Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 29. Driven Men |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 29. Driven Men


Back we went to Los Angeles to meet Mel Gibson. If I had tabs on myself as an Australian empire-builder, here was an example of what the species really looked like after a full meal of energy pills. This movie wasn’t just a star interview with a top and a tail, it was a complete two-week shoot showing every aspect of the star’s activity as he ran his production office and went about the complex business of being a Global Brand. In cruel fact, the reason for his being available was that one of the production office’s latest efforts, Conspiracy Theory, starring the Brand as the rebellious victim of a CIA plot, needed all the help it could get. I had seen the movie before its release and I knew it to be a stiff, which meant I had to tread carefully when talking to the Brand, who had a tendency to treat anything less than complete approval as an armed attack. To that extent, the system had sucked him in, but in most respects he had a right to think of himself as a pillar of integrity in an industry otherwise devoted to the main chance. The movies he made in the Lethal Weapon franchise — big hair, dumb plot, bang bang, let’s go — raked in hundreds of millions of dollars for the parent studio, but he had parlayed his star power into a string of genuinely interesting projects. Even Braveheart wasn’t just your average bloodbath. In its plot it was yet another example of Mel’s continuing counter-attack against Perfidious Albion, but it was beautifully directed, and he had directed it. (Note the naturalness with which the key characters speak French and Latin as well as English, and ask yourself whether any other director, even in France, has ever brought out the full sumptuous beauty of Sophie Marceau.) Mel knew everything about making movies and he was determined to push his vision to the limit. The vision was uncomfortable but, I think, considerable. If there is such a thing as a necessary contribution to be made from a right-wing viewpoint, it is to take account of the facts of human cruelty. Mel would go on to do so in The Passion of the Christ; and his almost unwatchably violent Apocalypto is, in my view, an important work of art. Every minute of it scares me witless, but it is meant to. A man who can conceive a thing like that has a direct mental connection to a primeval state. (The reason why he likes to have his actors speaking foreign languages, or no language at all, could well be that he wants to remove the consolatory filters of speech that lie between us and the primal scream.) Mel has always heard the Devil’s voice within himself. In his younger days he tried to drown it with drink, but it can swim. Later on he learned to live with it, but only at the price of a rigorous discipline.

As to the accusations of anti-Semitism, Mel didn’t look very anti-Semitic to me when we both sat down to dinner with Joel Silver. A producer of great commercial acumen, Joel Silver is responsible for movies like Die Hard, in which Bruce Willis implausibly maintains his pout while slaughtering terrorists by the bus-load. But while he revels in such vulgarity, Joel Silver is a man of exquisite personal taste. He lives in Frank Lloyd Wright houses which he restores at his own expense. Even amid the frenzied hokum of Die Hard, the quick of eye will note that the treasure in the vault of the Sumitomo Corporation includes a set of pastels by Degas. Joel Silver does low-life on top dollar. Rich, influential, cosmopolitan and domineering, he is a Jewish mogul out of the worst nightmares of Hamas. But it was clear that Mel respected him. The Brand made his anti-Semitic remarks when he fell off the wagon. The poison is deep in his memory, where he would like to keep it bottled up. Most likely he got it from his father, who really was an anti-Semite: a Holocaust-denier of the classic demented stamp. Mel heard it all when he was a child and clearly it got into him. But the grown-up Mel Gibson doesn’t believe any of it. He can’t, however, attack his own mental inheritance in public, because he honours his father, as I do mine. So he is torn. The tensions in his mind are fierce, but they make him what he is. Though he smiles with winning charm, there is nothing easy about him, and I think our film showed that.

