Film: What a great performance

Geoffrey Macnab on Donald Cammell, star of the high Sixties

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 30 April 1998 23:02 BST

Donald Cammell was 62 when he shot himself in the head in a bedroom in his hillside home in Los Angeles. Nothing in his subsequent career had matched the brilliance of his first film, Performance (1970). He had fought too many losing battles with the studios. By 24 April 1996, it was thought, he was at the end of his tether.

"I spoke to him the day before it happened," recalls his brother David Cammell, who has helped to produce a documentary, Donald Cammell - The Ultimate Performance. "It was a terribly distressing incident, but I felt that if the film was going to be made, I would like to have some creative input and to ensure that it would be accurate."

The documentary scotches the myth that Cammell was a broken man. His suicide, it turns out, was long premeditated. As his widow puts it, "his great horror was to die by accident". He had been fascinated with death since he was a child. "He didn't kill himself because of years of failure," claims Kevin Macdonald, the documentary's co-director, "he killed himself because he had always wanted to kill himself." Nor had his career ground to a halt. Two days before the suicide, Bill Pullman had agreed to star in his new film, Thirty Three, which already had studio backing.

On the face of it, Cammell lived up to the stereotype of the self-destructive artist. The image that his friends paint is more complicated. They testify to his charm, intelligence and libido.

"He was very interested in the mysteries of life," says Mick Jagger, the star of Performance, before going on to observe the way that Cammell "purposefully threw his spell on to women".

Barbara Steele, the cult horror movie actress who was seduced by Cammell when she was an art student, describes him as a Pan-like creature. "You half-expected him to have a little tail." Anita Pallenberg talks about his sexual mischievousness and remembers how threatened her then boyfriend Keith Wood felt when she, Jagger and the rest of the crew were locked away in a darkened house in west London, playing infernal mind games while filming Performance. James Fox calls Cammell's entire life "a one-man performance".

On one level, Cammell was indeed a playboy. There are accounts of evenings which start in Paris nightclubs and end a few hours later in St Tropez, and of long, lazy holidays in Spain. He was louche and charming, almost Byronic, but his friends deny that he frittered away his talents.

Although he only managed to complete three films, Demon Seed (1977), White of the Eye (1986) and Wildside (1995) in almost two decades in Hollywood, he wrote script after script. Everybody from Marlon Brando to Jean-Claude Van Damme was at one time or another linked with a Cammell project.

"Donald had his madness, but his talent was so considerable that I wanted to work with him," says Elliott Kastner, producer of White of the Eye.

Macdonald and his co-director Chris Rodley have aimed for what they call "a selective, kaleidoscopic approach". There is no narration as such. The documentary is edited in the same fragmented way as Performance itself. With little archive material of Cammell himself outside one interview he gave to the BBC in 1992, the filmmakers rely on the reminiscences of his contemporaries. We see James Fox return to the East End gym where he trained as a boxer for his part as the jack-the-lad gangster in Performance. Jagger is caught in a hotel room in New York. David Cammell, a genial, vicar-like figure, revisits the house where Performance was filmed. Nic Roeg, jowly and taciturn, is filmed in brooding close-up as he ponders his part in the making of Performance, which he co-directed.

Whether an ex-movie star-turned-evangelist like James Fox (who famously suffered a nervous breakdown after Performance), a quintessential Sixties face like Pallenberg, an ageing horror pic actress like Barbara Steele, or an occultist like Anger, Cammell's old associates seem like living anachronisms.

Performance was, in Macdonald's words, "one of the key artefacts of the high Sixties". It preserves a moment when the art world, the gay world, the gangster world and the high-society world all seemed to overlap.

See Donald Cammell in ancient Egyptian garb, his face daubed green, playing Isis in Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising, and you would be forgiven for imagining that he had landed on Earth from some distant planet, but he came from a conventional upper middle-class background. This most rarefied of Sixties London bohemians was an ardent Scottish Nationalist. (That perhaps explains why the Scottish Arts Council agreed to finance the film.) His great-great grandfather, Charles Cammell, made a fortune in steel and shipping. In the days when they still ran the Cammell-Laird empire, the Cammells were one of Britain's wealthiest families.

Donald's father inherited the fortune at the age of 14, but lost most of it in the stock market crash. By the late 1930s, he was literary editor of Everybody Magazine, which had a circulation of around three million a week. The family had moved from Scotland to London, and were living in Richmond, across the Green from Aleister Crowley, a family friend who used to draw up 400-page horoscopes for the children.

"I didn't read mine for many years in case it came true," David Cammell remembers, "but in 400 pages, you are bound to get some things right."

The brothers were at Westminster School together. Donald, who was encouraged to become an artist by his father, won a scholarship to the Royal Academy. By the time he was 19, he had studios in Flood Street, Chelsea. Some of his work is featured in the documentary.

Cammell painted handsome, technically accomplished but conventional portraits of society figures, dukes, duchesses and the like. Successful but frustrated, he threw up what seemed a promising career to move to Paris.

There is a surprisingly touching moment in the documentary in which Jagger reads out a letter he and Cammell wrote to the Warner Brothers hatchet men who were threatening to destroy Performance. They use language calculated to bewilder any self-respecting executive. "This film is about the perverted love affair between Homo sapiens and Lady Violence," they write. "In common with its subject, it's necessarily horrifying, paradoxical and absurd ... you want to emasculate the most savage and affectionate scenes in our movie. If Performance doesn't upset audiences, it's nothing." You only need to read these words to realise why the studios were so wary about working with Cammell.

The Ultimate Performance is, as Macdonald acknowledges, the story of a failure. Whether because he was stymied by the studio system or refused to make the compromises that would have eased his way as a director, Donald Cammell did not live up to his potential. Nevertheless, he remains infinitely more fascinating most conventionally successful artists. Charismatic, cultured, well-read, he fits within a very British tradition of under- fulfillment.

'Donald Cammell - The Ultimate Performance' is out at selected cinemas on 8 May. A shortened version is on the BBC on 17 May. 'Performance' is on video as part of Warner Bros' Maverick series.

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