Autobiography, Nonfiction

The Wilding Way, by Michael Wilding

Just like there are talented musicians on YouTube who you will never see in a large venue or at the Grammys, there are actors with witty charm who can hold their own with the biggest names and never quite become big names themselves.

Enter Michael Wilding, best known (sadly) as Husband #2 of Elizabeth Taylor. Their marriage lasted a bumpy 5 years, where he sacrificed a very promising British film career to follow his young bride to America. He is the father of her two sons, Michael Jr. and Christopher. But Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with him, and his star faded like a blinking light bulb, while Taylor’s became stratospheric.

I went down a rabbit hole a few months ago that led me to this autobiography of an actor who is so self-effacing and charming, I began a quest to find his films. It isn’t easy. Most are unavailable or Region 2 DVDs (Europe,) but I did manage to find a few, especially his starring turns with Anna Neagle (wife of Herbert Wilcox, who is the father of Wilding’s coauthor.) They were the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan of their day and the films I did find with the two of them are positively delightful. (Spring in Park Lane and Maytime in Mayfair, both with the same main cast, on DVD only. I found them on eBay.)

Unlike Elizabeth Taylor, whose childhood was anything but conventional, Michael Wilding came from a stable family whose parents allowed him to explore his interests. This led him on a fascinating life journey through four marriages and a myriad of film and TV genres, putting him in the company of some exceptional people like Noel Coward (check out In Which We Serve, on Amazon streaming–it’s excellent) and Alfred Hitchcock (I liked Stage Fright, but found Under Capricorn tiresome.)

Michael Wilding with his future and final wife,
Margaret Leighton, in Under Capricorn

Despite being saddled with epilepsy, Wilding remained dignified and roguish until the very end, which came too soon. Other films I’ve enjoyed are The Law and the Lady with Greer Garson, The Glass Slipper with Leslie Caron (skip the ballets, trust me,) and the semi-campy Torch Song with troublesome Joan Crawford. These last three, plus his films with Anna Neagle, are his best.

What I liked best about The Wilding Way was that he never once plays a victim of circumstance, always taking responsibility for his failures. There is a breezy grace to the way he moves onscreen and in his life, never taking it too seriously. A cross between Cary Grant, Danny Kaye, and Laurence Olivier. An impressive (and fun) mix.

8.5/10 Stars

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