Helping to show it was the contrast between him and his friend George Clooney, who was just then emerging as a fully accredited film star after a long apprenticeship in the television series ER, where he was worshipped by every female member of my family in the most abject manner: one and all, they would sit back with their knees up and coo like pigeons. In our Mel movie, we had a scene where I toured the back lot in a golf cart with Mel at the wheel. George Clooney, in his downtime from an ER episode, was discovered shooting hoops. He shot a last hoop, fronted up to the golf cart and got into a dialogue with me and the Brand. None of it was scripted but Clooney was hilarious. Above all, he was relaxed. You could tell that he would do everything with the same casual grace. He had the advantage of his heritage. Mel had come up from nowhere, slogging all the way and learning from his mistakes. Clooney had never made any. Raised in a showbiz household, he knew, from the start, the rules and the limitations. Just by being what he was, he stole our movie from Mel in two minutes. When I got him alone for a few seconds I asked him if he would be my guest one day and he said, ‘Sure. Count on it.’

I left mainstream television before I could call in the marker, but I didn’t forget that easy moment. Nothing else seemed to be easy any more. Putting the screws on the network, we got the finance for one more Postcard. The subject was Havana and the network hated the idea because it was obviously destined to be another of those historical background things they were getting so nervous about. (Market research, on which the younger executives had come to rely, was supplying more and more evidence that nobody in the desirable demographic had the slightest interest in any historical period earlier than the previous Tuesday.) If they hadn’t needed our weekly show to fill slots, they would never have coughed up. So I was dragging a piano from the start. Cuba looked good to the camera because not even Castro, in four decades of trying, had been able to make it look bad. I had long before formed the opinion that if the Cuban revolution had happened in a European climate it would never have lasted beyond the first winter.

During the course of Castro’s rule the total number of people who left the island by any means of transport they could find had amounted to at least half the population of Israel, and they had all taken off because they couldn’t stand the regime’s brainless dedication to a command economy that was able to command nothing except the approximately equal distribution of grinding poverty. Without the sunlight and the sparkling water, everyone would have gone. But since the best things in life were free, there was some apparent happiness to be filmed, and we dutifully filmed it. Our best interview was with Che Guevara’s daughter, who spoke well on behalf of the health system, in which she worked as a doctor. She deserved respect, and nobody, certainly not I, would have wanted to tell her that her father, who she revered, had a habit of assessing the guilt of any suspected traitors by shooting them through the head to see which way they fell.

We were staying at the old Hotel Nacional, where the waiter who once had a love affair with Ava Gardner was still available to bring you a mojito and reluctantly reveal his secret, as he had done to every visiting journalist and film crew for forty years. The Tropicana cabaret was still in business, giving the same show that I had first seen decades before. The beautiful girl was still up there in the floodlit trees singing that lovelorn song about her crying need to be kissed. She was a different girl but she was wearing the same feathered costume. Everything was still roughly the same, but even more roughly because it was all decaying. I did my best to be fair, though. In the market square where the second-hand books were on sale, I scored, as always, every Aguillar edition I could find — not all of the morocco bindings had been ruined by the humidity — but I was careful also to buy the booklets that featured Castro’s speeches and interviews. They were very good for my Spanish because they used the same phrases over and over, so I could easily improve my knowledge of the syntax and the grammar by underlining the various ways in which the clichés were held together. But in another square nearby, the moment of truth arrived. Sitting at a table outside a cafe, I was reading Castro’s Nothing Can Hold Back the March of History (a bad choice of title from a man who had managed, all by himself, to do exactly that) when a fourteen-year-old girl in pink hot pants and a sea-green halter top approached me and offered herself to me for twenty dollars. The crew was filming something else just around the corner. After telling her to take a seat, I dived around the corner, brought back the crew and asked her to go back to where she had been when she had first seen me, approach me again and ask me the same question.

She did it, and she got fifty dollars for it without even having to lie down. A uniformed female member of Cuba’s ubiquitous neighbourhood watch spotted the transaction and came sprinting over to give the poor kid a wigging, but she wasn’t arrested. There was a good reason for that. It was all official. Just for the tourist dollars, Cuba had made prostitution legal again. Back in the day — when the revolution of the bearded ones was the revolution of all of us, all over the world, who had beards too — Castro had come to power with the promise that there would never again be any slot machines or their female equivalent. But the peso, theoretically at parity with the dollar, was now almost worthless, and finally the real money talks.

