Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 15. Focus on the Name |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 15. Focus on the Name


It took us years to realize that this hard lesson presented a new opportunity. If the whole show could be an interview at that level, we wouldn’t need anything else. At the BBC we began to put this principle into practice. With only one location, filming could be all over in a couple of days, although the format took a great deal of preparation, so as not to waste the time of the stars with any questions that they couldn’t answer, or, more important, wouldn’t. Contrary to received media opinion, there is no point in needling celebrities with awkward questions. The adversarial approach hardly ever works, because the subject can see it coming, and switches to automatic defence. With a forbidden topic, an indirect approach is more likely to work, or at any rate look less intrusive when it doesn’t. Katharine Hepburn became available for the usual reason — she had a stiff movie to push — and we flew to New York to interview her in her house in the Turtle Bay area of the Upper East Side. It’s the kind of district where Stephen Sondheim is your next-door neighbour and all the pedigree dogs hang out at the same deli. We had been told in advance that the two no-go areas were Howard Hughes, who had once loved her, and Spencer Tracy, whom she had never stopped loving. Ruling these two out left us with almost nobody to discuss except Nick Nolte, her co-star in the stiff movie. Even there, there were things I couldn’t say. ‘Have you noticed his close facial resemblance to the Duchess of York?’ It would not have been a good question.

But the question I did ask proved to be the right one. I put it in the form of a statement, which she could take or leave. ‘I’m not going to try to draw you on the subject of Howard Hughes, but some people say that falling in love with you was the only sane thing he ever did.’ She liked that, and told me some of the story. I was the first ever to find out that when he took off under the bridges of the East River in a seaplane with only one passenger, she was at the controls. ‘Did you know how to fly?’ ‘No, but he told me what to do.’ She also told me why Hughes was so defensive. ‘Howard was deaf.’ Privately I thought that Hughes had been a particularly noxious freelance fascist, but Hepburn’s insistence on his qualities was touching. After that, a direct question about Tracy seemed only natural. ‘Tracy had everything, including you. So why did he drink so much?’ Her answer — ‘Tracy found life difficult’ — was the start of something fascinating, a description of how the high living standards of the star system were designed to hold people prisoner. She expatiated without effort on the whole subject of how the declining bargaining power of an actress, due to age, could be offset only by the kind of leverage she was the first to achieve by actually owning the rights to the Broadway version of The Philadelphia Story, so that it couldn’t be filmed without her. Katharine Hepburn was a very interesting woman. At that stage, the possibility that Marlene Dietrich and Mercedes de Acosta had been among her lovers was not generally known, and I wouldn’t have asked her about it anyway. While people are alive, their private life is private if they wish it to be: it’s a principle that was already vanishing from the world, but I believed in it, and still believe in it now. The great lady had been generous with her time and thought. We had enough to go on. While we were packing up, she finished making a batch of chocolate brownies and gave me a paper bag full of them to take away, having once again judged her man well. How lucky they all were to have been loved by a woman so brave, brilliant, funny and still beautiful even as the last of her youth melted into time.

Katharine Hepburn was a study in how to age gracefully. Roman Polanski was a study in what not to do when you never want to grow old at all. Still preferring domicile in Paris to the stretch he would have had to serve in jail if he had returned to Los Angeles, Polanski had just brought out an autobiography which stated explicitly that he had indeed had sex with an underage girl, but that it had been consensual. It was interesting that he seemed unable to get his clever head around the concept that if someone is under the age of consent it doesn’t matter if she consents or not. But it was much more interesting that this man had directed a string of important films, one of them being Chinatown, which I had judged to be a political vision of the modern world. I couldn’t help feeling that we were all better off if a man like that was living in comfort near the Avenue Montaigne rather than bouncing off the walls in Chino prison. There was plenty of anecdotal evidence to warrant his billing as the five-foot Pole you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. But his pint-sized frame was packed with talent, and — a rare thing, this — he had a mind to match his gift. (The memorably tragic ending of Chinatown was his idea, not the writer’s.) We flew to Paris to set up the interview in L’Amis Louis, a tiny bistro much favoured by Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and others among that intellectual elite of Hollywood stars who never flew in a commercial airliner and always regarded the menu as an incitement to order something it did not contain. Interviewing Polanski over lunch was, as I remember, my idea. If it was, I was dead wrong. Always at the least desirable moment, different dishes arrived for hours on end. Polanski was very funny when he showed me how to hold a snail with the tongs provided. I sort of knew, but it was more fun to pretend I didn’t. ‘Would you like me to eat it for you?’ He was directing me. What he couldn’t do was follow the movie into the cutting room, where, predictably enough — so why hadn’t I predicted it? — the order of our conversation had to be rearranged to make sense. So all the action was rearranged along with the conversation, and we ended up with a sequence of events in which the audience didn’t have to be eagle-eyed to notice that the great director and his interviewer had begun a meal with coffee and ended it with snails for dessert.

