Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 28. Late Final Extras |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 28. Late Final Extras


The complete film was popular but not wildly so, mainly because it was short of stars. If Robert De Niro had been in it, there might have been more impact. At the time, De Niro was already active in his transformation of the TriBeCa district, but we couldn’t get to him, because he didn’t want to be got to until the work was more advanced. Other stars of comparable magnitude were less elusive. As the time approached for Watchmaker’s backers to buy us out, we went on increasing the company’s income by supplying the broadcasters with star interviews filmed on location. Earlier on there had been a Postcard from Cairo that was essentially a star interview because Omar Sharif was the only face in the picture that anyone would have tuned in to see. I spent the rest of the movie doing my Indiana James number, striding around among the pyramids in my brown fedora. At one point, for a fantasy sequence, I was kitted up as Lawrence of Arabia in the full set of flowing robes, only my eyes showing as I gazed hawk-like towards destiny. I was meant to climb into the saddle of a racing camel and head off to the horizon. The camel looked to me like a hairy version of an Italian helicopter so I requested that its saddle be taken off and parked on the desert for a low shot of me climbing aboard. Then a local stunt-man in the same outfit did the actual riding.

It was not a brave moment but it fitted my mood, because Cairo held few thrills for me. Some of the mosques were magnificent but everything else was a bazaar, including the City of the Dead, which the security police didn’t want to let us into until the pile of money we were offering them reached a sufficient height. I liked to be in places where I could read the books. Our driver was a natural teacher so I made a good start at speaking Arabic — I can still say yalla bina, which means ‘let’s go’ — but I never got far with learning to read. That was a mistake. I should have pushed on with it, because in the next decade I would have been able to read the fatwas as soon as they were issued, instead of waiting for the translation. But the assertive future, for the Arab nations, had not yet arrived. High society in Cairo was one big inferiority complex about the enticements of the West. The city’s leading hostess, reigning supreme over her daughter’s wedding party, moved in an aura of vulgarity that left Ivana Trump looking like Diane de Poitiers. The US was pouring at least as much money into Egypt as it did into Israel and most of it was pouring out again through the necks of champagne bottles. Behind closed doors, where people who claimed to despise alcohol behaved as if they had invented it, the whole culture was as tediously dedicated to hedonism as Playboy Mansion West without the hamburgers. And all the men were exponents of this terrible dance, in which they held their hands high above their heads, snapped their fingers occasionally to no discernible beat, shifted their hips about an inch without moving their feet and pursed their lips in profound thoughtfulness while the women expired with admiration. The tuneless revelry was so dire that you grew old just watching. At last I figured out why the Sphinx looked like that: it had been to a party in Cairo. Omar Sharif, born and raised in Alexandria, did a polite job of pretending that Cairo was the city of his dreams. We interviewed him in a houseboat restaurant on the Nile and his radiant dentition was an assurance that he was having as much fun as if he were in Monaco. But he was acting, and I knew that the secret of his show of happiness was that he had a date to play bridge in Geneva the next day. There he was, though, up on our screen, his eyes gleaming like fresh dates: Dr Zhivago in person. Fame had trumped the background yet again.

The same thing happened in a Postcard we did about the Paris catwalks. Almost two decades after having fronted the first television special ever made on the subject, there I was again, trying to flog myself into the same enthusiasm for the frocks. But the only reason the network wanted the show was because Naomi Campbell would be the central attraction. She was intensely celebrated at the time, partly because of her erratic behaviour. After long negotiations with her phalanx of representatives, a deal was struck: I would meet her at Orly Airport when she flew in after her latest holiday in Morocco and keep close company with her as she went through the two-week season of preparing for, and participating in, the fashion shows in which she would be by far the most stellar model to strut her stuff. She arrived at the airport, I presented her with a tree-sized bunch of flowers while the camera watched, and I accompanied her to her limousine, into which she stepped with lithe grace. The door slammed behind her while I still had one foot in the air. She disappeared for a week. We camped outside the building that contained her new apartment, two floors up. Periodically her latest personal assistant emerged to reveal, by instalments, that her boss was up there with her new friend, the fledgling diva Kate Moss, and that the two of them were engaged in scientific research, to establish how a termite mound of white powder could be reduced to the dimensions of a crushed aspirin. Days went by. Not even the dress designers, who were increasingly frantic to get the two British stars to the fitting rooms, could insert their envoys through the door. Our movie was going down the drain. Finally I hit on the idea of altering the title. We could call the thing Waiting for Naomi and I could do a voice-over based on her absence.

