By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
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By L.A. Weekly critics
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Like many writers, Gavin Lambert was originally drawn to Los Angeles to work in the movies. Once here, he made his lifelong passion for film and particularly Hollywood the focal point of his work, writing fiction, screenplays and biographies. For close to five decades he has written eloquently about this town and, in the process, tamed a city and industry that are otherwise famous for eating their young.
Born in England and educated at Oxford, Lambert has lived a rather fantastic life. He edited the British film magazine Sight and Sound, worked with and was the lover of director Nicholas Ray (Bigger Than Life, Bitter Victory), lived in Tangier for 14 years (Paul Bowles was a friend), adapted Tennessee Williams to the screen (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) and worked for Roger Corman (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden). His fiction (notably The Slide Area) captures Hollywood and its fringes beautifully, and his nonfiction, including biographies of actresses Norma Shearer and Alla Nazimova, as well as a book-size interview with director George Cukor (On Cukor), are important works of film scholarship.
Lambert‘s most recent work, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, is a dual portrait, a biography of the gifted, iconoclastic director Anderson (This Sporting Life, If . . . and O Lucky Man) intercut with passages about Lambert’s own life. It‘s a stylistic device reminiscent of Alice B. Toklas, and a risky one, given the possibility that both subjects will get short shrift. However, as their lives unfold in the book (Anderson died in 1994), their 55-year relationship provides a lucid and evocative study of two gifted soul mates and their differences. Though successful, Anderson lived a brand of desolate existence in England while Lambert savored the world. The crosscutting between these two polar opposites speaks volumes about the empathy inherent in their friendship, while providing an insider’s perspective into the theater and film worlds in which they worked. In lesser hands, this material might have added up to a book of anecdotal fluff, but under Lambert‘s guidance, there is a there here. Lambert, who lives in Los Feliz, recently discussed Anderson, the new book and his own career.
L.A. WEEKLY: Unlike your other books about film personalities, your book on Lindsay Anderson was something of a commission, in that the executors of his estate requested it. How did this affect your approach to the subject?
GAVIN LAMBERT: The problem it posed was that when I was first asked to do it I was uncertain, because I thought, you know, he was such an old and close friend that I couldn’t adopt the biographer‘s objective stance. I didn’t see how I could do it as a biography in that way. It didn‘t feel right to me.
So you evolved this idea of dual portraits: his and your own.
Yes. It came about when I thought about Lindsay’s book About John Ford, which gave me a certain sort of clue. Because in that book, which is a kind of critical-biographical study of Ford, he interspersed it with personal accounts of their meetings. And I thought, “I can do something like this, although it‘ll have to be a bit more about myself than what Lindsay wrote about himself,” because our friendship was much closer and went on much longer than Lindsay and Ford’s, who maybe only met eight or 10 times over 20 years.
Your relationship with him spanned half a century. Was he your best friend?
It‘s hard to say he was my best friend, because we were not living in the same place. Let me put it this way: He was the friend I valued most.
You met him at Cheltenham College [seen in Anderson’s If . . .] in 1939. Was it clear from the start that you would be lifelong friends?
I don‘t think so, no. I was a bit in awe of him, because even at an early age, though he was my senior at school by only a year and a half, he was quite imposing. He assumed that he was kind of cultivating me.
You were both passionate about movies, and together you founded the British film magazine Sequence, but you were the one who ultimately moved to Hollywood. And though he abhorred Los Angeles, Lindsay seemed to take a vicarious interest in your exploits here.
I think that’s true, yes. I got over here through the offer of Nick Ray, and I stayed. I sort of always thought I would. I had been longing to get out of England, I didn‘t really click with England and England didn’t click with me. Lindsay was just as critical of it as I was, but he felt more rooted there.
Watching If . . . and O Lucky Man at the recent LACMA retrospective of his work, I was really wowed by the sure-handed way his work marries realism and surrealism.
That was one of his trademarks really, one of the most original things he did. And the way that both worlds seem to coexist quite naturally. I always loved that thing, which I quote in the book, where Lindsay said, “A style needs an attitude, an attitude needs a style.” For me, that‘s very much a key to Lindsay, because the two are absolutely locked in an embrace. What he wanted to say and the way he found to say it were the same.
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