 20, 1965.