Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 25. In this Valley of Dying Stars |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 25. In this Valley of Dying Stars


Most of the stars of Postcard from Berlin had been a long time dead. Our leading lady was Marlene Dietrich, represented by her gravestone, and her voice over the closing titles as she sang ‘In den Ruinen von Berlin’. In Los Angeles most of our stars were alive, although some of them were teetering on the brink. The movie pullulated with famous faces but that fact in itself was enough to remind me that it was a step sideways, if not downwards, because I wanted by then to treat harder subjects more closely. Avowedly to treat a shallow one, though that was a theme in itself, had no significance except in the broader context of what a free society might aspire to if only it could get over its obsessions with celebrity and spoon its brains back into its empty head. One day I would have to write about that, but in Los Angeles the pace was too hot to think. The best thing I did there was ask for a tour of the domestic architecture, with selected shots of all the demented houses, so that I could compose a syncopated scene-setting paragraph which I still count among my plums in writing for film. (‘The neo-colonial baronial pagoda ...’ etc.) The rest of the movie, however, was famous faces, and some of them looked strained.

Charity events were the best place to catch them out of school. Richard Dreyfuss made himself available as long as he could plug his charity. I had only a few seconds to convince him that I admired his work — I was telling the truth, which always helps —and he was quick and funny, but you could tell that all kinds of uproar were going on in his head, perhaps because he had never got over the fact that it was not far enough from the ground. There are plenty of short men who can make any tall man feel awkward just by the confidence they radiate, but Richard Dreyfuss seemed to have no such assurance left. I had never seen a pair of elevator shoes quite like his. In most cases, men who wear elevator shoes must get used to standing on their toes. The front of the shoe looks quite normal and it’s only when you spot what’s going on at the back that you realize something’s up, as it were. But Richard Dreyfuss had a whole thick platform under each foot, like the Mikado. Why? Who knows. You see how perfectly, wonderfully, he can incarnate a sensitive, self-critical human being in a minor movie like Stake-Out, and you assume that a man like that would be equally in command of every other aspect of his life. But then you discover that in real life he clumps around on a pair of kabuki shoes. You don’t stare, though. In Hollywood, nobody notices. If Larry Longstaff, erstwhile romantic leading man of the 1950s, turns up at a party with most of his head replaced by a piece of machinery, people will tell him he’s looking good. People will slap him on the back and say, ‘Same old Larry,’ even though the only part of the old Larry still in existence is his left eyeball.

In Hollywood, the intention is always taken for the deed. If your capped teeth look like the assembled tombstones of a graveyard in the snow, they will still be universally regarded as your own teeth, and not as a piece of engineering. The veteran television star Milton Berle smiled into our camera, his head from a vanished era, his mouth from beyond tomorrow. For anyone in my generation, Kirk Douglas would have looked like our greatest catch, but my generation was passing, and Kirk was well aware that his fame had passed to his son Michael. To get to Michael, we would have needed a congressional order. Kirk, however, was available, at the kind of charity event where they passed out caviar on a cardboard plate. His face was a challenge to credibility. I should say straight away that this encounter took place years before he had a stroke, after which he coped very bravely with impaired speech, a condition that would undoubtedly reduce me to tears of self-pity. But at this charity event, where everyone including me was dressed for the Wild West, Kirk was still in a condition where everything that had happened to his face recently had been a matter of choice. Once, Kirk’s face had been recognizable even if extreme. I think Barry Humphries was the first to say that the dimple in Kirk’s chin had originally been his navel, but in fact he had looked like that even before his first facelift. The first facelift, however, was now far in the past. Fifty-seven varieties of facelift had happened since, including that drastic intervention by which the flapping wattle below the jaw is not only removed, but the line under the jaw is lifted to conform with the line of the jawbone, so that in profile the victim looks as if his throat has been torn out by a wolf. Around his eyes, all the wrinkles had been removed, reducing the whole area to a glassy surface, from which the eyeballs popped like penguin’s eggs from sheet ice. The missing wrinkles had been bunched together and added to the edge of his face as a crêpe ruff. All of this is less fun to say than it sounds, but I have to record it because Kirk Douglas was a hero of mine for his realistic approach to show business. The author of an unusually sane autobiography, he was the man who had made the great analysis of fame, an analysis which can be paraphrased more or less like this: ‘Fame doesn’t change the way you behave, it changes the way other people behave towards you.’ It’s true. That is indeed fame’s most savage effect. Unless you keep your family close, you will hardly ever hear a trustworthy word from anyone. Kirk left out, though, the further fact that when a famous person tries to stay that way too long, all the changed behaviour of others will eventually change his behaviour as well. If the famous person is smart enough, he will try to take his name out of the sky at the right time. But Kirk wanted to go on being Kirk: hence the facial roadworks. At least the hair on top of his head looked like his own, even if some of it had not started its life on that part of his body. With other male stars, the hairpiece was widely in use. Most of the hairpieces were so improbable that they defied you not to burst out laughing. But some of them were convincing, and we decided that, rather than going for the obvious gag and kitting me out with a stupid wig, we should go through the process of having an upmarket version custom-made for me by the celebrated hair stylist José Eber. In his white silk suit, high-heeled boots and cowboy hat with feathers, José was better company than the plastic surgeon we had met the previous day. The plastic surgeon had shown me, on his computer, how my profile could be improved by taking a piece off the end of my nose and adding it to my chin. He also suggested that I should have my eyes lifted. This was good dialogue but he spoiled it by saying that he wanted to get into comedy and could I give him some tips. José was more confident in his mission. With many a sweeping gesture, he explained that I would need four copies of the piece: one for the day, one for the open car, one for the pool and one in the garage for repairs. ‘The one for the car you wear anywhere there is wind there. If there is a party you don’t want the piece flying off your head and ending up in the avocado dip there.’ He gestured with his scissors to indicate a flying rug. This he did while he was cutting the raw piece as it sat in situ on my bare skull. He was a master. Steadily the thing looked more normal. José had earned an Academy Award for his work on the back of Tom Cruise’s head in Rain Man and he was giving me the works. The results were stunning. Suddenly I saw the point. I had lost twenty years. I would also have lost twenty thousand dollars if José had built me the whole kit of pieces, but he was giving us one for free just to be in the movie.