But Polanski played the awkward question straight. ‘I knew you were going to ask that,’ he said, and very plausibly argued that if I had seen the girl in her make-up I wouldn’t have believed that she was under age either. He rather spoiled things, however, by further contending that all men are switched on by under-age girls. Speaking as one who isn’t, and who doesn’t like the men who are, I have to say that I found him hard to admire for that. But unless the results were on the public record — which his California case most decidedly was — then his feelings were his business. I felt able to say, though, on air, that I could quite understand how anyone who had seen, as he had seen as a child, his own mother being taken away to be gassed, might be quite likely, in adult life, to be on the lookout for all the love he could get. But the idea that his personality might be entirely determined by his past was not one he seemed ready to entertain. (At this distance, having been subject to the attentions of a few amateur psychologists myself, I am inclined to think he was right.) I didn’t think, however, that there could be any doubt that his childhood had affected his creative outlook. I had no idea that Polanski would one day make one of the great films on the subject of the disaster that had formed his vision. Neither had he. But you can be sure that The Pianist, a towering achievement for both him and its writer, Ronald Harwood, would never have happened in such a magisterial form if Polanski had stayed put in California to face the music. At best, he would have resumed his interrupted Hollywood career, and the man playing Chopin in the Warsaw ghetto would have been Keanu Reeves. Competent no doubt, but not quite the same thing.

In Paris, even with such a short schedule, there were still a few hours of downtime. Sitting outside my favourite café in the Rue de l’Université, where I still write at least part of all my books, I found myself working on the opening chapter of a novel about a young man from Tokyo having his life wrecked by a wild young woman in London. Perhaps Polanski’s story had something to do with that, but really the hero, as usual, was myself. The best way to disguise yourself when creating a fictional hero is not to play down his abilities but to play them up. Give him prodigious abilities and nobody will believe it’s you. The hero of Brrm! Brrm! (bad choice of title: in America it was called The Man from Japan, which didn’t help either, but at least people had some idea of what they weren’t buying) had prodigious abilities in martial arts, which I definitely have not, although I once chopped a milk bottle in half by accident. A key theme in the book was the role played by sexual desire. The plot turned on the fact that every attractive woman in London wanted the hero. I have no direct knowledge of what that’s like, but I do have direct knowledge of what it’s like wishing it to be true. I think most men have, and especially when they physically don’t look as if they should. One such man was Luciano Pavarotti. In his earlier incarnation he had been built like a footballer and the girls had gone for him. In his later incarnation he was built like a housing development but he was still going for the girls.

This was common knowledge but nobody sane thought less of him. For one thing, the continuing power and beauty of his voice made his amatory pretensions very plausible: intelligent women fall in love through their ears, not through their eyes. For another, he was a charming man. When he appeared on television he converted viewers to opera fans by the thousands, just from the way he sang, and millions more loved him just for the way he spoke. He was especially adorable when his command of English showed its limitations. Broadcast to the world, his personal tribute to my compatriot Dame Joan Sutherland was characteristic. ‘Thank you, Joan, from the heart of my bottom.’ But there was nothing approximate about his intelligence. Full of stories and self-deprecating wisdom, he made a perfect talk-show guest if you could get him. Getting him, however, took strategy on a military scale. We booked him as a guest on the weekly show by conceding to a set of requirements that made sense only if you saw the question of his bulk from his angle, i.e. from the inside.

Pavarotti happened to be in the UK at the time so he wouldn’t be needing a private jet. But he would be needing to get to the studio. A BMW 8 series was specified. (He could get in and out of a 7 series but he thought he didn’t look good doing so.) The dressing room would have to be of the stated dimensions at least. (A blueprint of an aircraft hangar was duly appended.) Since he was currently on a diet, no food except fruit would be required for the dressing room, but there would have to be enough for a regiment. (From my own experience of dieting, I recognized the foible by which, restricted to certain foods, one eats twice as much of them, so as to diet more seriously.) When on set to be interviewed, he would have to be seated behind a table. We tried to get around this last part by making it a glass table but Pavarotti’s minders spotted the trick and demanded a table of full opacity, the assumption evidently being that if the bottom half of their client’s bulk were to be concealed, the upper half would take on a closer resemblance to Mel Gibson. But when we finally got him into position he was terrific. His fellow guest was the maestro Zubin Mehta, an equally sharp intelligence and fully articulate in English. Mehta did an entertaining job of helping Pavarotti answer questions about the opera business, and I could have listened to them both all night. Judging from the ratings the audience felt the same. This was a long time before Mehta conducted Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras in the first Three Tenors concert, so we were in at the start of the whole thing. It was a festival. It would have been an even bigger festival if the star guest had sung something but you couldn’t have everything. ‘Clivay, I enjoy it various much.’ That went down well at home, where my family were mad for the man.

