By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
One of the more recent émigrés, Wash Westmoreland has quite a way to go before turning into a Town & Country squire. Quinceañera, the Sundance-awarded, critically acclaimed cinematic slice of Echo Park Latino life he co-created with his American work-and-life partner, Richard Glatzer, has its roots in the British lower-class “kitchen sink” realism of the 1960s. But that doesn’t mean Westmoreland is pining for home.
“I never thought of myself as staying here,” Westmoreland says. “My report back to my friends in England was that L.A. is a city without a soul. You know the feeling that you get in a great city like London or New York? Do you get that in L.A.? But when Rich and I moved to Echo Park, I finally felt this was a place with a soul where I could live. It’s interesting that so many people think of coming to L.A. as coming to Hollywood, whereas for me the real interest lies everywhere else in the city. I guess I’m an outsider by two degrees — by being white and by being English. So when Latino people say to me that Quinceañera is true, that’s the greatest compliment I could ever have.”
British pop star Morrissey encountered a similar phenomenon during his own nine-year L.A. residency, when “tribute” bands began springing up in the Latino community (as documented by William E. Jones in his 2004 film Is It Really So Strange?), having discovered in the lower-class British dandy a kindred spirit. Morrissey’s ultraemotional singing style, coupled with his look — particularly his pompadour hairdo — is very much in keeping with Mexican pop singing. But Mexican pop stars don’t have the special edge of melancholy regret and worldly-wise ennui that drives his L.A. Latino fan base wild. As Jones’ film notes, tough-as-nails cholos have been known to break down sobbing at “Moz” concerts.
“At first, being here was strange and isolating and completely spacy as far as I was concerned,” recalls actress Jacqueline Bisset of her mid-’60s introduction to L.A., when she was chosen to be part of Fox’s new-talent program. “I was very much on my own. There wasn’t a soul I could call. I was living in the Beverly Hillcrest Hotel on Pico, which is now something else. There was nothing around there. I arrived at midnight. The person who had been warning me about the perils of Los Angeles promptly tried to seduce me.”
A look of dark disgust briefly flashes across Bisset’s comely features. She has no interest in identifying this soi-disant masher, but she has a lot to say about the L.A. she first encountered in that hotel.
“My room was orange. Everything was orange. I’d never seen a king-size bed. The cover on it was orange. The drapes were thick and closed. And I had a little fridge in my bathroom. That was the coolest thing. I couldn’t find a market anywhere. I didn’t know where to go. I was on the moon. When I turned the radio on, I heard people talking about thefts and murder for very small sums of money. So I thought, ‘I think I’d better stay in the room.’?”
Still, there was an upside.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the new-talent program at Fox,” says Bisset. “I would see people like Henry Fonda and Raquel Welch wandering around the dining room. I must say Henry Fonda was a smashing-looking man. He gave it class. It was the end of the studio system. I said ‘no’ to a contract, but I had a 10-picture deal. I didn’t want to be owned by anybody. If anybody tried anything dodgy, I’d just go home to England and be fine. ‘You’re not touching my eyebrows, you’re not touching my hair color,’ etc. It was all very defensive, but people accepted it.”
Of the city’s British expat community, Bisset says she’s not quite connected to it: “I think if I’d had an English boyfriend, I would have been part of a circle here. But for many years, when Michael Sarrazin and I were a couple, I lived a very closed kind of life. I remember articles questioning why I wanted to ‘live in sin’ when there was cash to be had. I remember girls asking me, ‘Why don’t you get married and get something out of it?’ That was a very strong attitude here — getting some money off the marriage contract. It shocked me a lot.”
Resembling nothing so much as a French farmhouse (“My cleaning lady said there’s nothing American in here except the light bulbs”), Bisset’s Laurel Canyon residence was previously owned by Vincent Price, an Englishman who made so successful a transition to America that few think of him as being English at all. But the absolute “transatlantic” champion is, of course, Cary Grant, a lower-class Englishman who, thanks to Hollywood, became the embodiment of class and sophistication for the entire world.
“Cary Grant!” Bisset exclaims. “Oh, he was so tanned — he was a knockout. The English look of him was great, but he had very much a royal quality. It was something of an upper-class accent with cockney cadences. He wouldn’t fit easily into England. If you put him into England, where would he fit? But then again, he could go anywhere he wanted.”