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The U.K. in L.A. 

or, How to be Cary Grant

Wednesday, Nov 22 2006
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The ocean appears suddenly. You turn another hairpin bend and the land falls away and there is a long high view down Santa Monica Canyon to the pale Pacific waters. A clear day is not often. Sky and air are hazed now, diffusing the sun and dredging the ocean of its rightful blue. The Pacific is a sad blue-grey, and nearly always looks cold.

Each time I drive down here it feels like the end of the world. The geographical end. Shabby and uncared for, buildings lie around like nomads’ tents in the desert. There is nowhere further to go, those pale waters stretch away to the blurred horizons and stretch away beyond it. There is no more land ever.

—Gavin Lambert

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Those deliciously foreboding words were written by Lambert in The Slide Area, the episodic novel he penned in 1959, just a few years after arriving in Los Angeles to write screenplays for his erstwhile lover, film director Nicholas Ray. And while such sentiments would seem to suggest Lambert was about to make a quick exit, the British novelist (Inside Daisy Clover), critic (On Cukor), screenwriter (Sons and Lovers) and film historian (Norma Shearer) stayed on in L.A. until his death last year at the age of 80.

I first came upon The Slide Area in the early 1960s, when I was in high school. Years later, the deathless cliché “Never meet your heroes” proved wrong when the man most responsible for my decision to become a writer proved generous with his time and erudition as I wrote Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928–2000. I soon learned he was this way with everyone. When the film department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art kicked off this spring’s retrospective tribute to Lambert with a screening of Another Sky, the only film Lambert both wrote and directed, the gathering drew such equally fabulous British expats as Barbara Steele, Jacqueline Bisset, Michael York and Julian Sands, all of whom, like Lambert, have made L.A. their second home.

As anyone even casually familiar with Los Angeles history knows, the town has long been a haven and inspiration for Englishmen (and women), from the writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood to others of lesser fame but no less interest. The singer/songwriter/pop-music historian Ian Whitcomb, who first came here to produce a rock & roll album for the ineffable Mae West, even made a documentary about the U.K./L.A. phenomenon, L.A. My Hometown (1977), dealing “with everyone who wasn’t Christopher Isherwood or David Hockney” (like Playboy photographer Suze Randall) in a brisk and cheeky style.

Isherwood has since passed on, but Hockney is as omnipresent as ever, evidence the recent LACMA retrospective of his portraits — a reminder of how central the city has been to Hockney’s work, and how that work has come to embody the image of L.A. worldwide.

“People in New York said you’re mad for going there if you don’t know anybody and you can’t drive,” Hockney writes in his autobiography My Early Years, recounting how the city lured him away from coldest, wettest England to a world of bright sunshine, blazing color and beautiful naked men.

“They said, ‘At least get to San Francisco if you want to go West,’?” Hockney continues. “And I said, ‘No, no, it’s Los Angeles I want to go to. I had read John Rechy’s City of Night, which I thought was a marvelous picture of a certain kind of life in America. It was one of the first novels to cover that kind of sleazy, sexy hot nightlife in Pershing Square. I looked at the map and saw that Wilshire Boulevard, which begins by the sea in Santa Monica, goes all the way to Pershing Square; all you have to do is stay on that boulevard. But of course, it’s about eighteen miles, which I didn’t realize. I started cycling. I got to Pershing Square and it was deserted; about nine in the evening, just got dark, not a soul there.”

But Hockney returned at a more auspicious hour to visit the studios of Bob Mizer, whose Athletic Model Guild magazines (softcore gay erotica considered daring in the ’60s, but literally on par with today’s Abercrombie & Fitch catalog) had inspired such Hockney works as Domestic Scene, Beverly Hills. However, as art historian Cecile M. Whiting has noted, “It’s Beverly Hills, not downtown L.A. Hockney has the boys move up a class.” In other words, Hockney “rescued” the street hustlers who were Mizer’s principal subjects and turned them into “upright,” upper-middle-class gay citizens. Or at least a better class of hustler. It’s just that promise of class mobility that has always attracted the English to western shores, even as they find traces of home in their new land.

“There was a program I saw recently on Hockney’s newest work,” says Barbara Steele, the raven-haired British beauty who first gained fame in Italy in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (playing the most imposing vampire since Christopher Lee) and Fellini’s (as a delectable philosophy student) before coming to L.A. under contract to 20th Century Fox. “His latest paintings have the English light. They’re very muted, and don’t have those wild Matisse colors his L.A. paintings had. He’s really gone back now. To look at him, he’s an English country gentleman in tweeds with a waistcoat and an English hat. It’s just fantastic how people go back to their roots. And you know, Wash comes from the same area of England as Hockney.”

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