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On Lambert

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone

A year ago, LACMA might have had Gavin Lambert himself — proper, shy but wicked, and crammed with stories — to introduce a season of films that he had worked on, or which meant a lot to him. Of course, he died last year and now a memorial tribute is in order. I don’t dispute the mourning discretion that orders such things, but I have another idea — that the best wakes and the most convivial tributes are those where the corpse is still telling the stories. I know, there’s an awkwardness that can leave a career tribute seeming premature. But it’s minor next to the emptiness that realizes, “If we’d only asked a year ago, he could have been here in the flesh.” And we could have delivered the message: that we were fond of and valued him.

A few months ago, the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff was honored in person at the Academy, but it was an occasion that caused some to wonder how Sons and Lovers, the D.H. Lawrence adaptation that won Cardiff a best director Oscar nomination in 1960, might look today. Well, now here it is, because Gavin wrote it (and got a nomination himself), and we have a chance to see a pretty impressive cast: Trevor Howard, Wendy Hiller, Mary Ure and Dean Stockwell.

The LACMA series also includes three other films written by Gavin — I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (another nomination), Inside Daisy Clover (from one of his own novels) and the one I’m most curious to see again, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which I recall as an elegant fencing match between Vivien Leigh and the young Warren Beatty, where the two stars are caught up in a sinister tango over which one of them is the loveliest.

However, all of these films are familiar to the film buff. The real coup here is the presentation of the one movie Gavin directed. It is called Another Sky, made in 1954, and shot largely in North Africa in black and white. It is the story of a demure governess named Rose who comes to work in Marrakesh, and who is gradually seduced by the heat, the mystery and the latent sexuality of the desert. It is a picture made under the moon of Paul Bowles, a friend to Gavin, and the author only a few years earlier of The Sheltering Sky, a novel that has much the same themes.

A close friend of Gavin’s, Jan Sharp, will introduce that screening, on January 28, and it promises to be a real event. I don’t say that Another Sky is totally successful, but as soon as you think of it as a British film made in 1954, then its boldness, its mood and its attempt at something novel fall into place. The French took up the cause of Another Sky a long time ago, but in the two countries where Gavin lived most of his life — Britain and America — it is hardly known.

There are other things of great interest, not least the films of Nicholas Ray in which Gavin had a hand. Two of those are Bigger Than Life and Bitter Victory, and I think it’s fair to say that they increasingly come to stand for Ray’s best work. The series continues until February 11, and it includes works by some of the people Gavin liked the most and had written about so well — Natalie Wood, Norma Shearer, Alla Nazimova and the directors Lindsay Anderson and George Cukor. May I add this hope: that those going to the movies make sure to pick up copies of Gavin’s books, like The Slide Area. Long ago, when Los Angeles and the movies seemed to be healthy lovers still, Gavin had found a voice that foresaw their ghostly future — the one we inhabit now.

A TRIBUTE TO GAVIN LAMBERT | At Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Through February 11 | See Film and Video Events for more info.