As it happened, Naomi eventually did make herself manifest, and we were able to contemplate the possibility of gracing the second half of the movie with her actual physical presence. Her original written commitment to give us unlimited personal access, however, turned out to have been a hallucination on our part. Her representatives assured us that if such a document had ever been signed, she had not been present at the signing. Since she had not been present at the writing of her own novel, this contention sounded quite plausible, but it did leave the way open for a third configuration of the title, Litigation with Naomi. I personally vetoed that course of action and I was glad I did. She had enough trouble in her life and I didn’t want to be remembered as having added to it. We just trailed her abjectly around as she went through the motions at one show after another. The motions, of course, looked wonderful: at the challenging task of walking fifty yards in both directions, there was no one to beat her. But the schmutter worn by her and all the other models was pale stuff compared to what I had once seen. I hailed from the days when Yves Saint Laurent used to arrive at the venue in the boot of a car and had to be held upright at the end of the show while the audience went berserk with gratitude at the beauty he had created. Now I was supposed to be moved by the prospect of John Galliano trying to make the girls look as freaky as himself. It was more thrilling to point the camera at Anna Wintour’s dark glasses so that I could speculate about what was going on behind them. If it wasn’t boredom, why did her mouth look so bitter?

Our movie was on its way to being a complete bust, but luckily for us, if unluckily for Naomi, at her last show one of the other models accidentally stepped on the hem of her best dress and tore the thing in half. Naomi thought it had happened accidentally on purpose. Suddenly she was once again the girl who had been picked on once too often in the school playground. She collapsed in tears against the wall of a corridor. I interviewed her there, and, perhaps because I genuinely sympathized with her plight, she poured out her heart. What she was saying between sobs amounted to a protest that it was all too much. The attention was too much. Her life was too much. The sequence would save the movie but I felt like a thief. If I could have left her alone, I would have. But I stayed on the case and got my scene with the damsel in distress. It was against my nature, though, and if my nature had altered to the point where I could do what went against it, perhaps the time was approaching when I should pack it in and try to get back to square one. The finished movie was amusing in spots but the high-priced ambience went for nothing. Either the frocks looked like rags, or my eye was jaded.

It was getting to the point where it was easier to leave out the background and just go for the fame. The networks were going steadily colder on the Postcards because they wanted famous faces instead. This had already been true when we filmed Polanski and Katharine Hepburn and it became truer still when Jane Fonda became available, which happened because nothing else except that kind of publicity would make anyone go to see her latest movie. It was called Old Gringo and she was starring opposite some revolution in Mexico. For any star — Robert Redford was the most prominent example — a sudden urge, against all advice, to set up the film that furthers the cause of the poor people of Mexico is a sure sign that a rich actor has lost his marbles. Jane Fonda was no exception but she was terribly nice about it. I was suspicious of her Hanoi Jane track record but the first few minutes in her company told me where her political enthusiasms came from: she had a generous nature. She was a dream, in fact: smart, funny and without pretensions. Instead of a gated stronghold in Bel Air she had an ordinary frame house in Santa Monica and didn’t at all mind walking with me barefoot along the beach a few times while we got the coverage. I had already figured out why one egomaniac after another had fallen for her: she gave them the humility they lacked. She was full of affection and there would always be some cold-hearted male monster to suck it up. Posing with me for production stills, she embraced me from behind with one leg wrapped around my waist. Eyebrows were raised at home but you could tell she would have done the same for Ronald Reagan.