Karl Marx, wrong about so much, had been right about that. Merely to be alive can be beautiful in Cuba, even when everything you eat is rationed. In the food queues, the people smiled for our camera while they waited for the pat of butter that would have to last them a week. On any airline that serves food, you get two pats of butter with a bread roll and you can ask for more if you run out. It costs you nothing except the effort of pressing a button. In Cuba, a single pat of butter will cost you an hour of waiting. How many hours are there in a life? I knew that most of our audience would blame the American embargo, although really the fault was all with Castro’s ideological arrogance. As the awful old joke goes, ‘What would happen if the Sahara went communist? Nothing, for the first ten years, and then there would be a shortage of sand.’ The effect of an economy of shortages is to use up, by making them wait, the energy that the people might otherwise devote to protest. Thus the revolution stifles all rebellion. If the Americans hadn’t been so dumb, they would have bombed Havana with a million pairs of trainer shoes, and the revolution would have been washed away. The young people dreamed of nothing except imported trainer shoes. Such was the power and persistence of the dream that the government eventually felt obliged to respond, and came forth with an official all-Cuban sneaker which had apparently been designed to the requirements of Khrushchev’s mother. Some of our crew were wearing new Reeboks and the Cuban kids eyed them as if they were made of gold. They were: they were made of the unattainable. Yet it could have all been so easily attained. The reasonable standard of living that even the unemployed take for granted in the decadent capitalist West had been stopped cold in the warm air of Cuba by nothing but an idea. It was the wrong idea but the sun shone on it anyway. We filmed the sun sinking behind me as I walked along the Malecón for our final shot. From the sea wall, boys in shorts somersaulted into the waves to impress the girls. I thought we had done well. From some angles, even the revolution had done well. At least its children would be safer there from knives and guns than they would have been in Brixton, because in Cuba all the weapons belong to the government.

But as we put the movie together in the editing room, I knew it would be the last. I had too much to say about these things by now, and in an hour of television there was too little space, even with the pictures doing half the talking. And there were no stars, so the network executives — all of them born long after Che and Fidel came down from the Sierra Maestre — could offer us no firm idea of when they would schedule it. The studio show was what they cared about, and they cared in the wrong way.

They liked it when we booked Tony Curtis, because Tony Curtis was famous in America, and therefore in the whole world. The British media’s abject enthralment to everything American had by then become so total that its victims didn’t even realize they were in its grip. But that’s a subject for another book. Let’s stay with the stars. Somewhere beneath a hairpiece of improbable luxuriance, Tony Curtis arrived at our studio in a state of nervous breakdown and he wouldn’t come out of his dressing room when it was time for him to go on. Out in the studio, there were people in the audience who had adored him since he had starred in The Black Shield of Falworth, and that might have been the trouble. He was feeling his age. He was feeling it in the dark. He had turned the lights off, disabled the switch, and anyone who came in could detect his presence only by his breathing. One after the other, in ascending order of authority, the whole hierarchy went in to try and winkle him out: researcher, assistant producer, producer, executive producer. He wouldn’t speak to any of them. Finally I was sent in and said what he really wanted to hear. ‘Some people say that you were the key element in three of the greatest movies ever made: Some Like It Hot, Sweet Smell of Success and The Boston Strangler. But I think there’s a fourth: Insignificance. Your performance in that one left me overwhelmed with helpless awe.’ Somewhere in the corner of the dark, a familiar Bronx accent whispered: ‘You forgot Spartacus.’ And out he came. Equalling Peter Sellers’s trick of suddenly turning into a normal human being under the lights, he gave me a brilliantly funny interview, but it was all pretty unsettling. If fame had done that to him, what was it doing to me? Mine was on an infinitely smaller scale, of course. I clutched that fact to me for comfort.