To try the effect of José’s masterpiece of a piece on someone who had known me in days gone by, we enlisted the services of Dudley Moore, who at that stage of his life was spending more time running his Santa Monica restaurant than in the movie studios. His time as a Hollywood headliner was over and he wasn’t taking it well: too many pills and too many of the wrong women, all of them twice as tall as he was and most of them with half his intelligence. But somewhere in the depths of his racial memory he was still Dudley, and he took a visit by a crew from the old country as a chance to step back into his original persona as the sharp British wit while momentarily abandoning his Californian quest for spiritual fulfilment assisted by chemicals and a six-foot blonde sitting on his face. I explained the number to him and as an old revue hand he saw immediately where the sketch was going. I would walk in, complete with piece, and take up my position at the bar. In his role as proprietor, he would walk into shot, start a conversation and gradually become fixated on what was taking place on top of my head. He had his line ready first time. ‘Bought, or rented?’ We did a single shot on him and he added, ‘I know it isn’t yours, because the last time we met you had the same hairstyle as Telly Savalas. It’s a great job, though. I can’t see the join.’ In the editing room we had to trim the scene back for time, but there was enough left to show him in all his elfin charm, the Cuddly Dudley of old, brimming with talent and quick as light, still sparkling even as he drove the extra mile on the road to destruction. He was still a star.

Except for Chuck Pick of Pick’s Parking, the star faces were the story in Los Angeles. I remembered Chuck Pick from the night I saw him shouting hysterical orders to his team of drivers while they parked the vehicles of the arriving guests at a gala dinner for the visiting Queen in 1983. When the Postcard programme came up I said we had to get Chuck. When they saw Chuck in action, my crew realized why I had insisted. He and his team of Top Gun car-parkers were parking the cars at a party thrown by Cubby Broccoli. In the front drive of the house, Chuck jumped around shrieking to his drivers, telling them which car was to be parked where, screaming, ‘Go, go, go!’ and ‘Yeah, man, park that car!’ Ryan O’Neal and Farrah Fawcett, still together in those days, stepped out of a Bentley and were greeted by Chuck as personal friends. It looked like a surprise to them but it was great on film. Chuck carried on like a celebrity but he well knew that the movie stars outranked him, even though very few of them would know how to park a car under pressure.

The stars outranked everyone in the world. Continually in search of one star after another, I linked the narrative by driving around in one of the first examples of the Mercedes 500 drop-head coupe. It was expensive to hire and we were lucky I didn’t ding it. In Nashville I had driven a borrowed brand-new Chevrolet pick-up truck whose owner had been assured that it would be returned to him in one piece. It was, but the rear end was a different shape, because during a night shoot in the woods I had backed it into the steel stanchion of a letter box. We had some high-grade assets lined up in Nashville and the film should have clicked. Chet Atkins gave me a guitar lesson, Tammy Wynette gave me personal advice on the creative consolations of heartbreak and Mark Knopfler composed the melody for a lyric I had written. The song was performed at the Grand Old Opry by an up-and-coming female singer. Resplendent in a pastel-blue cowboy suit with silver trim, Porter Wagoner, acting as MC, said, ‘Pretty girl, pretty song.’ My bliss was complete, but the film was a flop in the British ratings, because only a small part of the British television audience cared anything at all about American country music. Here was a harsh reminder that the presenter depends on the subject, and that the best setting for my kind of documentary should be full of stars; real ones, internationally famous; faces you had seen on television or, even better, at the movies.

My own activities were thus abetting the celebrity culture of which I had become suspicious: an anomaly that had begun to nag. But that was the way it was, and in that respect Hollywood was the location without equal. In Hollywood the famous faces know how to lead their strange lives. The strangeness was their answer to a violently artificial condition, by which people became symbols of themselves. In their wigs and facelifts and elevator shoes, they understood each other even if nobody else did. Kirstie Alley was a delight to talk to but she believed in Scientology. Perhaps it was her protection against the kind of reporters who had no means of talking about her talent but were always ready to talk about her increasing weight. Shirley MacLaine, who had been given both the beauty and the talent when her brother Warren Beatty had been given only the beauty, was as smart as a whip but she believed that flying saucers made the journey across the universe specifically to land in her garden. What they all really believed in, because they had to, was the indispensable efficacy of the special air they breathed, the modified atmosphere of their stellar context. Deprived of that, they went out like lights.