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.
Early on in the book, there’s an image of Anderson lugging heavy groceries when he meets Malcolm McDowell. Apart from his directorial accomplishments, his life seemed very ordinary.
I think when you look at Lindsay‘s life on the surface, it was ordinary, but when you think that it was Lindsay Anderson living that life, it becomes extraordinary. By which I mean, the person who made those films, you wouldn’t think he was living that kind of life. That was part of the Puritan side of him; he didn‘t enjoy luxury, he didn’t really like good food.
Throughout his life, Anderson had big crushes on actors he worked with like Richard Harris and Frank Grimes, but your book conveys the distinct impression that he died a virgin. Is that possible?
Yes, I think it‘s true. Nothing ever happened. It’s quite extraordinary. When I first read [his] diaries, they didn‘t tell me anything I didn’t know, but what they did tell me was how desperate he was and how it went on until almost the end of his life. Which to me makes it even more impressive that he achieved as much as he did, with that sort of terrible, lonely frustration at the heart of his life.
Given the fact you were both involved in moviemaking, how is it that you never collaborated?
We tried to once: this project that got turned down, The Grand Babylon Hotel, a sort of Grand Hotel story set on the eve of World War I. Lindsay had written me, some project had collapsed, and he said, a “Do you have any ideas? It might be fun to work together.” And I remember suggesting a couple of things that he wasn‘t so keen on. There was a Nabokov novel that I thought would make a good movie, and he said, “No, I want something more commercial, I’ve got to be a little more commercial,” and that‘s when I suggested Grand Babylon Hotel, and he liked it. We did get development money for it, and the script turned out really quite well. It was sponsored by a producer at Columbia, and then the studio went through a management change and the usual clean sweep occurred, and they threw out all the previous projects and very meanly wouldn’t put it in turnaround, so it died.
You mentioned in the book that you started writing The Slide Area in Paris. Did you feel you had to be away from Hollywood to write about it?
No, that just happened because the last film I worked on with Nicholas Ray, this film made in Europe, Bitter Victory, there were problems with the producer, and he was withholding my salary for a month or so but paying my expenses. So I was holed up in this hotel, and I couldn‘t leave, because I was determined to stay and get the money that he owed me. And I wanted something to do. I guess the idea of The Slide Area had sort of been around somewhere in my unconscious, and it came up. So I occupied that month by starting to sketch it out.
You’ve seemed to accomplish what all writers aspire to, and that is to work continuously.
I‘ve been lucky in that I could write screenplays as well as novels and nonfiction, so that when any idea for a book was running dry, there might be a movie script coming up, which was a wonderful way of keeping my hand in. Finally, I think I attach more importance to the books I’ve written than to the movies I‘ve written. That’s simply because in a book you‘re on your own, and you are responsible for what’s good and what isn‘t good. In movies, it can get very boring sometimes when somebody says, “That was a terrible scene in that movie you wrote,” and you say, “I didn’t write it.”
Many serious writers feel sullied by working in the film industry, that their talents are co-opted and they develop an animus toward the industry. I gather from the Anderson book, you don‘t feel that way at all.
I don’t. I get rather impatient with these writers, particularly with New York writers, who get very snooty about the movies. But I‘m terribly grateful to them, because for me it was wonderful. I could earn as much money in three months on a movie as I could in a year or two on a novel. Also, I love movies. Writers who resent working in movies do not like collaboration. If you go to work on a movie thinking it’s going to be your film, you‘re asking for trouble. It’s ultimately not your film. I accept that.
That‘s an egalitarian attitude.
I think it’s the only way it can work. I find it fascinating to work with a good director, a director I‘m in sync with. And that’s why, for instance, the various changes that had to be made in the adaptation of Inside Daisy Clover — I was much more interested in doing a new version than just doing a faithful adaptation, that is, to try and be creative within the context of the movie.
But you had that one period in your life when you questioned working in the film industry and taking movie companies‘ money, and you asked Krishnamurti’s opinion and he said, “The kind of people you work for have more money than they need or deserve. Soak them.”
Oh, yes. Krishnamurti was so on-the-nose about so many things.