Pavarotti had the invaluable gift of making you believe that he was giving you everything anyway, even when he wasn’t deploying the attribute which made him famous. The soul of his art lay in his generosity and he gave you that every time. In a social role, I was actually present at Covent Garden for the Joan Sutherland farewell gala. My younger daughter usually makes a point of having me ritually slain if I drag her into the story, but I forgive myself in advance this time because the story is more about Pavarotti than about her. Justifiably daunted by the very idea of a big starry night out, she had agreed to attend on the understanding that she would see her hero close up after formative years of worshipping him from afar. During the intermission Pavarotti was behind a table in the Crush Bar holding court. I took my daughter over to meet him. He held up his hand for a handshake and she made the shy, nervous young person’s response of failing to notice where her own hand was going. It knocked over a glass of red wine into his lap. He had a lot of lap to soak but there was more than enough wine to do the job. At that moment the great man would have had to show only the slightest sign of impatience and he would have destroyed her confidence for ever. But he did more than merely not doing that. He smiled like a happy grand piano and said that in the town where he was born, having wine spilled on you brought good luck. Then he kissed her hand. In what prayers I have left to me, I always make room for him.

Some of the Postcard programmes were taken up by individual American PBS stations but they rarely made it to the network, and the total PBS audience for them would have been only a tiny minority even if they had. Australia, however, unexpectedly increased the dimensions of our little world. The ABC executive who had devoted his career to keeping my programmes off the air abruptly died, perhaps from exhaustion at the magnitude of what he had achieved. He must have had a warehouse full of our unscreened shows. The man who took over his desk had a different agenda. He put all my programmes on the air at once and I became one of the most familiar faces in Australia practically overnight — a nice study in just how meaningless celebrity status is. The weekly show made a particularly big impression because people like Pavarotti were sitting there talking to the local guy. The Kid from Kogarah was on at Covent Garden! The ABC immediately asked us to come to Sydney and do a series on the spot, with an all-Australian guest-list. At the time it seemed like a good idea even to us, especially when we considered that if we turned it down the new occupant of the desk in question might start emulating his predecessor. So Richard and I flew to Sydney to meet our executive producer, Michael Shrimpton. It was immediately apparent that he was a smart man, and equally immediately apparent that I now had a pair of smart executive producers, which is rarely a profitable duplication. I was lucky that they hit it off, but in other respects the luck showed quick signs of being under strain. Richard got through the welcoming party all right but it was a near-run thing. The ABC boardroom was jammed with executives, many of whom would have quite liked to be in charge of the show, or else, preferably, of a different show without me in it. I think one of them was the dead executive, propped up from behind. He certainly had a fixed smile. Everyone rapidly got smashed on the Chardonnay, a variety of hair oil whose popularity among my countrymen I have never been able to understand. Still on the wagon, I was soon the only person in the room not leaning on someone else. On the boardroom table there were numerous platters of edible refreshment including a magnificent Frog in the Pond, a standard form of festive comestible uniformly provided at any Australian celebratory occasion from a children’s party to the opening of Parliament. I had made a serious mistake in not warning Richard of the possible presence of a Frog in the Pond. I should have seen it coming. This was a Frog in the Pond on the grand scale, about ten square feet of green jelly surrounded by scores of chocolate Freddo Frogs with their snouts buried in the verdant slime. Richard had never seen grown men and women in proper clothes pulling chocolate frogs out of a pond of jelly and sucking the green gunk off the frogs’ heads before biting the heads clean off. For a moment he looked like a young British officer in India suddenly realizing that his first suttee ceremony was going to be climaxed by a widow being burned alive.

