Donald Cammell: Obituary
Wednesday 08 May 1996
Performance was not only radical, it was an exciting work of art - breaking barriers for the first time. It quickly became a milestone of the day, and many of its techniques - cross-cutting, sound which didn't relate to the image, its clever editing and general disjointedness - had an incredible influence on other directors' work. It became and still is a cult movie. The house in Lowndes Square used in the film, belonging to Captain Leonard Plugge MP, became the butt of popular investigative journalism - questions were asked as to what was going on in this respectable Belgravia community and whether real drugs were being used in the film. James Fox, its star, found the experience of making Performance - and its subject matter - so disturbing that he retired from acting for 15 years.
Donald Seton Cammell was named Seton after his godfather, the much respected Scottish naturalist Seton Gordon. He was born in Edinburgh in the Outlook Tower by the castle; his father Charles was a writer, poet and keen Scottish Nationalist and his mother Iona was a MacDonald. Both parents thought Donald had been born with a particularly artistic and imaginative star to guide and protect him.
He was educated at Westminster, but left early to concentrate on art. After studying drawing and painting at the Byam Shaw School of Art, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools and then moved to Florence to study with Pietro Annigoni. Back in London, he became a fashionable portrait painter. His subjects included the society photographer Claude Virgin III Jnr and his birdcage, and the young Marquess of Dufferin and Ava dressed as a page at the Queen's coronation.
In the mid-Fifties, Chelsea and the King's Road beckoned. Cammell moved into a studio in Flood Street which, thanks to his talent and charm, became a mecca for a remarkable number of beautiful women and a meeting-place for the "in" crowd, including Antony Armstrong-Jones. One of the women was Maria Andipa, a Greek actress (who later featured in the films A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965, and From Russia With Love, 1963), whom he married when he was 20, and by whom he had a son.
By the mid-1960s, Cammell had become uneasy with London. He wanted to live a "modern" life and found portrait-painting restrictive, but abstract art was alien to him. Hoping to encounter a different outlook, he moved first to Paris, and then to Los Angeles.
The first film he scripted was Duffy in 1967, starring James Coburn and James Fox, but he was unhappy with the end result. He clearly thought that writing and directing together was his destiny - that way he would have control of his material. Shortly afterwards he wrote Performance and, helped by his friendship with Mick Jagger, persuaded Warner Bros to give him his chance to make it himself. A team was formed with Sanford Lieberson as producer, the lighting cameraman Nicholas Roeg as joint director, and Cammell's younger brother David as associate producer.
Shot in 1969, the first cut revealed one of the first really adult movies. Warner Bros were horrified and wanted to bury it. However, despite divided opinion, the film was finally released over two years later in 1972.
Certainly Performance startled and provoked, and should have provided a gateway to Donald Cammell's subsequent career. Sadly, Hollywood thought differently. Instead Cammell survived by developing and scripting countless screenplays including White of the Eye (1987) and Demon Seed (1977), in which Julie Christie gave one of her greatest performances.
The Wild Side, starring Christopher Walken and Joan Chen, was shot last year, but Cammell was unhappy with the cut made by New Image, the production company, and he removed his name from the credits. Other scripts involving Marlon Brando, "Jericho" and "Fantan", have yet to come to fruition.
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