I talked to Reagan, too. The flight to Los Angeles was becoming familiar and always at the end of it there were these world-famous figures ready to pretend that they were giving their all. Actually Reagan held relatively little back. He was no longer in office but was still addressed, in the American manner, as Mr President. His autobiography had just come out; he had no idea what was in it; and he told me a few things that weren’t there in its pages. I interviewed him in one of the bungalow suites of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Nobody yet knew that he had Alzheimer’s disease. It was assumed that he had merely become forgetful. When I brought up the subject of Nicaragua, he forgot the name ‘Somoza’ and started referring to ‘that guy down there’. Helpfully I mouthed the name ‘Somoza’ and he must have thought I was saying ‘move over’, because he moved over. Always a tractable actor, he was touchingly ready to take direction. In fact he had a daunting eagerness to please generally. He wasn’t stupid, though. The only trade union leader ever to have become President of the United States, he knew all the angles, and would have protected himself against a hostile question. Not believing in the adversarial technique, I didn’t ask him any. The touchiest subject on my list revolved around the question of the post-war Hollywood days when he had crusaded against communists in the film industry. If I had asked him ‘Were you a stoolie for the FBI?’ he would have just smiled nicely while the bodyguards moved in to carry me away. But I had a better question. ‘Just how serious was the communist menace in Hollywood?’ He was out of the starting gate in a rush, with plenty of stories that told you more than anything in his book. ‘There were these men in black cars, and they would pass out money in brown, you know, envelopes ...’

The audience would be able to deduce that here was a man whose imaginative frame of reference was made up from flickering fragments of old movies, mainly ones that he had been in. Even his plainest statements had to be decorated with special effects to hold the audience: a trick I know well. Had he been like that with Gorbachev in Reykjavik? But the charm was real. Where he might have been as truculent about requests for coverage as Ivana Trump, he was as eager to cooperate as if it was his first time on a film set. The main interview done and dusted, we walked together down the concrete footpath that led through the carefully landscaped shrubbery to the bungalow. Over this walk would go my introductory paragraph, so it needed to be quite long. We had to do the walk a few extra times because he was talking to me with such fervour that he tended to wander off the concrete and disappear among the palmettos. The finished show got big ratings and I suppose that if it turns up again on the history channels one day it will serve as a historical document. It didn’t go deep, but television interviews rarely do. They give an impression. This one gave an impression of a kind man devoid of guile. If he had been devoid of brains as well, the deficiency would have shown up on screen. It didn’t, but nothing can stop a legend. The orthodox opinion remains that Ronald Reagan was some kind of right-wing ogre limited in his depredations only by his stupidity. The facts say otherwise. When Reagan came to office, only two of the USA’s client states in Latin America were democracies. When he left office, only two of them weren’t. But the facts can say all they like and a myth will remain what it was. All I could do was help to prove that he was a human being. It did something to offset my bad memories of a social occasion in London when I had met Nancy Reagan and made the usual mistake of trying to say something unexpected so as to capture a celebrity’s attention. ‘Go on,’ I said, ‘admit that sometimes it’s fun.’ Considering that her husband had only just been released from hospital after somebody shot him, it was kind of her to glide past me with a smile.

Our backers bought us out between one star interview and another. It was the only really big money I ever made in show business and by today’s standards it seems like nothing, but I was able, for the first time, to feel that my family’s future was secure no matter what follies I might commit next, including the folly of walking away from the fountain that had gushed the cash. But I couldn’t do that yet. In order to convince our backers that they had not bought a pig in a poke, we felt honour bound to go on building up the company for another year. (Later on, one of the backers asked me, ‘Why on earth didn’t you people bugger off straight away?’) Outside the door of Richard’s office, in which he, I and Elaine sat sipping champagne and congratulating ourselves on our hard-won affluence, the Watchmaker headquarters stretched away into the distance, went up a flight of stairs and stretched back again in the other direction, the whole expanse buzzing with dedicated people whose futures were still in our hands. They deserved a decent interval in which to make their plans. They were all out there: Wendy Gay, Jean Twoshoes, the whole crew. I owed them a lot, and for once in my life I saw my duty at the time instead of after. I had never been very good at remembering birthdays, sending cards, choosing gifts, and doing the little things that matter. It’s a missing piece of my mentality. But this was a big thing: too big for even me to overlook.