But this Frog in the Pond de grand luxe was a sign that the bigwigs of the ABC top echelon were ready to pull every string on our behalf. What they couldn’t do, however, was make the Australian audience tune in to watch Australian guests. Never before had there been an Australian talk show with such a roster. Nowadays, you can get that effect from the solo stars booked by the brilliant Andrew Denton, but in those days it was almost unheard-of to have such people on the air even one at a time, and we had them in bunches. We had Lloyd Rees, the great artist, and Les Murray, the great poet, sitting there next to each other. It should have sent the ratings through the roof, but the reverse happened. Finally the critics, of all people, told me what was going on. They didn’t mean to, but all I had to do was read between the lines of some of the most contemptuous notices I have ever had. Their message was: he does his first-rate stuff abroad, and then he comes here to earn a quick bundle by doing second-rate stuff for us. The underlying assumption was not true — we had worked hard on every aspect of the show — but it was indicative. The assumption was that local achievement didn’t rate on the international scale, and that I had reduced myself to the status of a local again simply by being present. We were shocked, but Richard, typically thinking faster instead of slower when he was up against it, quietly suggested that we might hoist the ratings if we booked Australia’s Own Peter Allen, currently making a concert tour of his homeland. One of those versatile performers whose various talents are held together by nothing but ambition, Allen was famous in Australia for having written and recorded a song called ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, an anthem which somehow gained extra prestige from the evidence that he did no such thing. But at one stage he had been married to Liza Minnelli and for the Australian press he counted as being Big in Las Vegas, even though the majority of Americans couldn’t recognize his face. They were lucky, incidentally, because he was one of the most unpleasant men I have ever met in show business.

After Peter Allen died of Aids it became infra dig to speak ill of him but I am glad to break the rule. In television, at the end of an interview, there is nearly always a bit of homework that the guest, no matter how illustrious, is called upon to do — a few extra angles, a wide shot, etc. — and you can measure their real stature by the grace they show in doing it. The true stars will turn the homework into a little extra show for the studio audience. Robert Mitchum, sitting still for a wide shot, said, ‘You forgot to ask me what happened after I left the trailer door open while I was fucking the producer’s wife and a dog came in and tried to swallow my balls.’ A woman sitting in the fourth row fell into the aisle. Mel Brooks would slip into his Thousand Year Old Man character and tell the studio audience that ‘many years ago, many, many millions of years ago, there was very little heavy industry, and the main means of transport was fear.’ But some of the lesser stars soon showed you why they weren’t any bigger. They would get impatient and make sure you knew it. Peter Allen was like that. The interview, during which he had been no more interesting than any other cheap hustler with a collection of personal jewellery, was mercifully over, and he had been asked to hold on while we got a wide shot. ‘Can’t you put that together from what you’ve got already?’ I put my hand over my lapel mike so that the studio audience couldn’t hear me and explained to him that no, we couldn’t. He writhed, snarled, and finally said, ‘Jesus Christ, what am I doing here?’ Then he was gone. A long time later, I realized that he was really asking himself what he was doing in Australia, the land he still called home. The answer was that he was robbing the bank.

I suppose I was too, but the money wasn’t really all that great. The ABC, perennially strapped for cash, has never been able to fork out the kind of salaries that the commercial channels lavish on male anchor-men with improbably youthful hairstyles who can reliably generate the same air of vigorous portent when presenting a report on a massacre in Rwanda or the story of the baby crocodile in the bishop’s bathtub. (‘And finally, for more on that baby croc that threatened the bishopric, let’s go over to Raylene Trotter. Raylene?’) But I had other motives, although I was still in the process of figuring out what they were. The process is incomplete even now, but early on I was groping in the dark. The initial thing that had got me going, however, was fairly clear to me. It was something to do with national pride. I wanted to make it clear that I still possessed it, and I thought I might have less ambiguous means of doing so than marrying Liza Minnelli, although I would have been flattered to be asked. (She was the most marvellous studio guest, by the way, full of funny, self-deprecating stories about celebrity, as its most helpless victims so seldom are.) I was shaken by the way Australia’s own arts stars had been regarded as no great event by the very critics who made most fuss about national identity. Had I but known it, this was a foretaste of an argument fated to go on for decades and bear little fruit even yet. Some of my best friends still believe that Australia is being denied its national identity, so I have to be careful when I point out that they were lucky not to have been born in, say, Poland. It was quite evident to me, even back there at the time of the Bicentennial in 1988, that a country which could produce a poet like my old classmate Les Murray wasn’t short of a national identity, it was only short of people with a proper estimate of poetry. Nationalism, as a state of mind, is all fervour and no judgement. National pride, however, is a different and better thing. To have counted on it, and found it lacking, was a bad blow. But it might have been my fault. Perhaps I had been too long away, and had missed the moment when the land of my birth had graduated to a state of self-consciousness even more nervous than my own.