By Sherrie Li
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Photo by ShimabukuroWhen Gavin Lambert died 12 days ago, I put myself in the company of many people who owed him plenty — not least the notion that an English public schoolboy crazy about movies might actually come to live in California one day. And end up wishing he’d come far earlier. That we had not met sooner was absurd. As I recall, when we did meet, in April 2003, that was the first thing we said to each other. It was a small party in Santa Monica at the house of screenwriters Holly Goldberg Sloan and Gary Rosen. Holly had been my student at Dartmouth more than 20 years earlier, and she had met Gavin through the unrivaled, effortless existence of Ivan Moffat. I’ll come to that in a minute. The things I owed Gavin went back decades. In 1955, I had joined the British Film Institute (in order to see films at London’s National Film Theater). A bonus of that was that, four times a year, one got Sight & Sound, the magazine of the institute. Gavin had edited it since 1950, and in my first issue he had a piece that was in love with Fritz Lang. Now, in those days, if film enthusiasts liked Lang, it was the German films they discussed (Metropolis, the Mabuse films and M). I had seen none of those yet, but I had just seen Lang’s The Big Heat in a local cinema (it’s Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin — it’s the scalding-coffee movie). I thought it extraordinary and beautiful in ways that went far beyond being a gangster film — but ways I could not articulate. Gavin wrote at length about the film, and went into raptures: This was the first time I felt there might be a useful future in writing about movies. By then, in fact, Gavin was already in America. He’d done five years at Sight & Sound and taken it on with the determination to do something drastic to an “intolerably boring magazine.” He got the job because at Oxford, Gavin, Lindsay Anderson and Penelope Houston had made a success of a film magazine called Sequence. Gavin had gone there from Cheltenham College, and he was meant to read English at Magdalene. In fact, he dropped out of Oxford (he would have had to learn medieval English) to concentrate on film. About 12 years later, I ducked Oxford to go to film school.To improve Sight & Sound, Gavin hired writers like Josef von Sternberg, Carl Dreyer and Jean Renoir as well as Anderson, Houston, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Kenneth Tynan. He changed the place, and he saw it could change him. Sight & Sound was an early admirer of Nicholas Ray (especially They Live by Night). That led to a meeting with the broody, romantic, heroic and immensely self-destructive director. In turn, Ray told the very smart English kid, “Come to Hollywood.” I’d guess that Gavin was practical enough to know this might happen — he was just lucky in that both he and Nick (despite a lot of womanizing on the part of the director) were gay. For years, in public, Gavin endured a great deal of young critical writing about the magnificent maleness of Nick Ray while knowing much more. Not that he exploited Nick. Far from it. Gavin helped on some key pictures: Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life and Bitter Victory — maybe the best Nick Ray pictures.The thought of Bitter Victory, with its beautiful desert scenes, refers me to another Lambert adventure. In the mid-’50s, he had taken it into his head to go to Marrakesh, with about $50,000, three English actors and the cameraman Walter Lassally. He wrote and directed a feature, a film that never got a release in Britain or America, but a fascinating insight into this Englishman’s feeling for the desert, and for the power of a repressed primitivism that Paul Bowles had captured in The Sheltering Sky. Lambert’s film, Another Sky, is not quite good, but its atmosphere is haunting and Victoria Grayson, the lead actress, gives a true sense of English decorum breaking down under the heat, the infinity and the strange, nagging call of Arab music.He never directed another film, but Gavin was soon established in Los Angeles, and the first great fruit of that was The Slide Area, published in 1959, a series of interlinked short stories, and still one of the best fictions on the movie city. Very quickly, his reputation got about, and he was getting offers to do screenplays. He wrote Sons and Lovers (with T.E.B. Clarke) and got an Oscar nomination. A few years later, with the personal endorsement of Tennessee Williams, he wrote a screenplay for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.There were novels: The Goodbye People, Running Time and Inside Daisy Clover (which became a movie with Natalie Wood and Robert Redford). And then, around 1974, he elected to go and live in Tangier. Because he was gay, I think he felt a deeper need to escape Anglo-American restraints. In 1972 he had published a book-length interview, On Cukor, the first of such books, very good but held back by George Cukor’s reluctance to come out of the closet.Not that he gave up film writing in North Africa. Late in 1975, he wrote a review for Films & Filming in my Biographical Dictionary of Film. We were utter strangers. But the review was warm, smart and friendly, and it helped launch the book. He stayed in Morocco until about 1990, a part of the Paul Bowles circle, but writing rather less. So it was a pleasant surprise when he returned to Los Angeles in 1990 and became a movie writer again.He did a series of very fond biographies on people who were being neglected — on Alla Nazimova, the great Russian actress, a triumph in silent pictures; on Norma Shearer, the wife of Irving Thalberg; and finally on Natalie Wood, someone he had known very well for most of her adult life. Of course, Gavin was part of circles in Southern California (the Isherwood people) that were very protective of Natalie, an undoubted sexpot and not too stable, yet someone who had many gay friends. And the book, I think, was a touch too gentle to be as valuable as it might have been. For Gavin could be caustic and even cruel if he didn’t like people Â— he had a silly feud over the years with Penelope Houston — and inclined to get a little soft if he did. These aren’t the worst failings.There was one book that balanced all his best qualities, and it was the unexpected Mainly About Lindsay, A Memoir (2000), a fond but shrewd account of Lindsay Anderson, but with a good deal on Gavin, Nick Ray and others thrown in. It is a superb book in which the strains of being English and American, openly gay and secretly so, are explored to great effect. It was my rave review of that book — a thank-you coming 25 years late — that brought us together.And then, just before he died, he finished the autobiography of Ivan Moffat. Moffat was English, too, a gentleman, a soldier, a ladies’ man, and then the valued assistant to George Stevens on films like A Place in the Sun and Giant. That’s how he became a screenwriter and a Santa Monica character, a fabulous languid storyteller with a memory that could just about recall all the stories of the great, and if he couldn’t quite remember — well, what was the point of chatting over dinner if you didn’t have stories? Gavin and Ivan were utterly different and great friends, and the book that emerged (The Ivan Moffat File: Life Among the Beautiful and Damned in London, Paris, New York and Hollywood) is a wonderful account of how a few tattered Englishmen, one way or another, have preserved talk of cricket and saved a few wretched pictures in the drinking holes of Santa Monica. I think those exiles feel themselves wonderfully American, yet we may be invited out for our English accents and attitudes. Make the most of us — we are a dying breed. After all, who bothers to save or doctor the wretched pictures now? And who can believe that grown men were once crazy about the movies?
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