And anyway, some of the famous guests seemed perfectly sane. Goldie Hawn was a model of politeness. We had such a bubbling time on air that we talked over each other at one point, and a joke got lost. Later on she came to say goodbye, put her hand over her mouth in mock horror and said, ‘I trod on your line!’ And Alice Cooper, whose whole schtick was to carry on like a psychopath, couldn’t have been more sardonically witty or down to earth. My spot with him was one of the neatest things I ever did on air. Every crack the host made, the guest capped: which is just how it ought to be. (The American talk shows work in the opposite direction.) The layout of the set was at its dizzy height by then: a panoply of images and colour, like a book of hours. But it occurred to me that the inspired Alice would have been just as dazzling with nothing in the background at all. I had recently seen the very first successful webcast. The image, only about as big as a postage stamp, stuttered and fluttered, but it didn’t take Nostradamus to predict that the computer screen would one day be able to transmit the only thing about face-to-face television that really counted. In the studio we were surrounded by thousands of tons of concrete and millions of pounds’ worth of machinery. I had begun to wonder if any of all that hoo-hah was any longer necessary. There could be another way.

The network executives still liked it, although a good deal less, when we booked Freddie Starr, who was at least a draw, mainly because everyone in the country hoped that the famous headline FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER would one day be topped by something like FREDDIE STARR SETS FIRE TO WINDSOR CASTLE AFTER BEING CAUGHT IN BED WITH ANNE. I should say, going in, that Freddie Starr is a lavishly accomplished performer. He can sing, dance, do magic and write whole sketches on the spot, playing every character with no pause for transition. While his elfin features are filling the screen with knowing innocence, he can fire, out of the corner of his mouth, a scatological joke so perfectly constructed in its shock value that it is worth a whole hour from most of our laboriously offensive stand-up comedians. But he is harder to handle on air than a runaway train. There was no way of knowing what he would do next. For a few minutes he would sit there being reasonably normal, and then suddenly he was out of his chair and marching in circles, pretending to have messed his pants. Then he was goose-stepping around in his Nazi routine. Then he was in the audience, sitting on an old lady’s lap. And he was just warming up. When he got into his sex-crazed werewolf phase he was ready to rock. The ratio of what we shot and what we could transmit was about four to one. The editors had to work half the night. The worst thing from my angle was that I would have been enjoying the mayhem much more in the previous decade. I, like Freddie, had been in the kitchen too long. But whereas his brains were merely scrambled, mine were turning into an overcooked omelette.

The network executives didn’t like it all when I lobbied to book Deborah Bull, prima ballerina at Covent Garden. I had admired Dancing Away, her book about becoming a ballerina, and I had more than admired her BBC2 series about dancing, especially the episode devoted to the tango, in which I had participated. Ever since I returned from Buenos Aires I had been learning to dance the tango — sometimes I flew back there just to get some lessons — and Deborah’s documentary had been the first time that I had gone public with my passion. The results could have been worse, and Deborah couldn’t have been better. Telegenic, knowledgeable and highly articulate, she was the dance presenter that the BBC bigwigs had been looking for since forever and would have built up into a screen superstar if they had had any sense. I thought Deborah was the goods in all respects and I knew her well enough to be sure that she would give us an incandescent interview. But the network executives thought that a ballerina was too elitist for the general public. They wanted me to interview Geri Halliwell. My previous interview with the emerging Spice Girls had been a big hit and they wanted more of the same. Worse, my own colleagues agreed with them. Richard, by that stage, was paying the same kind of attention to the ratings that he had once discouraged in me. When I asked him what was up he told me the dreadful truth. From the network’s viewpoint, the show was only just holding on. I realized how tough things were getting when all my producers, speaking as one, advanced the idea that I should interview the Duchess of York. Ever since I had first seen her dishing up food in the hospitality marquee of the McLaren F1 team, I had always thought her a cheerful soul. But I had no interest in interviewing her on screen. Yet I now found myself having long lunches with her social secretaries, who assured me that what was really, really amazing about the Duchess was that she worked jolly, jolly hard. I was asleep already. What would it be like when I had to ask her questions? Luckily she had more important things to do and the idea went away, but it had been a rude shock to find Richard so intent on persuading me to do the very kind of thing that we had set up our own outfit in order to avoid.