Stephen Frears & John Lahr: 'There's a kind of inverse dandyism to Stephen in which he takes a perverse pleasure'

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Stephen Frears, 74

The Oscar-nominated English film director gained acclaim for his comedy drama 'My Beautiful Laundrette' (1985). His diverse body of work includes 'Dangerous Liaisons', 'High Fidelity' and 'The Queen'. He lives in west London with his wife, the painter Anne Rothenstein, and his two younger children.

There was this amazing couple, Betsy [Blair] and Karol [Reisz], who lived in north London in the late 1960s, and each year they'd hold a treasure hunt, which is how I met John.

At the time, Betsy and Karol were running what felt like a commune in their large, wonderful house: there was a permanent conversation going on there with different intellectuals coming and going – including my first wife [editor of the London Review of Books], Mary-Kay Wilmers. And John moved in there. I was brought up very differently and for me it felt like a second start in life, a sophisticated world into which I stumbled, surrounded by all these people having food and conversation. John was friendly and extremely interesting.

I'd read Notes on a Cowardly Lion, John's book about his dad Bert Lahr, and I was impressed by it. I thought "this bloke is interesting, to be the son of someone so famous and whose work is so different from his father's". We became friends and I remember being in New York for the first time ever with him for my first film, in 1971. He had an apartment there up on the East Side and I came over and he gave me a lovely lunch.

John is Jewish, and Karol was Jewish too. They used to say to me, "Of course, you're Jewish, too!" And I'd say, "No, of course I'm not!" One day, many years later, I discovered that they were right all along.

I remember reading his biography of Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears. I said to him, "It's such an incredible story, we should make a film of this book". Alan Bennett ended up writing all this material into the script about this biographer character [loosely based on Lahr] as a buffoon, which was quite insensitive, as John is highly intelligent!

John is a real intellectual. I'm not quite on that scale. My business is very auteurist, yet I'm very anti-auteur: I'm more practical and pragmatic and our arguments are always about [me disputing] the romantic view of the artist. He gets upset when I say I never want to see A Streetcar Named Desire again: I can't bear the play, I think it's nonsense. He gets cross and says, "You can't say things like that!" I've lived 50 years of my life surrounded by highly intelligent, decent people, and John is one of them.

John Lahr, 74

The acclaimed American author and theatre critic worked at 'The New Yorker' for more than 20 years, while penning a string of biographies including 'Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr', 'Prick Up Your Ears', and 'Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh'. He lives in London

The central memory that binds us was sharing this really extraordinarily interesting group of people that felt like a family. It was at the house of the filmmaker Karol Reisz and his wife Betsy Blair. I lived in the basement of Karol's house in Hampstead and we were part of this extended family of waifs and strays – they collected very talented people, all looking for mother and father figures.

We'd all meet around a table: Stephen and his first wife, Mary-Kay Wilmers, the film-maker Maurice Hatton, the wonderful playwright John Guare, and even Alan Bennett made occasional appearances.

My first impression was how fiercely competitive he was: he's very un-English. Karol and Betsy would organise these big treasure hunts and he'd argue whether this item or that was a "legitimate" treasure. Back then Steve was the young Turk: now he's 74! In those early days he was hilarious as he would enter a room but he would not sit: he's an all-time pacer when he talks. He was friendly, but slightly unreachable and self-involved, like my father was. I'm always attracted to people like that.

He's driven, and he's not shy about insisting on his desires. I remember one day walking down the road and I came upon Stephen by his broken down car, waiting for the AA. I said, "Would you like a coffee?" He said, "Cappuccino one sugar". Then he added: "But if the guy comes first and fixes the car, I'm not waiting!" You had to accept that aspect of Steve.

When I finished writing Prick Up Your Ears, I took it to Steve and he said he'd direct it: it took us 10 years to get it on screen. But it was important to the careers of all of us, especially Stephen, as out of that he got to direct Dangerous Liaisons and it raised him to an international-level filmmaker.

The thing I admire about Stephen is that he has a career no one else in England has had as a film director: he has really never stopped working and the quality and hit rate is high. He has a perseverance which in some way is heroic and in some way narcissistic, yet in order to pre-empt envy he doesn't put himself forward as a sharp-suited man: he downplays himself, and makes himself rumpled – he looks like he slept rough most of the time. There's a kind of inverse dandyism to him in which he takes a perverse pleasure. That's a big cultural difference; in America, if you've got it, you flaunt it!

Since he's had a bypass operation, I sense that Stephen's mellowed a bit, and he's taking better care of himself. I was invited to his house recently and he actually made tea. We sat around and had a lovely time, chatting about people we had shared great moments with over the years. People like Stephen in his own way, he is a model of excellence. 1

'Joy Ride: Lives of the Theatricals', by John Lahr, is out Thursday (Bloomsbury Publishing, £30)

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